Culture affects how one gives directions

A new study suggests that Europeans and Americans have different ways to give directions:

The researchers brought test participants into a lab and presented them with a map of a small district containing 17 landmarks and 29 streets. These wayfinders were then assigned a starting point and a destination and asked to provide directions to someone navigating the area. Half the time they were told the navigator was driving; the other half they were told the navigator was just looking at a map.The different navigator conditions were meant to encourage different types of directions. Hund and colleagues believed wayfinders would offer drivers more first-person descriptions (including landmarks) and would offer map-readers more third-person descriptions (including street names and cardinal directions).

These conditions did have some impact, but what really influenced the type of directions was the culture of the wayfinder. Americans were far more likely, across all tests, to give navigators a street name or a cardinal direction (i.e. north, east, south, or west). Dutch wayfinders, on the other hand, provided far more landmarks and left-right turn-descriptors…

The researchers note that many of the Dutch wayfinders became frustrated when asked to give map-readers directions. “They realized there might be a more effective way of describing the route on the map, but never came up with the idea to switch from left-right descriptors to cardinal terms,” Hund and company write. They suppose the Dutch would have improved considerably if given enough time to convert cardinal directions into relative terms — equating “east” with “right,” for instance.

I’ve wondered if it isn’t the culture that matters but rather the spatial arrangement of the places of which someone is familiar. For example, a good number of major Americans cities are laid out in grids. Think of Manhattan: the avenues are north-south, the numbered streets are east-west, and this makes it easy to find a lot of different routes to the same place. In contrast, some older settlements such as some older sections of European cities and several American cities like Boston are more prone to have winding streets that are more aligned to the topography. If you are from a grid area, you are used to giving cardinal directions because they are easy to follow. If operating in a less grid-like format, landmarks matter more as one can remain oriented even if the streets don’t seem to be headed in that direction.

I’ve also wondered how this changes in the suburbs. Are landmarks as easy to identify and utilize? Without as many tall buildings plus a landscape that contains more repetitive features (even if the strip malls and big box stores look different, they are not as distinctive), noteworthy landmarks can be hard to find.

A third option: are Americans used to traveling longer distances for each trip, making it more difficult to use verbal turn-by-turn directions?


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