Man Confused

Survival Skills for the Technically Challenged
How to Find and Communicate Effectively
with Technical People

by Bonnie Best

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Survival may seem like a dramatic word to use in this context. However, our world today is so dependent on technology, that survival may be appropriate. Some thought they could live without knowing anything about technology, and may not want to use it very much. Many people feel confused and wish they knew more, but struggle to understand what technical people are talking about.


We all use technology, even in areas we don't think much about -- the telephone, your car, TV and DVD player, electricity, Microwave oven, washer and dryer. Many people use a computer or smart phone to communicate via the Internet.

Most of our appliances have been developed to be fairly simple. We turn them on, use them and don’t have to think much about them. If they break we take them in to be fixed, or replace them.
Man at PC  
  PC The computer is another story!!! There are decisions to be made about the type of computer, how much memory, how large a hard disk drive, what kind of backup device, what kind of printer or scanner, what programs we need. Then we have the Internet and the many decisions about which service to choose, what will our email address be, and how to communicate effectively with people around the world.  
  World Globe with Man and Woman at PCs I have been a teacher for many years, and sold computers for several months – both MACs and PCs. I support people in their struggle to make wise choices, and to get the support they need to keep their machines working. Often family members or friends make suggestions, which are based on their preferences, and which may not meet your needs.  

My family lives in different states in the US, and we now communicate more often by email or text than we did by phone or regular mail.

Woman at PC on Phone Phone Lines Man at PC on Phone

My sisters and brother used email to coordinate family reunions.

My friends and relatives in their 60's, 70's and 80's sometimes say “I never wanted or expected to use a computer. Now it is time to learn to use one effectively.” Many of my students are older, or starting a home-based business, and find they need to use a computer and a smart phone. I’ve been a member of Rotary, an International service organization. Rotarians find it very helpful to use email and the World Wide Web to communicate. Older Rotarians surprised us, because they use it more often than younger Rotarians. They have more time and enjoy the connections with people who have similar interests.

So, how do you begin? How do you learn enough to communicate? Man with Question How do you find the right technical people who can speak to you in a way that makes sense and are helpful? How do you find the right book? The Dummy books are popular, although they don’t seem to be 'perfect', or 'right' for everyone. At the Adult School in Castro Valley we found the Easy Windows book to be simple, colorful and useful. Students like the pictures and short, clear directions with steps they can easily follow. So how do you find the right book, and the right class to take, the right teacher/consultant, the right repair person to fix things that go wrong?

Here are a few guidelines you may find helpful:

  1. Be gentle with yourself, and realize that it may be frustrating at times. It might feel like you’re a child again, taking those first few steps before you learned to walk. Child CrawlingIt might seem strange that at your age you have to ‘begin again’.
    Life today is a continuous learning process.
    Develop tolerance, patience and flexibility.
    Enjoy the learning process.

  2. Do your best to be as clear as possible about what you want to accomplish. PC The computer is a tool. Start by answering a few basic questions:
    Why do you need a computer? How will you use it? The more clearly you can describe this, the more help you will find from the right people.

  3. When talking to technical people, you might think they are using a foreign language – they are! They tend to use a lot of acronyms, a kind of ‘shorthand’, taking the first letter of each word in a phrase, like PC (personal computer) or RAM (random access memory)
    or PDF (portable document format). Have you ever traveled in a foreign country, where they speak a different language? What do you do to survive in a foreign land? Think about the strategies that work there and use them when speaking to technical people. One strategy is to find an interpreter, or someone to translate the ‘jargon’ into a language you understand. Another strategy is to use a special dictionary.

  4. A good question to ask is "Do you understand and use the KISS principle?" KISS stands for ‘keep it simple stupid’. Note that it is not the one asking the question who is ‘stupid’, but the one answering the question who is perceived as stupid if they cannot make the answer clear to the person asking the question. I personally prefer to think of KISS as 'Keep It Super Simple'!

  5. When talking to technical people, find those who are flexible and patient. They do exist! Find those willing to explain technical terms with analogies to other life experiences. For example, I describe memory in a computer as being similar to a chalkboard or white board used in classrooms. The computer uses memory, called RAM (Random Access Memory), to store information; sometimes it is called ‘working space’. The memory is used over and over again; information is written to memory and then it is erased and new information is stored there. When you turn off the computer or lose power, the memory is erased. Our brain functions like this also, using short-term memory for facts we want to remember for a short time; then it is erased and we remember new facts. I describe the hard disk drive and the folders that we use to organize files as being similar to a file cabinet. These files are used to store data for a longer time, more like the long-term memory in our brains. If you have trouble finding a technical person who is willing to use these helpful analogies, find books or other resources that can help you do this for yourself.

  6. When looking for the right book, determine if you like pictures or words better. What is your level of knowledge -- a true beginner, intermediate or advanced? If you prefer to hear information, then audios with a person guiding you might work better than a printed text. Videos can be very useful for learning. YouTube has become very popular for learning new things.

  7. When choosing a class, find out if it is a hands-on or lecture/demonstration type class. They both have value. Lecture/demonstration is useful when you want to learn about the ‘big picture’ or ‘overall content’ of a subject. It can be useful to hear an instructor answer questions for a group. The hands-on class is good when you want to refine your skills with a specific topic. The challenge with hands-on computer classes is that people in the class go at different speeds, with different levels of skill, so small groups are easiest to manage, and are most effective for the learner.