I was asked directions a few days ago, for the first time in a long time – a young man stopped me as I was leaving the school, wanting to know how to get
to St. John’s College. He was a bit nervy, and ultra-polite, as though pre-programmed by his up-coming interview (he must have been on his way to an
interview). I pointed him on his way.
I know how he felt. I was forty minutes late for my first university interview, wandering helpless around Hampstead Heath. For my second interview, in Cambridge, I pitched up at the wrong gate of the college, and was only put right by a milkman, who took me around to the Porters’ Lodge on his milk-float.
I was also once very late for an interview at a school in Rome. Perhaps there is a pattern. But I haven’t been late for much since, in large part, I think, because like everyone else in the World I have a phone.
Which is what surprised me about the polite young man outside the school. Where was his phone? How could he arrive in Cambridge for an interview without having his GoogleMaps fired up and purring in his hand.
When I was first teaching English, asking directions was a staple-function for beginners, alongside eating in a restaurant, checking into a hotel, and chatting to strangers in a lift (hold the doors please; are you going to the sixth floor? thank you, I think I'll take the stairs etc.). But I don’t think I’ve taught anyone to ask for directions for some years now (I still teach my students how to strike up a conversation in a lift, out of pure mischief).
It’s a pity, partly because asking for and giving directions is fun, and partly because it's a surprisingly complex thing to do; but partly also because getting a little lost and looking at a map are a good way to instigate casual encounters. There is an organisation called Happy City Lab which poses actors playing lost tourists struggling with maps in various parts of the city to see how many people stop and help. In brief, only 2% stop along what they call ‘inactive edges’ - streets with few shops or cafes, and with windowless walls – while 10% stop by ‘active edges’ - busy streets with street-level window, shops, and so on. I suspect more people stop to help on the active edges because they are simply curious how anybody could be struggling with a paper map in this day and age; and on the ‘inactive edges’ they are probably just avoiding the lunatic.
So I don't invest much time in it any more. Language, I suppose, has its inactive edges. I just have to live in hope that my students can find their own way to the bathroom and figure out where the fire exits are unaided. And I should probably have stopped teaching students how to talk to strangers in lifts by now as well, since everyone is looking at their phone all the time and anyway, this is Southern England, more or less, and no one talks to anyone, especially in confined spaces. But I still have a sense of mischief.