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I am extravagantly on the diagram-and-name side of things; my wife extravagantly on the narrative side. I need the street addresses, the names of the streets, and a general schematic -- like you, I'm deeply uncomfortable until I know where North is, and once I know, I'm pretty good at tracking it.

My wife can never believe how I understand space, and *always* tries to give me narrative directions, which I can't keep in my head to save my soul. She finds it bizarre that even the third or fourth time I go somewhere, I want to go over the street names and the street address and to glance at a map first. When once she knows how to get somewhere, she knows it completely and forever. I trust my skill at matching names and numbers and directions. My skill at matching places, like your flagpole? No trust at all. I might think anyplace was the right corner, the right landmark.

Places that don't have reliable signage, like New Haven, CT (because kids tear them down or twist them ninety degrees, so as to switch which is the cross-street), distress me greatly.


This strikes a big chord with me since we recently had to navigate San Antonio which is currently torn up by huge highway construction projects, rendering the ordinary GPS units offered at rental-car agencies useless.

I too navigate by knowing where north is. But sometimes, like when there's heavy cloud cover, you can't know that. I rely too heavily on my map-and-gps-mad partner, I think, but the only city I have lived downtown in is Paris, which is easy: you navigate in relation to a) metro stops; b) where you are in relation to the Sacré Coeur and Eiffel Tower, which permit triangulation from almost anywhere within the city. (You usually know which side of the river you're on, which also helps, but if you don't, you look for Notre Dame to tell you.)

At the micro, flagpole, level, I know I do this but avoid giving directions, mostly through training on how to find a bird (in a landscape that lacks flagpoles and where every oak might look much like any other). It has taught me precision, because I've missed too many through the sloppy directions of others...


I am a consultant in Wayfinding and at personal level I go for the diagram approach every-time. North really bothers me. I have a holiday house at a location on the north east coast of England that is very geographically confusing. Although my house looks out over the sea, the land curves round so, that although I feel I should be looking east, I am actually facing north! I find this very disconcerting and even having spent 10 years here I still have to refer to my compass and Admiralty charts to reassure myself that it's true! Dan Brown's site is brilliant don't you think?


I can orient either way, but my preference would always be for map over directions. I'm not a particularly good navigator, but fortunately I enjoy wandering and being lost. When asked to describe where I live, I always start with physical geography: upper Juniata drainage, westernmost ridge of the ridge-and-valley section of PA, etc. I might or might not describe the cultural geography, too.


(Wow - I just posted a comment into the future!)


I cannot navigate with maps AT ALL. I have to have landmarks and narrative directions. (I also happen to be female..and perhaps there is a gender difference?) I tend to think of places as a series of landmarks, and sometimes if I come into a place from a direction I'm not used to, I'll still get lost, because the narrative directions in my head become useless.

And when describing a town...It depends on the place. If the landscape is ugly/uninteresting I'll describe the culture, and vis versa with a beautiful place with little to do. But in general I will describe both.


My husband has to know where to compass points are, or he is uncomfortable -- even inside a room. Even when not asked, he likes to draw little sketch maps of places. When people say, 'I have to go to x', and wave their arms vaguely, he always corrects them (with some incredulity) when they're pointing in the wrong direction. He knows which direction the bed faced in the room in which he was born.

Me, I'm like most other people -- 'feelings' about where to turn, landmarks like billboards, which may not be there the next time I pass... It helps to live in a coastal city -- if you get lost, eventually you will reach the sea; then you know exactly where you are.

teresa Gilman

Jarrett, I'm in NS for a month, so my blog reading will be irregular, and comments spotty, mainly at computers in libraries. That said, I will comment on your post about directions and welcoming.

I am map oriented. I love maps, and draw them often to show people how to get where they are going. I find that many people require narrative directions, however, so have begun doing that more.
The narratives all have maps in them, so it's not too hard to do.

I also map poems and stories that I read, or study with a class. This shows a lot about the work that you would not get otherwise, or not so easily. This especially applies to the picaresque and quest poem/story/work of fiction.

If someone were coming to my part of the world to visit I'd describe it geographically first, and possibly only, by telling them how it lies right in the center of my state, is gorgeous at this time of year (or cold, or icy, or whatever the season...), and then locate it in respect to well known places, such as large cities, or lakes, or famous waterfalls where honeymooners go, or places where well-known historical events occurred, or any of dozens of other things.

I would tell them how to reach my house, and then add one or two little odd interesting (to me) things about the city that they would enjoy, and after that if the person was so-inclined, add the cultural things my city is known for. Or not.

Because most people asking for directions to my city are either coming to see me, or else they are coming to something at the university. Either way, the directions are similar. But also, as I work at the university, the items of interest/illustration might also be similar.

So, come for a visit, and I'll demonstrate.


Very interesting post, Jarrett.


Miss Bliss

Well I'm pretty sure you know where I fall in this particular poll. I have no natural sense of direction and I cannot seem to keep a "birds eye view" of any city in my head with the one, bizarre exception of Hollywood, CA. No idea why that one place fixed in my head properly with N,S,E and W all clearly and properly located in my brain but there it is. I tend towards the narrative version of finding my way but living in LA does require one to KNOW certain freeways by their name or you won't be able to get anywhere.
If you ask me to describe my city I'll get all poetic on you. You'll hear about the mountains and the ocean and the rock and roll and driving on a clear freeway with your window rolled down on a warm summer night and the matzo ball soup at Canters and the coyotes running down Hollywood Blvd. in the middle of the night and the homeless guy downtown who can sing Stand By Me like nobody's business. I think that probably tells people more about me than LA...but this is a city that people love to hate...but to me it's just home.


This was an interesting experience for me as I always imagined myself as more a narrative directions kind of person. However, after thinking about it I realize that I will go nowhere without a map and prefer to give people a map rather than verbal directions. I have an inherent mistrust of verbal directions both when listening (I switch off after about 3 seconds but carry on nodding) and in others ability to understand my verbal directions (I picture them literally getting lost in translation).

When asked about Johannesburg I always think of the cultural. The constant movement, the crime, the contrasts between green suburbs and dusty townships, the amazing mix of cultures living among side each other and the differences even in inter-cultural groups.

The image I have of Johannesburg is the sky line silhouetted against a dusk filled with smog turned magical by the setting sun.


Thanks everyone for these comments. I'll make something of them soon!


The connection between your strengths as a theatre director and the way you orient yourself to a city is interesting.

When I want to get somewhere, I ask for the street address, and then I print out a map online. If I get disoriented following the map, I'll use shadows to help me find north. I just love maps, and I hate narratives.

For the record, if I do get confused, I pretty quickly stop a local and ask for directions that would help me get back to my map. My wife thinks I'm a failure not to live up to the American male stereotype in this regard, but she has her own way: she likes to remember last time (she tests as an ESTJ in Myers-Briggs, and SJ's always put a great deal of stock in precedent). I can never remember what we did last time. If her memory fails her (and it always surprises me that it surprises her when it does), she like to puzzle her way out of the situation like a detective. (This always drives me nuts. "Can't we ask someone?" I beg.) Because I don't use maps to get in and out of the neighborhood I've lived in for the last ten years, I've taken wrong turns frequently within a mile of our house.

People, especially women, want to give me narratives, and I've learned to suggest early on that, as kind as they are to offer them, they do me no good at all. I've also found that, despite my fairly firm refusal to accept this information, the person's response is something like, "Okay, but if you follow 619 until the large white building . . ." In other words, people can't believe I can't follow their information.

If someone asked me about my town, I'd start cultural, but I'd get around to geography pretty quickly.

Next time, would you mind asking about how we choose parking spaces? Because I have a lot I'd like to get off of my chest on that one, too.

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