You’re Reading a Map – Are You Lost?

If you are one of the dwindling group of people able to navigate with a map you may appreciate my frustration at the growing assumption that anyone reading a map in public must be lost.  I used to smile and say “no I’m fine thank you”, but as the problem has grown into a form of harassment, I have developed two responses.  I sometimes try to hide my map-reading, particularly at junctions.  I turn my back, wrap my jacket around the offending article and hope that no-one will realise what I am up to.

That doesn’t always work.  Sometimes people catch me unawares, in which case I have begun challenging them.  One question that no-one has ever been able to answer is this:

What is the connection between reading a map and being lost?

I genuinely don’t understand the thinking (if there is any) which leads someone to that conclusion.  Do you know people who carry maps but only take them out when they are lost – and then discover that it doesn’t help them because they don’t know how to read one? No? Neither do I.  If you see someone brave enough to read a map in public nowadays, you can be pretty sure that they know what they are doing.  If they really are lost, they will ask you.

Another question which often follows is “where are you trying to get to?” Now, if I am carrying a briefcase and hurrying along a city street, looking bewildered, that might make some sort of sense.  But if I am wearing khaki, carrying a rucksack, ambling through the countryside, can you understand what a stupid question that is?

When challenged, some of these people say: “but I was only trying to help.”  I want to ask them: “I am sorry, how is that trying to help? Would you go up to a man eating a sandwich and say: ‘are you hungry? Do you want something to eat?’” But by that time, one or both of us usually wants to get away from an embarrassing situation.

I was wondering how many people are still able to navigate with a map.  This article mentioned a survey back in 2013 which suggested that the growth in sat navs was reducing the wayfinding ability of car drivers.  The article was prompted by a Belgian woman who wanted to drive to Brussels, but followed her faulty sat nav 900 miles to Zagreb instead!

I generally find that people who travel everywhere by car have a distorted view of geography, in any case – which is one reason why I would only ask for directions as a last resort.  I will never forget the conversation I had in a café on the Welsh side of the Severn Bridge.  When I told the owner that I was cycling to Cardiff he looked puzzled and asked “so how does that work, with the motorway?” I thought afterwards: perhaps we should be grateful for that sort of ignorance – at least it keeps them off the minor roads, (unless, of course, they are instructed to rat run by their sat nav!)

Map reading is about far more than getting from A to B.  It is a fundamental human skill, like reading, writing, mathematics or speaking languages.  Like all of those things, it can help us to broaden our understanding and make sense of the world around us.  If we lose those skills we narrow our range of experience.

So next time you see someone reading a map in a public place, please don’t ask them: ‘are you lost? Can I help you?’