Just-in-time learning and shower pan liners

Il me manque.

When you’re learning a new language, things don’t seem to work right.  “I miss him” in French is “Il me manque,” which to a native speaker of English looks an awful lot like “He misses me.”

So you rely on memory aids, or contextual clues, till you understand.  (My memory aid is to think of “Il me manque” as “He’s missing to me.”)

I’ve spent time lately with another language–the one used by contractors.  My main role in the renovation project is errand boy; the contractor gives me a list (and, sometimes, a job aid like a package label) and I go foraging at one of the seven hardware stores I’ve come to know.

I see a twining of specificity and self-reliance that reminds me of on-the-job learning.  Today, for example, one item on my list was “shower facing,” which the contractor described as a kind of membrane you use when installing a bathtub (as he’s doing).

The first place was sure they didn’t have any.  “Try Acme Glass, over on East Diamond Avenue,” the guy said.

I’ve noticed these succinct directions a lot on my trips to Hardwareville.  I see it as a kind of assumption about minimum competency. My take: The typical “performer” is a professional whose job includes travel to unfamiliar neighborhoods.  He’s constantly updating his mental map, and constantly navigating via essential clues.

Even if he doesn’t know where Barron’s Lumber is in Gaithersburg, he probably knows where “the hill as you head south” is.  “Go over the hill, take the first right, and you’ll see it” is contextually clearer than Google.  The guy knows how big a lumber yard is likely to be, and also figures if it were hard to spot, you’d tell him.

Also, unlike me, he probably doesn’t think of retail locations in terms of their street address, any more than you’d think about a house number for the Washington Monument.

So: don’t assume too little of the perform.  Strip out a lot of that introduction, overview, background, scene-setting.  We’ve got a pretty specific task here; let’s get to it.

On the other hand–when at another place I asked about shower facings, it was clear that that’s not the standard Maryland term.  (The contractor, here from Milwaukee, said with a little exasperation, “That’s what we call it at home.”)

A plumber-customer overheard my question to a store clerk, and the two of them questioned me about what the contractor was trying to get done.  I got the clear impression that, although wanting to help me, they were convinced I was asking for the wrong thing.

I called the contractor, and handed the phone to the plumber.  Interestingly, he asked the contractor’s name.  “Hi, Randy — this is Steve.  Tell me what you need.” A little more conversation.  “Oh, okay,” said the plumber.  “You want a pan liner.”

(Whether you call it a pan liner or a shower facing, it’s a sheet of 40mm-thick PVC.  And, yes, the store had it.)

What I saw in this exchange:

  • Our old friend the curse of knowledge:  If you think that object is always called shower facing, you’ll have a hard time with someone who thinks it’s always called a pan liner.
  • The expert-practitioner’s focus on outcomes.  The plumber and the clerk weren’t chit-chatting, but they weren’t intending to be rude.  They wanted to get this fixed for me.
  • The importance of the interpersonal.  Steve the plumber’s way of relating to other professionals told him to ask a name, even for someone he’d only speak to once.

CC-licensed chair photo by It’sGreg.
Shower pan liner from the Oatey corporate website.

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