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The answer is there in black and white The answer is there in black and white

Letters From Home

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RTFM

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In my series about taking a stand against ignorance, I said that reading is the key. And that doesn’t just apply to people trying to take a stand against ignorance–it applies to just about everyone. We all buy new appliances or other electronic devices now and again. And believe me, there is no more important time for reading than when one’s learning how to work something new.

I’ve done tech support for over 20 years now. I’ve also learned a lot of new things and tried, at least, to master a lot of new gizmos that have been invented in that time. Thus, it’s hard for me to understand why so many people just never bother to read the manual.

I’m sure almost everyone has heard the old saw “When all else fails, read the directions.” That would not be so universally applicable, of course, if people actually did read the directions. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen piteous wails from people who took back a messed-up laptop computer to the uncaring big-box store they bought it from, only to have the computer sent who-knows-where by the service department and who-knows-when they’ll get it back. Do the instructions that came with the computer say “Take it back where you bought it”? No, they do not. They say “Take it to an authorized service center.” But almost nobody bothers to read that part. And then they come to an online forum and carry on about how badly they were treated by the store and how long they’ve been without the computer, and if they’re asked if they found the store’s name on the list of authorized service centers… well, the person asking the question might just as well be speaking Martian.

Unhelpful help, and more

Of course, the manufacturers themselves have contributed to the problem by supplying only quickie setup guides in the box and relegating the real user manuals to computer files of some sort–whether a “help” file or a manual in PDF format. Help files are short, and you often have to know exactly what you’re looking for to get the answer you need. The manufacturer may use terminology that the user wouldn’t think of in a million years. When I was writing software manuals by translating programmer-ese into English, I used to joke that a programmer illuminated a room by disabling the light inhibit. I’m a pretty advanced user of Microsoft Word (having dealt with it since version 3 for DOS) but I long ago gave up trying to do any serious looking-up with its help files (even with the cute little cat I’ve got standing in for that idiot paper clip). One good book on the subject, a minute or so browsing the index, and bingo, I’ve got the answer I could have clicked forever to try to find in “help.”

So why don’t people read the directions? There’s usually no faster way to get things going properly, or to fix things that have gone wrong. And, of course, reading the directions makes one self-reliant. How much better it is, to be able to flip a page or two and fix what’s wrong.

The question of self-reliance

When I started out in radio, if something would go flooie (technical term) when the Chief Engineer was not there, and we called for help, the first question we would be asked was “What have you tried already?” In other words, we were expected to know at least a bit about what might be done to try to fix the problem, and to actually try it, before we threw in the towel and bothered the engineer at home. And yet by the time my husband became a Chief Engineer, it seemed as though nobody bothered to try to solve the problem themselves–they’d just call the engineer, even if it was a problem they’d called about a dozen times before.

I’ve found, in teaching people how to use computers, that there seems to be an almost universal fear of “breaking something” or “messing something up.” Wouldn’t it be easier to read the directions and find the solution in writing? But no, people want someone else to tell them what to do.

I don’t have the answers. I just read the directions. I guess I’m one of the few people in the world who actually does RTFM.

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Author: infmom

Otherwise known as Infamous Mom.

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