Men are convinced that women cannot read maps. They know this to be a fact.
If you go up to a man, any man, on the street, give him your map, and tell him that you are lost and you want to go to the National Museum, he will take your map, unfold it, and stare at it for three seconds. He will then stab his finger at the map and say, “We’re here right now.” Then he will point at the museum, which is clearly marked, and say, “You want to go there.” Then he will trace your route along the map, and give you precise instructions: “Go down this street three blocks, make a right, go two more streets, turn left, and it will be right in front of you.”
If you go up to a woman, and try to give her your map, most won’t take it because they know they can’t read it. But if you insist, she will gingerly unfold it, hold it at arm’s length, stare at it, rotate it 90 degrees, turn herself so she’s facing the road, rotate the map again, and generally try to figure out how to align the map with the road. Naturally, the printing will be upside down. Eventually, she will say something like, “I can’t tell from this stupid map; it’s that way” and point in the direction of the museum.
The reason this happens is not that women can’t read maps; it’s that women can’t read maps designed by men.
Men are precise, logical animals. They know precisely where they are in space at all times. As they walk along a street, they watch the house numbers, they absorb the names of the cross streets through their pores. They know, at any instant, exactly how far they have come from a known, fixed location, like that main intersection back there.
Women, on the other hand, also know where they are, but not precisely. They know they are somewhere near the cathedral, and that the market is over that way a little bit. They know that if they walk in that direction for a few minutes, and then head towards the river, they will come to an antique shop they visited three years ago.
I am a programmer, and quite familiar with these two methods of locating things: the first is called “absolute addressing”, and the second “relative addressing”. They’re both right, they both get you to where you want to go, but they use different techniques.
The reason a woman can’t read a map is that maps are designed by men to give them the spatial references they need to navigate. A map is no good to a man unless it shows every cross street, all the railway lines, as well as significant things like towers, parks, and hills. Ideally, a map should show house numbers and the direction of one-way streets.
To a woman, this is all confusing detail, which makes the map a chore to read.
This was brought home to me a few years ago, when my wife and I were in Chiang Mai, a town in Northern Thailand. We were in a tourist shop, looking at maps, when my wife pulled out Nancy Chandler’s Map of Chiang Mai. “Let’s buy this one,” she said. She was obviously attracted by the colourful exterior; all the other maps were drab in comparison.
Outside on the street, she opened up the map and held it in front of her. I looked over her shoulder. The first thing I noticed is that most of the streets were not marked; while the main streets were all there, none of the little side streets were shown at all. There was just a lot of empty space, coloured beige.
“This map is no good,” I said, “It has nothing on it.”
“Hold the map,” she said.
I did, and she stabbed her finger at the map.
“We’re right here,” she said.
I looked closer, and she was pointing just to the right of the street on which we were standing.
“How do you know we’re at that spot?” I asked.
She lifted her finger. The tourist store we had just exited was marked on the map, and had been under her finger.
“This is a great map,” she said.
Nancy Chandler’s Map of Chiang Mai is designed by a woman for women. For men, it’s next to useless; for women, it’s priceless.
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