There's one tried and tested recipe in our household that guarantees a matrimonial meltdown. It actually doesn't involve the house at all - just the husband, me, a car and the need to get from a to b. It's worked for the past 25 years, and while the tempers are perhaps slower to rise these days, there are still enough heated words and chilly silences to make the kids in the back start talking to us as if they're the adults and we're the sulky teens.
I recently realised there's a real art to giving directions. We were on a road trip, negotiating a multitude of new cities, rental cars, logic-defying traffic systems and jet lag. Well past the witching hour, we'd arrived at one hotel only to find its garage was several one-ways away. My heart sank. The trip from the airport had brought the matrimonial pot to simmering point; this little bit of extra heat could be just enough to send it boiling over. But the night concierge gave me the perfect set of directions, averting any overnight stewing, which we all know, does little to render any marital beefs tender.
The experience did make me think about the right way to give directions. By 'right' I mean correct, as opposed to my frequent use of right when I actually mean left. This, I acknowledge, is not the most helpful start to any navigational challenge. The following suggestions also came to mind.
- Size up your directee - are they jetlagged and brainaddled, totally lost, really just hoping you'll ask them for a coffee, or in dire need of the restroom? This is an essential first step in the process so that you can assess exactly how best to...
- Speak their language - I'm not talking Spanish or Chinese here (although that could obviously be very helpful on certain occasions). I'm talking about whether they're one syllable or five syllable people, like to start at the beginning or work back from the end, are to-the-point, no flowery descriptions wanted, as opposed to want descriptions of all the flowers between two points.
- Give enough information - for example, 'go up over top and down under bottom' is probably not enough unless you're from Devon in England where it'll get you anywhere. According to the husband.
- But not too much - the specialty of my homeland. Ask anyone for directions in Northern Ireland, and you'll learn the family history of everyone who lives along the way. Surnames don't feature, not for security reasons, but because everyone is known as 'yer man', 'yer woman, 'wee Jimmy' or 'whatchamacallim'. But you'll still know about the time the bulls got out, or how so-and-so's just back from two weeks in America, or how the last person who got lost around here ended up buying the house down the road.
- Get them to repeat the instructions at the end. Your call as to whether, like a good teacher, you hold back from correcting every mistake.
- Smile warmly as you wave them goodbye - because, let's face it, they'll never be able to find their way back to you if they get lost again.
When giving directions in a car, option 6 does not obviously apply, thus intensifying the experience. This is also helped by the fact shouting seems much louder in a small enclosed space. But otherwise it's still very important to assess the state of your driving companion, in particular if there's an urgent need for a restroom, as this may interfere with the normal exchange of communication. Hunger issues also may necessitate the use of a different tone and language.
Tone, of course, is an especially important aspect if direction-giving to your loved one. It actually becomes a sub-language of its own, that requires many years of study. Apparently it's even harder to learn than Chinese as there are usually only two people in the world who can speak each individual dialect.
It's certainly unintelligible to the third person in our marriage - the sat nav. I'm a traditionalist in many respects, but I welcomed the idea of another woman to turn the heat down in the car department. After so many years of steamy sessions in the front seats, I was more than happy to take a figurative back seat, and let her lead us in whatever direction she chose.
But she's proved to be a slow learner, and hasn't picked up on those little quirks, the idiosyncrasies that have been part of our driving partnership for years. Such as the need to pre-warn the husband at least twice before an approaching turn-off. And to reassure him he's doing the right thing while he's at it. We women all know how important that one is.
So all that's happened is that I've ended up stuck in the middle, taking direction from her, and grief from him. And when we take the inevitable wrong turn, three voices now fill the car, albeit only two of which are raised.
Which leads me to realise that as important as it is to learn the art of giving directions, it's even more important to learn how to take them. Especially when your other half is involved. Or third.
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