Coping with unfamiliar settings

An unfamiliar environment is almost guaranteed to bring my facade of confidence unstuck. It doesn’t need to be a difficult or stressful situation – just something that I’m not familiar with. It’s all about lacking the ‘script’ for how I’m meant to behave in that environment. And my reaction seems to be influenced greatly by interactions with staff and the surrounding signage.

A few weeks ago, I ended up buying lunch for my children at Hungry Jack’s. Hardly what you’d call a difficult environment, but it’s an environment where I lack the appropriate script. The time between my visits to Hungry Jack’s can be measured in years.

So here I was, in a busy Hungry Jack’s, surrounded by people who knew exactly what they wanted and exactly how to order. My encounter made me feel like a stranger in an unfamiliar land … I couldn’t read the menu board (white lettering on a black background, combined with small type and lots of information … hardly great from a legibility perspective), and the person taking my order obviously initially assumed that I knew what I was talking about. Her look of frustration confirmed my concern that I was an alien – of course, I made the mistake of asking for small chicken nuggets and chips when I should have known to ask for a chicken nugget kids’ pack (or something along that line). The kids’ pack wasn’t even listed on the menu board! My alien status was confirmed when I had to ask her to explain what was in the kids’ pack, and then went on to ask what drinks could be included.

Then last week, it happened again. I didn’t know the script for buying a DS game at Target, and I managed to buy an empty box for my son’s 6th birthday. It’s not a pretty experience to watch the excitement of a 6-year-old receiving a game he really wants followed by the upset of the box being empty. Here’s the script for buying DS games, just in case you need to know: you have to collect the little memory card from a counter before you pay at the cash register! Obviously, the checkout operators assume that everyone knows this, because they assume that everyone buys games regularly.

So what does this mean from a communication perspective? I think it means that communicators have to anticipate the needs of different types of audiences. The communication environment needs to be comfortable and easy for people who visit it often and who are very familiar with the script. But the communication environment also needs to support people who are new … it needs to make sure that they don’t feel stupid (or like an alien). In both of my experiences, good signage would have helped a lot. Hungry Jack’s would benefit from clearer menu boards and from having menus visible well before the counter. Target would benefit from signs about buying DS games – preferably a sticker on each game so that the message couldn’t be missed. Both shops would also benefit from improved staff training – with staff who know how to make new customers feel comfortable and know how to check that the customer is really buying what they think they’re buying.

It’s all too easy to become so familiar with our communication work that we forget the experience of being new. Perhaps the experience of being in a new environment – where the script isn’t familiar and easy – is a useful reminder that we need to consider whether we, as communicators, make the task easy for people who communicate with us.