When I tell people that I can get lost in my own neighborhood, they laugh because they think I’m joking.
I have what is quite possibly the world’s worst sense of direction. What dyslexics suffer through with words on a page is similar to what I endure when trying to find my way through the physical world. When I’m in my own house or yard, I know which way is which – early morning sun hits the front of the house, so that must be east; the back of the house receives late-day sun, so that must be west; our screened porch gets sun for most of the day, so that’s south; and the side where nothing but hostas will grow in the yard – I’m willing to bet that’s north.
When I leave my own property, though, all bets are off. I become disoriented and I’m likely to get lost if I deviate from certain often-traveled routes.
If you’re giving me directions, please don’t say, “Drive southwest for 1.2 miles, then turn east.” This is gibberish to me. Instead, paint a three-dimensional picture. Tell me what businesses, schools, churches I’ll pass on the way. Describe what’s on the corner where I’m supposed to turn. And please tell me whether to take a left or a right.
While my sense of direction is especially bad, I believe most women see the world as a collection of landmarks and topographical features. Have you ever called a doctor’s office or a business and asked directions from the woman who answered the phone? She undoubtedly gave you directions that made sense – “Turn right at the Olive Garden restaurant” or “Go past the building with the arch that looks like a toilet bowl and take the first left” or “Drive past Fresh Fields and turn right at the Wachovia Bank.” In the wilderness, a woman might memorize her route not by tracking it on a mental compass but by noting the big oak tree that’s been scarred by lightning and the jagged boulder with lichen in the shape of Abraham Lincoln’s profile.
Men and women simply don’t see the world the same way. That statement might be heresy to Gloria Steinem, but its accuracy has been confirmed by several scientifically structured experiments. While some individuals of both genders will think like the opposite sex, the majority of women use landmarks to find their way around, while the majority of men use maps, compass points, and calculated distances.
These differences are believed to be evolutionary. For most of humankind’s history, men have been the hunters and women the gatherers. Prehistoric males ranged far afield in search of edible prey, and they had to develop a reliable way to find their way back to their caves. They learned to pay attention to the sun’s position in the sky, and to create a mental map of the landscape. Women stayed close to home, and they learned where the berry patches and fruit trees were. (Even now, according to one study, women learn their way around a food market much faster than men do.)
The differences in the way men and women navigate shows up even when they’re working – or playing -- in virtual environments. Female architects, designers, trainee pilots, and computer gamers all function more efficiently when they use 3D graphics that resemble the real world and view them on wider screens that improve spatial orientation. Tests conducted by a team of Carnegie Mellon scientists and Microsoft researchers showed that when women used wide screens and realistic 3D images, their performance equaled the men’s.
All of this makes me feel marginally better about my pathetic navigational skills and less guilty about the money I spent on a GPS unit. I wonder, though, whether political correctness will ever allow us to honestly depict such gender differences in fiction and make use of them to propel a plot forward. Writing about a woman who can’t follow a map invites accusations of sexism from women, although the men in their lives may think it’s a realistic portrayal. A male character who meticulously states exact mileage and compass orientation when giving directions would make many women roll their eyes in exasperation.
As with so many other aspects of human existence, the facts may be firmly established for decades before people will willingly acknowledge them in everyday life. Fictional heroes and heroines, whom writers tend to present as idealized versions of their own genders, might never catch up with reality. My heroines possess all the navigational skills I lack. They know where they’re going and how to get there. And if some researcher says this isn’t realistic, I have a ready reply: Hey, it’s fiction!