On Reading Manuals

A co-worker told me today that she had figured out what the "F" in RTFM, from the title of my previous post, meant.  Yes, "Read The Fucking Manual."  She'd never heard the expression.  She'd never heard of the BOFH either.  Talk about a nerd generation gap.

Hacker's Dictionary aka The Jargon File, to the rescue:
RTFM /R-T-F-M/ /imp./
[Unix] Acronym for `Read The Fucking Manual'. 1. Used by gurus to brush off questions they consider trivial or annoying. Compare Don't do that, then!. 2. Used when reporting a problem to indicate that you aren't just asking out of randomness. "No, I can't figure out how to interface Unix to my toaster, and yes, I have RTFM." Unlike sense 1, this use is considered polite. See also FM, RTFAQ, RTFB, RTFS, RTM, all of which mutated from RTFM, and compare UTSL.
Yes, RTFM is rude.  It comes from a time before the Web, when if you were even in a position to ask how to use a computer application, it was assumed that you were in a university setting, that you would know enough to read any instructions provided before asking for help.  Access to the Internet was provided for university students in the form of a UNIX shell account.  I had such an account at FSU in the '90's.  UNIX help was provided with the MAN pages.  If you asked for help without having read the relevant MAN page, you were wasting someone's time.

Ok, we can take the "F" out, and RTM is still legitimate, and more polite.  Read The Manual.  We do a lot of hand-holding at the public library, (with MS Word, for example), but are you doing them a favor if you fix their problem for them, and don't show them how to use the "help"?  Yes, it's less trouble, but they will profit more if you let them control the mouse and talk them through a search in the "help" for their answer.  Don't protect them from the learning curve.


Jules Aimé said...

I wrote a profile a few years ago now about a math teacher in Toronto who had had great success teaching his immigrant students not only math but also English. One of the things he used to make them do was to read manuals.

I remember him telling me that people throw up their hands and blame the manual for being badly written when, in fact, most manuals are actually well written. The real problem, he claimed and I have come to agree with him, is that problem solving is really a kind of reading skill and most people don't have it.

Steerforth said...

I think the trick is to give someone the confidence to believe that they can find the answers themselves, by demistifying the whole thing. As you say, show them how to use the 'help' button.

My current bugbear, as an internet bookseller, is that I get quite a few phone calls from customers who "don't do internet shopping". When I ask how they found the book, they always reply "On Amazon/Abe..." but go on to say that they don't feel comfortable giving their card details to an internet site. They then proceed to tell me - a complete stranger - all of their card details, including the security code!

Brett said...

Goodness, two comments! Thanks, Jules and Steerforth, for reading.

Jules, I can see how reading manuals could be a language learning tool. Every piece of equipment or computer program, every field of knowledge has its own language, its own nomenclature or glossary. When we have a problem that needs fixing by someone else, I have to report it in a way that will be comprehensible to the repairman.

I had recently to report a dead bar code scanner at the reference desk. To accurately report the problem, I had to learn the meanings of the scanner's "beep codes", what the scanner was trying to tell me. I could simply have said that it didn't work, and left it to the tech to puzzle over, but I take a reference librarian's pleasure in learning the lingo.

Steerforth, I guess it's because you are a real person on the phone, whereas the Internet is so impersonal. Some people like to have a conversation about their transaction, not a sort of faceless vending machine experience. Others prefer anonymity and are comfortable with the "add to cart" routine.