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How to Give Good Directions: Efficiency and Etiquette in the 21st Century

Updated on June 22, 2012

Navigation 101: find the high ground

Okay. I know she lives a little to the right of the bridge and her directions mentioned something about a school. Sooo, second star to the right and straight on till morning! Go get 'em, tiger.
Okay. I know she lives a little to the right of the bridge and her directions mentioned something about a school. Sooo, second star to the right and straight on till morning! Go get 'em, tiger. | Source

Even in the age of GPS and GoogleMaps, crucial communication skills are not yet irrelevent

I know, I know, no one gets lost anymore. Also, that's bull-hockey. The art of detailed direction-giving is still worth cultivating - and not just for my poor Luddite self's sake. Imagine how satisfying it would be to know the physical peculiarities of your locale well enough to locate a directionally-challenged friend from her description of the contents a butcher's window? Pretend you're Sherlock Holmes, if that helps. Observation coupled with deduction, Watson! Actually, the true trifecta is observation and deduction coupled with good communication skills. All of which can be learned, developed and perfected to become second nature: yay!

But even "detailed" isn't always enough, as I'll quickly show you. The wrong details, or even too many details, can leave your friend crying piteously on the curb as the sun sets and winter chill sets in... This article will provide examples of directions covering a variety of transportation modes, neighborhood styles (residential, commercial), etc. Just to up the ante, let's also assume that your friend is not familiar with the local language - guests to foreign countries are very unlikely to have working cellphones for artificial outside help and will have to rely on your carefully honed direction-giving skills to avoid accidentally wandering into a prostitute ring or, you know, the ocean.

So really, being able to provide good directions is just plain old good manners.

Hand-drawn map of King's Cross

A great map of a distinctive area.
A great map of a distinctive area. | Source

Scenario 1: Emailed directions with option to add drawn map

Okay: you would think that if you give an address, basic directions, AND a self-drawn map that you have pretty much earned your direction-giving badge of honor, gold star and everything. Funny story: my husband and I once wandered around a very nice neighborhood of entirely identical buildings peopled entirely by unhelpful newspaper-sellers and doormen who did not know one block from the other for almost two hours. Now, we did have cellphones and could have called, but we couldn't agree on whose responsibility that should be and so the call went unmade. We had everything we needed, right? The address of our destination, a rough map, and no clue where we were in relation to said map. I don't know about you, but map reading was part of my middle school gym curriculum and this should not have been a problem, but street signs were scarce and the whole neighborhood was surreal. Plus, we had just finished reading Margaret Atwood's 'The Year of the Flood' and were totally primed to be a little freaked out by gated communities.

So how do you overcome the almost complete lack of easily differentiated detail that renders maps less than useful for folks who can't find themselves on it?

1. Acknowledge the potential difficulty: Just a quick heads up that your map-follower should be paying close attention from the get-go might in some cases be enough to make them timid enough to be meticulous, scrupulous map-followers and to stop right away the second they aren't sure where they are and reevaluate.

2. Find some detail: This can be anything from a stop sign that was recently the stoic recipient of some teenagers' anger and now stands a little less jauntily to the style of a set of traffic lights (on a poll? Swinging out over the street? Anything that can reassure your directionally-challenged visitor she's on the right track will be so very much appreciated. Bonus points if it helps to identify a point to turn, etc.

3. The names of any surrounding buildings you're aware of noted on the map: This just increases the changes of a stranger being able to help, and gives them something else to look for if lost, or for confirmation that they're on the right track.

Rotary-dial phones are not yet extinct

Although they are certainly endangered...
Although they are certainly endangered... | Source

Scenario 2: Phoning in - How to give directions over the phone

Occasionally, you might find yourself having to dictate directions over the phone to someone whose Point A isn't exactly ideal. Here's where having a Holmesian eye for detail comes in handy, especially if your poor stranded acquaintance is already lost (and by extension, not sure of where he or she is).

1.) If possible, text the destination address. I suppose all cell phones will support this kind of communication, but-

2.) When landlines are involved, memorability is key. This is not the time for excessive details - they will either not be remembered, or will interfere with the retention of more crucial details like whether to turn left or right at the lights. Do give significant landmarks (i.e. "when you see the bull statue, you'll know you're on the right track - you're only about five minutes away"). And incidentally, if unhampered by a tiny mewling baby or other unleaveable thing, such landmarks are a nice place to intercept lost little lambs. I don't recommend giving multiple routes; while you may think this is obliging, the likelihood of the various options collapsing into one decidedly unhelpful hybrid is roughly 92%.

If you're giving directions to a lost person, obviously before you can direct them to Point B you first have to locate Point A. Street names are a great place to start, but they aren't always readily apparent or linguistically accessible. Move on to landmarks, nearby shops, whatever is handy. If necessary (and possible - heaven help the poor soul lost on the empty street), have the phone handed to a shop clerk: folks usually know the exact location of where they work, and if they're kind and understanding, your friend will now have an ally who will make sure that she doesn't march off in the opposite direction.

If no ally is forthcoming, you'll have to be the one to make sure she doesn't march off in exactly the wrong direction. Before giving directional (turn left) directions, it's an excellent idea to orient using whatever landmark has been located. "With your back to the yellow municipal building, take the next left" or "You're standing in front of the butcher? Great. Walk *away* from the park, but stay on that side of the street" is the sort of thing that will fill a weary wanderer with confidence.

Public transportation: potentially daunting!

If possible, get a seat with good visibility and from which the driver can easily hear your frantic cry to stop.
If possible, get a seat with good visibility and from which the driver can easily hear your frantic cry to stop. | Source

Scenario 3: Giving directions that include public transportation

I've been saving this last bit for the end because I have a Real Life example of the best directions involving public transportation I've ever been given right here to share with you. These directions were so excellent that not only did I not get lost to begin with, but I was later able to remember the gist well enough to make my way there again after dark. I know, right?


"To get to the cafe (Cafe Crown)... take the sahil dolmus and tell the driver you'll get off at Şaşkınbakkal. When you see the Caddebostan Migros (on your right side) the dolmus will continue to the "beachy" part of the coast. Stay in and hop off at the 3rd light. (I'm about 95% sure it's the 3rd light... across the street on the left side you should see a building/cafe/restaurant and a small nursery of the plant-not-baby variety.) Cross the street away from the shore (...duh) and follow that small street for about 5 minutes until you hit Bagdat Street. You will come out with Boyner on your left and Marks and Spencer across the road. Cross to Marks and Spencer, turn right and walk about 1 block (less than 5 min) until you see Cafe Crown on your left."

Public transportation can be tricky, especially if things are pretty touch-and-go, as they are on Turkey's public taxis (the dolmuş referred to in our model directions). Note how we're given both the name of a general area (Şaşkınbakkal) and road-related visual clues (we're looking for the "beachy" part of the coast and the third set of traffic lights) and a visual description of a landmark ("nursery of the plant-not-baby variety") to help identify the stop?

I love to be - and pride myself on being - punctual whenever possible, despite an embarrassing (and hopefully endearing?) track record for getting lost and wandering in a few hours late. These directions are the first in many years that I was able to follow, from start to finish, with no periods of stomach-churning indecision - and which guided me safely and promptly to my destination.

Of course out of practical habit I'd given myself 2 hours of lost-wandering time... but I'd also brought a book.

What is most important to you in direction-giving or getting?

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Parting Encouragement

I hope that with these guidelines both direction-giver and direction-needer have a better idea of what to offer or ask for, and we can carry on with our trusty "grandma" cell phones that work perfectly well even if they can't tell us exactly where we are.

And isn't it better to put our trust in friends and strangers, anyway? I've seen the Matrix. The machines will enslave us if we let them! Learn to give good directions and we can probably postpone the inevitable by at least a generation...


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    • buckleupdorothy profile image

      buckleupdorothy 5 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      Thank you, Victoria! And yes, street names are crucial - especially if you're likely to require help en route. Unfortunately no one seems to recognize my most memorable landmarks... not sure what that says about my basic pattern recognition skills, but I still try to point it out to friends in passing. Never surrender!

    • Victoria Lynn profile image

      Victoria Lynn 5 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Voted up and all the way across here. What you say is so true! Most people are so bad at giving directions. If they'll just be detailed as in, "Go about a mile. You'll see a Kroger's grocery story on your right. Turn right at the next street; it's called Maple Street." I like street names as well as landmarks. I don't know what directions are so hard to give correctly, but it seems to be a problem. Great hub. Sharing with others!

    • buckleupdorothy profile image

      buckleupdorothy 5 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      Hmm, Pizza guys are tricky. We had to meet them at a nearby intersection and lead them home a couple times, but after that it was hunky-dory. The learning curve varies, as all things, with the delightful diversity of humanity...

    • tsmog profile image

      Tim Mitchell 5 years ago from Escondido, CA

      OK, I always ask for latitude and longitude. Seems it is available on cells and GPS nowadays. I always have a compass in my hip pack. Be Prepared stuck in my head. Got a space blanket if things don't work out too. No I don't have matches they cause fires. I got a flint set-up instead.

      All kidding aside a wonderfully entertaining read. You have expressed how easily, hit the high points with humor, style and literacy. However, the pizza guy still can't find my home after reading this. What do I do now?