How to give directions

there are two ways to give directions. One is using a so-called "route
perspective", as in the example above. This adopts a first-person
spatial perspective and is characterised by references to turns and
landmarks. The other is a so-called "survey perspective", which gives
directions as if looking down upon a map. This type of direction giving
is characterised by references to cardinal directions (North, South,
East and West) and precise distances.

And which is better?

When Hund’s team used a fictitious model town made of plywood to test
the ability of undergraduates to follow directions, they uncovered a
curious anomaly. The students reported finding route perspective
directions easier to follow and yet they steered a toy car to a
destination more quickly and effectively when they were following
cardinal directions.

Here is further analysis.  I prefer the survey perspective.  Maybe it is a language issue, but I find it very difficult when most Europeans give directions.  Too often they cite concepts such as "up," "down," "over," "beyond," and the like.  Is it really necessary to say "hoch fahren"?  NESW, please.  Which method do you prefer or perhaps some other?

Comments

Surely people differ. My wife would be confused by directions involving compass headings, which have nothing to do with how she thinks; I don't like directions involving landmarks. There may be few areas in which people differ more than how they look at geography.

please, just give me the address and let me follow my maps/iphone. yes, this leads tonorth/south directions, but knowing the actual destination coordinates is the best reference.

If I ever have to give directions, I make sure I give three things: the exact address, N/E/W/S directions, and landmark/left/right directions. I tend to be a "survey perspective" person myself, but I know too many people confused by those kinds of directions to give only them. And with the exact address, most people in my circles are savvy enough to plug it into the Internet for exact directions.

Did the study differentiate by gender? My wife uses landmarks and frequently doesn't know the street name, much less the exact address; I go by street names and NSEW.
If I don't know the address and am forced to give directions by landmark, I include stop points. "Look for Landmark A. If you get to Holland Road, you've gone too far."

I live in a house so new that Google Maps has only just begun to show the location, but still can't give people directions to it. I find that when giving directions I use landmarks most frequently, mostly because I have no concept of distances so I have no idea how many miles any one leg of the journey is. I remember reading some time ago that this is typical for women, since we tend to have inferior spacial reasoning skills. I am excellent at reading a map and navigating, and my husband is horrible at it. I chalk it up to overcompensation on my part, since my dad would constantly complain about how women have no sense of direction and don't know right from left.

I used to work at a retail store that did a lot of service repair work. It was located in Ft Lauderdale, FL. My experience was that men tended to prefer the "survey perspective" and women tended to prefer the "route perspective." I remember one extremely frustrating case where I was describing the directions in N-S-E-W terms to one woman, and after every "turn north at..." type of direction, she'd be "is that a left or right?" and after a while I started saying after every one of her questions "east is where the sun comes up" or "east is where the atlantic ocean is." I don't recall if she ever managed to find the place.

As for the "european" directions, I remember living in Ireland and many of the directions were of the sort "turn left half a mile before you get to the church" or "turn right where the generator was parked last week." Directions that made sense if and only if you already knew where to go and didn't need the directions at all.

There are actually THREE ways to give directions.

Method 1: Universal abstract directions that use cardinal terms which work regardless of orientation. "Drive north two miles, then head east."

Method 2: Universal practical directions that use relative terms like "left" and "right". "Take a right out of that driveway, and two miles up you'll take a left."

Method 3: Ideosyncratic personal directions that use totally meaningless terms. "Okay, you know the cute little antique place just up the road there? Go that way, and then after you pass it you'll come to a funny place in the road, so look for a weird house and turn down that street."

I will not discuss what sort of person uses what sort of directions, because you all know EXACTLY who tends to use which kind of directions.

@ups: In America, we have this thing called the "sun" which casts "light" and creates "shadows". The sun is a fantastic machine that comes up in the East and goes down in the West every single day, just like clockwork, and the shadows are always on the side AWAY from the sun. Whoever invented it is a genius. I think he was Japanese.

@Caliban:

Really there's no need to so snarky. Your little sun joke won't work in many ancient cities, esp. at night. How would you do in Venice, at 3am, in the fog?

Even during the day there are many alleys, mews, etc. from which the sun cannot be seen in so many old places. Try using the sun to find my favorite pub in London, the Blue Posts. I mean, most people can't find Seven Dials, much less Duck Lane.

I too have little use for cardinal directions, I just don't think that way. Even though I know how to use the sun and the north star in the abstract, It has never been of any use to me. Tell me left, right, straight. I use what I call a schematic type of direction. If I draw out the directions, it only shows the route and then the turns. There is no scale or cardinal directions. For me, unless there is a really odd part (like turn 10 feet after the last turn) all I need are where to turn and street names or some other way of identifying the street. Cardinal directions simply aren't useful unless you have a good map in your brain of the area. Plus, there are many streets that aren't on a cardinal direction, do you actually tell people to turn NW or NNW onto a street?

When I was in teaching in Yemen, many people were not familiar with cardinal directions. Once I told them that they prayed to the North, they could then figure out the others, but I never had anyone use cardinal directions while I was over there.

Isaac Crawford

My preference would be entirely based on how well I knew the area. If I've recently seen a map, I absolutely want NSEW directions, especially for long distances. I want landmarks for short drives in highly detailed areas not built on any sort of grid (aka old neighborhoods, like in my area of Ottawa where the names are all saints and my street has three different sections not at all joined together). I often feel like I have an internal compass, especially in strange areas where it's all I have to go on, so compass directions are always helpful, while landmarks work best for me instead of distances. I can do distances quite well while walking, but not while driving.

When giving directions, I'm big on the interesection before and interesection after details, as well as things no driver can miss - big turns, big hills. Things on the side of the road should not really be things a driver in traffic should be worrying about. I'll give a general compass direction, but not for turns, since no one has ever responded when I say them.

I use cardinal directions only when roads are signed that way (as numbered routes in the U.S. are). Even when the marked direction does not match the compass direction.

Personally, I work best with internalized mental maps. I almost invariably prefer to develop directions myself with an address and an online map. When I give directions, however, I try to use relative positions. In Massachusetts, roads are not on a grid, but rather on a hub and spoke around Boston (until you are far enough away). Minor roads tend to be oriented town center to town center.

I read once that people depend either on landmarks or on an imaginary map over the area in which one is navigating and this was the result of what type of landscape people had grown up in.

This seems to be relevant regarding the NSEW-comment, that americans may prefer this way of navigating because most american cities look like a chess board therefore NSEW-directions are easey to relate to. European cities on the other hand are rarely organized like this thus another method of navigating is more common.
In other words, NSEW-directions would probably not be the best way to navigate if you are in the woods...

Our games master at school had it cracked. "Run to the sea".

NESW? I honestly don't think I've heard them referred to in that order, it's always NSEW. Your method is more efficient though.

I rewrote the directions to a couple of hundred athletic sites for a high school website some years ago. The most important thing I added, that I received comments on, was distance between turns. This enables the driver to know when they have screwed up (or the directions left out a step). As mentioned earlier some people refuse to give distance because they "can't guess very well." I don't care; I want to know if I'm supposed to go 100 yards, a mile or five miles.
I still try to get a map view of where I'm going, because the computed directions can still be wrong sometimes. Where we live some services tell you to drive on a "street" that is a 3' wide set of wooden stairs. It is legally a street and was wrong on some printed maps too.

I spent a summer as a route salesman for Entenmanns, delivering cake. Every delivery route had a planned circuit given in a rout booklet using a very effective usually 1st-person perspective approach, but using cardinal directions for numbers routes:
–Rte 99N to 124E
–S/A through 2 lights. 3rd left

I was pretty apprehensive about it since it was in a region I was utterly unfamiliar with. But I delivered to like 20 stops daily and the directions were spot on.

I don't think there's a right answer. It's simply a matter of how best to orient an unfamiliar person. If there are numbered signs and traffic lights and named street signs you use those. I think most folks agree that landmarks are very useful whenever there's a tricky spot or when the sorts of cues you find in populous regions thin out.

I never ask for directions.

in hawaii, we have yet another variant that replaces the cardinal NESW directions with the relative mauka (toward the mountains, inland) and makai (toward the ocean). locals never use NESW, nor do we use use the exit numbers to identify freeway/highway offramps. we also have a tendency to use landmarks that no longer exist.

When driving, I'm a turns and landmarks guy. Knowing I have to go north isn't very useful when no street runs north, or the one that does is one-way south. So I go up a few blocks to find a northbound street, but should I take the small NE-bound one or the big NW-bound one? Who knows? And how does that afect the rest of the directions. Maybe now I'm supposed to turn ease rather than west to get there, because I've gone too far, etc. Of course when walking a lot of this goes away and perspective can work well, especially when guided by a map.

You have to be careful with turns and landmarks when driving too, because the directions can be pretty ambiguous. "Take the second left." OK, but is that little thing to the left an alley or a street? Is it the first left or should it be ignored? Some intersections have two sets of traffic lights. Am I supposed to count that as one or two in determining the "third traffic light?" I'd say two, but was the direction-giver thinking about that?

In other words, most people are lousy at giving directions. I suspect either method is fine if the direction-giver is careful, and, as J suggested, emphasizes simplicity rather than the shortest route.

It's a classic male-female difference. Women tend to prefer subjective directions and men prefer objective directions.

bifyu had an interesting point about the Hawaiian system. I've been reading Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought and he talks a little bit about this subject. Actually, the example he used is some South American tribe. But essentially, they use "uphill" and "downhill" to describe things. Even more interestingly, they don't use "right" or "left" concepts--instead, the use the ground--objectively--as a point of reference. It's really interesting, they have an uncanny sense of orientation (even after being blind-folded and spun around). It's funny to think about: "turn away from the hill," as part of directions, but to them it would be as straightforward as "turn left."

Teenage girls navigate by clothes shops. In England, adults navigate particularly by pubs: "Turn left at the Hat and Feathers".

When giving directions, I typically use the route method, and have found "negative" landmarks very effective, e.g. "You will see a sign for the E Street exit, DO NOT take this one, take the one for Rock Creek Parkway."

The male-female difference in spatial reasoning is one of the more robust gender brain differences. Men are, on average, better at mentally imagining and rotating 2D and 3D shapes (like a mental town map). Obviously it's an average, so some women are great at it and some men really bad. And it's also a skill that can be improved with practice and training.

I say this as a guy who is horrible at direction finding myself. To me, cars are magical teleportation devices. If I put in the correct sequence of pedal presses and wheel turns, I magically arrive at my destination 30 minutes later.

My father, on the other hand, has an uncanny, instinctual sense of where he is -- even though he rarely looks at a map. It only takes him one time to learn a route -- often just as a passenger. I have to intensively study a map and drive a route several times before it sinks in.

I haven't the foggiest clue which way is North or West - I'm lost when given those sorts of directions (unless applied to a very large area, like, California is west of Nevada, so take I-80W). Actually, I also hate landmark directions. Once I was told to "take the first right after the smallest house you've ever seen, then turn left at the big rock" - huh? How do I know it's the smallest house I've ever seen? I've been to Amsterdam, there are some darn tiny houses there, too. But I digress.

I'm a complete Type-A personality and I like left/right and *street names*. This gets me around the U.S. and Europe flawlessly (unless a street sign is missing - and I'm useless in Japan).

If you need a nice place on the web to store directions to your place (short, detailed, directions from landmarks, map links etc.) use www.ShareDirections.com

Once you register and store directions the link can be used to email/ message or even convey on the phone - e.g. www.ShareDirections.com\Kallos - saves time for both parties and is authentic since it comes from the person inviting

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