Asking for directions is an unpolitically correct art. You are judging, solely by someone’s appearance, if they look like they can help you. It’s needs based stereotyping. Walking on seventh avenue in Manhattan, a gentlemen once asked if I could direct him to the nearest Barnes and Noble Bookstore. Of course I could. And I was quite flattered. Something about me made him think that I’m a reader. Cool. Conversely he didn’t ask me where the nearest Home Depot was. Not that home improvers aren’t readers, but this reader doesn’t look handy.
If asking for directions is an art, then giving them is a skill. Landmarks are great unless they’re hyper successful chain restaurants. In NYC for example, telling someone to turn left at the Starbucks will keep them walking in circles for hours. Most people want to help but they can’t, and lack the courage to simply say, "I don’t know." Instead, god help the asker, they try.
On a trip to Cambridge I rode the T from Boston South Station to the Kendall stop on Main Street. I had been told the hotel was on same block as the T, but I wasn’t sure which direction to go. I asked the hot dog vendor sitting outside the station.
"Excuse me, Sir? Do you know which way the Kendall Hotel is?"
"The Kendall? Hotel?" He shook his head and blew air from his lips. "That’s uh... that way," he said pointing right. "It’s about five or six blocks down. I don’t know if you want to walk it," he said looking at my suitcase. "You can take the bus. But... yeah... it’s about... ten, fifteen blocks that way," he said, pointing left.
Bad art: I had hoped a street vendor would know his street, but alas no. Bad skill: he had no idea where I was going and yet felt compelled to make up an answer. I thanked him for his time and then did what I should have done in the first place, called the hotel.
"Kendall Hotel, how may I help you?" the desk clerk asked.
"I just got off the T at Kendall, how far away are you?"
"Can you see the Marriott Hotel from where you are?"
"Yes it’s right behind me."
"Great, turn right. Walk half a block and we’re across the street. You can probably see us from where you are."
I looked down the block and yes, I could see the hotel from where I was standing, which was right next to the hot dog vendor. There’s no way he didn’t know where the Kendall was. But perhaps that’s what I get for sitting in Starbucks watching tourists do laps around the block. Ah Karma.