The right direction

[I wrote this yesterday, but had connection troubles and therefore couldn’t post it. Technology seems to have conspired against me lately.]

I have trouble with left and right.

Actually, that’s not quite accurate: I am fine with left and right. I just have trouble with “left” and “right”.

Ask me which hand I write with, and my right hand will shoot up without hesitation. Ask me which of my feet points downhill when I’m strapped to my snowboard, and I’ll indicate my left as soon as you’ve finished the question. Ask me which side a horse is supposed to walk on when you’re leading it, or which hands of two riders are supposed to meet when they’re passing one another, and I’ll point to my right or raise my left hand with perfect confidence.
But tell me to turn right at the next traffic light, and suddenly my brain will stutter and stumble into darkness and have to feel for stepping stones to use: okay, they said right, I am right-handed, that means I write with my right hand, that’s this hand, okay, so this is right, I need to turn into this direction!
Ask me to answer any of the above questions in words rather than gestures and I’ll have to follow the same steps back, with my reaction time suffering accordingly. When I was a child, I used a small red spot on my left thumb to help me, and when I got older I moved on to slightly more abstract (and less visible) stepping stones like the ones above, but it never became easier or more automatic. I still use the same strategy to match simple, one-syllable words I’ve known all my life (or at least most of it) to the corresponding directions.

I’ve never really thought about it until a few months when a blogger described how a friend of hers could not tell left from right, and so when they were driving, she’d say “my window” and “your window” instead of “left” and “right”.
Since then, my mind has been blown. Both because that’s a really brilliant strategy that I really really need to adopt (and tell all my potential passengers to adopt, because it might greatly enhance our chances of reaching our destination), and because the whole issue seemed so weird once I thought about it in more detail. “My window” and “right” mean the exact same thing in this case (so much so that I knew which direction was which without further explanation), and yet one delivers a result quickly and without conscious thought, and the other one makes me seek out my mental stepping stones.

In most cases, whether one uses “left” or some other term/phrase doesn’t matter much: as long as there is some shared representation of the corresponding direction (whether it’s a car surrounding us both, shared knowledge of horse-riding etiquette, or something else), we can communicate effectively and efficiently without “left” and “right”. In some cases, it might even be more effective overall: if we’re standing in my room facing each other, “turn to the window” is a far more efficient way to communicate than a term for relative directions, since we don’t share the relative directions in this case.
In any case, using alternative terms definitely benefits those of us for whom “left” and “right” are slippery.  Insisting that they are the correct ways to describe directions and therefore no others should ever be used seems nonsensical and needlessly antagonistic to me: language exists to put names to concepts (objects, experiences,…) and communicate with others regarding said concepts (objects, experiences,…), and when it doesn’t fulfill one of these purposes (and/or fulfills the other one only inadequately) in a given situation, there is no good reason to cling to it rather than discard it in favor of better alternatives.


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