The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Dec 4, 2011


There's a story about a Berliner who visits Vienna and loses his way to the railway station. He accosts a local and demands, "Which way to the station?" The Viennese is taken aback but replies politely, "Sir, wouldn't it have been nicer to say, 'Good evening. I would appreciate it if you would show me the way to the station.' ?"

The Berliner stares at the Viennese in disbelief, emits a 'Ha!' and stalks off.

A few months later, the Viennese man happens to be in Berlin, and, having lost his way, asks a local for directions. The Berliner responds with a rapid-fire, "Straight 100 metres, left, then right, proceed 200 metres, turn right again, then an immediate left, and 400 metres straight."

Completely bemused, the Viennese manages to stammer out a thanks.

"Never mind the thanks!" barks the Berliner. "Repeat the instructions!"

This story, admittedly, has less to do with giving directions than with cultural differences between Prussians and the Viennese. Still, it points to a social compact - a person who is lost expects to be guided to his destination.

I suspect this is a fairly recent development in human history. For long periods, most people tended to stay within a day's walk of their homes. They were intimately tied to the local landscape. When they had to go farther, they would likely make use of networks of contacts, stepping from cousin to friend to customer. In a new village, they might stop a stranger and say, 'Do you know the way to Gulbadan the perfumer's house?' and - because most people in a village knew each other - would be guided appropriately. 

The development of cities probably did little to stymie this network of connections, although perhaps the links became somewhat more tenuous. The problem was to locate a particular person because a random man on the street would be unlikely to be acquainted with them. This was when landmarks and specific locales became important. One would ask then, 'Do you know Gulbadan who lives by the Friday mosque?' or 'Which way to the Friday mosque?' and once there, ask more specific queries.

This is all speculation - I have not done any research into the matter at all. But as street maps and particular addresses are very recent, and - even where they exist, they are not always reliable - I guess that people still need others more than ever to give them directions. 

Culture affects even this relationship. I'm not talking about the gender stereotype of men not wanting to ask for directions at all. I refer rather to the deep reluctance of some peoples to appear unhelpful, who then offer wrong or misleading directions, because some directions are better than none. Not everyone is as militarily precise as the Berliner; luckily, not everyone is as vague as the fellow at my old alma mater who sent me on  a totally wild goose-chase because he either didn't want to appear ignorant, or wanted to appear helpful.

This was shortly after I first moved into the Indian Institute of Science, a rather sprawling campus with the various department buildings hidden helpfully behind dense vegetation. Seeking the swimming pool, I stopped to ask a student for directions. 

'Ah, yes,' he said, and looked around him in every direction. 'Go down this alley and turn right at the end. You'll pass the Physics department and the library. You then turn left, go through the lecture halls, and turn right. Clear?'

I nodded.

'Then ask somebody there,' he said, and walked away.

I thought even then that the instructions were hilarious. Still, given their precision, I thought it would be a small matter to locate the swimming pool once I passed the lecture halls. Unfortunately, though, the pool was nowhere near those halls. Worse, there was nobody around to ask either. In my four years at the campus, I never ceased to marvel at the ridiculous precision and complete wrongheadedness of that student's directions. 

I never learned to swim either, but that's another story.


Parmanu said...

I wonder if someone has used this subject to systematically compare reponses from different cultures. Might be an interesting experiment to try while traveling.

I loved the Berliner story.

Feanor said...

I'd be curious to find a person who can give directions without pointing!

Anonymous said...

Just goes to show. You were clueless while at IISc.

(MCC girls indeed! -- hah!)

Feanor said...

Clueless?! Excuse me, I think the word you're looking for is 'misguided'. Heheh.

Anonymous said...

Well, YOU said it!


Anonymous said...

Maan... You have a short memory dont you... The IISc direction incident happened when some one came and asked me the direction to a certain building (I forgot which one) and you were standing next to me.... You gave me a strange look later and wished the stranger good luck finding the building!!!!

Fëanor said...

Short memory? Hello, if it happened as you say, it's nearly 20 years ago.

I do remember I had uppma for breakfast that day, though.

Post a Comment