Sympathy for the Technology Avoider

I have a friend who is not a fan of things computer. For a long, long time, I’ve been encouraging him to put his business online. He is very good at what he does, and he’s no dummy. After hearing two or three unfamiliar terms from an explanation of how a web site can help his business, he will turn a little green, as if his brain is about to melt. His web site is stuck at one really bad page, and I want to fix it. This week, all on his own, he arrived at a solid “maybe,” though the resistance and disorientation remains.

Take a few steps away from the web-comfortable niche of most of the people who are likely to read this blog, and I firmly believe you’ll find that his reaction is not unusual. You and I are different. We have different comfort zones. We can speak a different dialect, more than we know.

For most of the world, “search” means “to look for,” not the first part of “search engine” or “search term” or “search industry.” Most people don’t automatically check to see it they’ve closed their tags – they struggle with it, they avoid dealing with it. We’re a little different from the average bear. Trust me on this.

Here’s another example from someone else. Last week I got a very shy phone call from a very intelligent someone who asked if I could explain, again, how to make a link. He’s been blogging, though rather hesitantly, for over a year now. I know for a fact that the problem is not that he hasn’t had it explained before, simply, with both text examples and screenshots. So, what is it? What’s the disconnect? I think it’s a wobble of paradigm.

Have you ever made a faux pas in an unfamiliar language? I’m talking paradigm wobble like that, more than just not knowing words.

When I was a teenager my dad was stationed in Germany. I’m an army brat. I grew up with the reality of the Berlin Wall. My first TV memories are of Viet Nam war dead on the evening news. Different time. Different wobbles. In Germany, to my grandparent’s generation we were the valiant guardians who kept the Russians out of Western Europe. To many Germans of my generation we were the “amme,” Nato’s chosen “wet nurse.” We were walking, talking paradigm shifts.

At that time there were three ways to approach being American military in Europe. You could be unabashedly American and live and shop “on base” most of the time, or you could soak up the culture in “Germantown” out “on the economy” and be a part of where we were living, or you could do some combination of the two. In the two places where we lived when stationed over there, we did a little of everything.

One evening my brother, mother and I went out to eat at a little restaurant “on the economy.” My brother asked, in German, for “the bathroom.” The waiter shrugged and barely made it to the kitchen before breaking into a giggle. Now, in the restaurant, the boy wanted to take a bath? Hilarious.

In a few seconds we figured out that the problem was that my brother wanted to ask for the “WC,” but had fumbled while trying to remember how to say the German letter “w.” Instead, he did a direct translation to “bathroom.” Bathroom and restroom are more usual in the US, as we prefer not to say “toilet” as publicly. We have a slightly different communication paradigm.

I think that some people who are used to communicating online have a different communication paradigm, too. We may see web technology as a bridge, a set of tools, or a natural language, whereas the two people I mentioned at the start of this post see it as a barrier to get through. Re-explaining something may not work, at least at first, because the paradigm is different.

When the same people want to know, again and again, how to make a link, offer them a little good-natured pantomime in the form of a tutorial or a Dummies book. Though there’s nothing like a little understanding and patience from a human being, a web-hesitant reader will know that a book won’t giggle on the way to the kitchen.

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