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Backstory: Before you read this, consult your instruction manual

A humorous look at the directions that often accompany consumer products.

R. Buckminster Fuller said, "The most important thing about Spaceship Earth: An instruction book didn't come with it."

Nowadays every device I encounter comes with more instructions than I want. I struggle with instructions. No, I struggle because I fail to follow instructions. OK, because I don't read the instructions.

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I got my first cellphone three months ago, but I'm afraid to take it out of the house. I can't find in the 90-page manual the instructions for turning off the ringer, which now plays "The Stars and Stripes Forever" performed on pots and pans. I fear being one of those people whose cellphone goes off in church or in the middle of a Hamlet soliloquy.

My electric, ultrasonic, hyperdrive toothbrush comes with a lengthy instruction manual. Instructions for a toothbrush?

The words I dread most are: "Some assembly required." Years ago major toy companies had telephone hot lines for panicky parents desperate for help assembling toys. Nowadays toy companies have websites offering downloadable instructions, but no hot line.

Perhaps the companies figure that desperate parents will call customer service and computer telephone menus will keep them in perpetual-hold-and- circular-transfer until the kids outgrow the toys and head off for college.

I'm frustrated with instructions telling me how to assemble and operate things, but I enjoy instructions that show me how to learn or practice a craft.

I especially like instructions that distill the rules to one pithy statement, like Spencer Tracy's admonition on acting: "Know your lines and don't bump into the furniture."

Sometimes people post instructions without foreseeing the likely outcomes. A sign in a parking garage in Asheville, N.C., reads: THIS DOOR MUST REMAIN CLOSED AT ALL TIMES. Another sign at an area tunnel admonishes: DO NOT BLOW HORN IN TUNNEL. Which, of course, just reminds would-be horn blowers of the delights of blowing horns in tunnels.

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Sometimes someone translating instructions writes a word or phrase that's almost right – but not quite. Decades ago I bought a Japanese camera whose manual said: "First, insert eyeball into view finder."

A manufacturer of coffeemakers warned customers not to immerse the device in water. Unfortunately, their choice of words – DO NOT PUT IN WATER – prompted many customers to ask, "How can I make coffee with this thing if I can't put in water?"

Still, instructions can be important. Remember that one of the most widely printed texts in the world is: "Close cover before striking."

My feelings about operating instructions are summed up by the title of an essay by the humorist S.J. Perelman, writing about assembling toys: "Insert Flap 'A' and Throw Away."

Dale Roberts is a college career counselor in Asheville, N.C.


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