The topsy turvyness of instructions these days: It is all for naught

The topsy turvyness of instructions these days: It is all for naught


Do you listen anymore to instructions? Think about it. Look around you. We spend so much time teaching school children to pay attention in class and to follow instructions. However, as adults we hardly heed any verbal instructions anymore.   I recently read in some magazine that a very lucky man had survived several plane crashes because he had paid attention to the flight attendants when they were reviewing the exit locations at the beginning of the flight. Upon crashing he knew exactly where to head and didn’t waste any precious moments. Forget the fact that the man is probably very unlucky to have found himself in plane crashes -multiple ones that is- to begin with. He was lucky because he actually listened.   People are shocked at that. The irony being that the instructions meant to save one’s life in the event of an emergency, that everyone eschews, did save a passenger’s life.

Since when is listening to instructions an ironic moment? In the case of the plane crash survivor, the instructions were actually helpful. Emphasis on the word “actually”. I know. Look around you on your next flight to see if anyone is listening to the flight attendants.  You will not catch many passengers that do. That is probably why some airlines now have videos that instruct passengers on the aircraft exits using wacky scenarios. Even then, many people still ignore the instructions.   Once I locate the nearest exit I tend to ignore the rest of the instructions.

We do not only ignore safety instructions on airplanes, we tend to ignore most daily instructions. I myself have sat through countless meetings where instructions were a bunch of mumbo jumbo and you basically had to figure it all out yourself. Sadly, some of these situations were often in training sessions where effective communication is part of the optimal learning setting.  If in a learning environment, you ignore the instructions, you have to admit instructions have gone the way of the dodo.

There is also such a thing called “avoidant instructions” in which you tell someone to not do something and that very instruction leads to the person doing that specified prohibited act. Want people to do something, instruct them to do the opposite.  Quick-no matter what you do, don’t think about a pink elephant.  hmm. You are thinking of a pink elephant now, aren’t you? Everything is topsy turvy these days.

Today on the train platform, I had my headphones on when I heard some announcement come on the system. I figured that the train station was announcing that the 1:39 scheduled train would be arriving 5-10 minutes late. Germany we are not. I did not bother to take my headphones off or lower the volume. I then struggled to get a Coke Zero out of the vending machine but eventually succeed when I hit the machine a few times (despite the sign warning us to not hit the machine).

A new announcement came on. I shrugged and thought “What the heck. Let me see what they have to say.”   I took off my headphones and heard them announce that the 1:39 train would indeed be arriving on track 2. I winced and looked for the track numbers. I was on track 2. I looked around and noticed that everyone was sitting.   The announcement apologized for earlier stating that the train would arrive on track 1. I looked around. Although, the earlier announcement had mentioned a track change, no one had moved.  Not many others had headphones on signaling to me that others had heard of the track change. Yet, everyone had remained on the original track and never moved when instructed to do so. Luckily, we did not move as the train was indeed arriving on its correct and original track.If we had moved, then people would be scampering back.

No wonder people no longer pay attention to announcements. What is the point of doing so if instructions are bound to be incorrect?   All this reminds me of when despite faucet handles being labeled incorrectly in terms of which is cold and hot water, we still somehow know which is the correct one completely ignoring the handle instructions.

Perhaps sub-consciously we just know when instructions will lead us astray. Or perhaps we are just jaded enough when it comes to any set of instructions. We feel we know better even when we don’t. Part of the reason can be that we can look everything up on the web and instruct ourselves. We can even find videos that walk us step-by-step on how to do something. Thus, there is no reason to listen to someone anymore. Put the headphones on and ignore the instructions that are ironically bound to be wrong.

wheel eyes

3 replies »

  1. Well, your experience echoes my own and that of a lot of my peers when I was an engineer. Most of our software documentation was so mind-numbing that the rule of thumb was, only when everything else fails do you RTFM (read the f**king manual).

    On the other had, certain significant breakthroughs were not documented, but discovered thorough emulating the actions that makes many kids such digital wizards – try something and see what happens…


  2. I give instructions all the time at work, then it only sinks in when someone has had an incident!
    Sometimes I just think ‘Blah, its not going to hurt anyone and if they make a mistake they’ll learn’ as opposed to advising or warning
    Sometimes it just works better to make a mistake than be told half a dozen instructions

    Anyway, I digress, great article


  3. If only life, or at least parenting, came with instructions! In the case of parenting, life is perhaps the best instructor, especially as each child is so different. My only instruction in this regard was the experience I had as the “parentee” where I specifically did not follow the instructions received from my “parentor” as I knew them to be harmful to my self-esteem and independence. I can also say this was the case for the conflicting and self-aggrandizing instructions I received from my most recent managers. I believe you have experienced something similar which led you to conclude that in those case we instinctively know the situations when it is best to ignore instructions. I’ll close again with the immortal words of my beloved late dad: “When all else fails, read directions.”


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