On Friday afternoon i arrived in New York, for the first time, by train. It’s a disorienting experience when you first arrive in a place, especially a place in a different country, be it a city or a new landscape. Things are partly the same, but partly different. Familiarity allows us to be efficient in dealing with our everyday lives: without the familiarity, we have to think about things more often.
Simple things like how to cross the road. I’m so familiar with traffic in the UK that i just run across through the gaps. Not here though. Cars drive on the other side of the road for a start, but also you can turn through a red light if you’re going right? Or left? Or maybe people just ignore the lights? I don’t know, but i’m sure i’m not going to risk my life finding out. Of course, today, now a 24 hour old expert, i’m starting to feel more streetwise. My familiarity with road crossing has increased, i’m virtually a local (except for the accent and look of faint terror).
Other things are different too: the difference between what i expected, learnt from the media, books, films and so on and what i actually observe. Time Square is far smaller than i thought. There is less steam billowing through the streets, far less traffic than i expected and all the taxis are meaty looking Fords (a bit like a watered down Humvee). Maybe i just like films from the 80’s too much?)
And customer service here means something different from at home. I have settled in Starbucks to write this, much as i often do at home, but the experience is different. They take my name when i order and use it when they give me my coffee and, weirdly, when they say ‘you’re very welcome and have a nice day’, i actually believe they mean it. Maybe i’m just not cynical enough or can’t read the look in their eyes properly, but people seem to care quite a lot about other people. This is not the experience you get in Starbucks Slough i can assure you.
So what’s the point of this? Well, that difference causes uncertainty, that not knowing how things ‘work’ around here makes me unsettled, but that as my familiarity increases, so does my comfort. I no longer expect to be mugged the minute i walk out of a station, but i’m far from comfortable with the geography yet. I spent all of yesterday walking, miles through the city, just building my sense of place, of location. I often do this to gain this sense of place.
These are lessons, experiences that we probably all share, that we can translate into the world of learning. Familiarity breeds certainty: displacement leads to anxiety. It impacts on everything we do. If we provide a new environment for people to learn in, be it an online space or workshop environment, we need to help people build familiarity. They need to know how to cross the road safely a couple of times before we pitch them into the deep end.
With the increased interest in social learning spaces, this becomes ever more important. We have to realise that people need to learn how to socialise in these spaces, that these are learnt activities and behaviours: we cannot assume that people will just be ready to go from day one.