Illiterate Schmilliterate

When I was a boy my mother taught me not to "show off." She once reprimanded me after school one day when I was in third grade. "No one wants to hang around a show-off" she cautioned while closing my car door to take me home. I never forgot those words. Moments earlier I had won a foot race across the school yard with some classmates. She overheard me enlightening the "slow pokes" as to exactly how I had whipped them. I explained that my sneakers were newer and red -both characteristics that, I insisted, would always keep me faster than any of them. Mom put me in check.

There's no limit to what people will boast about. Their wealth, their bodies, a particular skill and just about anything that makes them feel superior are all worthy topics. Some people boast while being dangerously unaware that they really, truly shouldn't. (See examples at American Idol rejects.) But it doesn't stop them.

I've come to realize that there's a particular condition people love to boast about that is actually nothing to boast about at all. "CI" (Computer Illiteracy). Yep, for some bizarre reason certain people will go through great lengths to vividly describe the extent of their "CI" -especially if they are in the presence of someone they believe knows more than themselves. You've heard 'em: "Oh, this computer stuff is all Greek to me." Or "I can do accounting but put me in front of the computer and I'm totally lost!" Or "I don't know anything about computers. I take that back -I know enough to be dangerous [laughter]."

Usually when a client calls for computer technical help it's the result of someone who knew enough to be dangerous -having been dangerous. When I arrive at the office the physical act of my entrance through the front door causes the computer skill from each person in the office to be instantly sucked out through the vents. Then I'm greeted with "Geoff, you have no idea how little we know about computers. Trust me, I barely know how to use my mouse." This translates to "Please quickly unscrew up what I've screwed up without thinking I'm incompetent because I don't want this problem to reflect on me even though it probably does."

I hear people pleading CI so often I wonder if they are beginning to think it's cool to not know about computers. It has become a method for people to self-belittle in a way that sounds like a boast! I think the admission of CI (consciously or not) is a tactic -and extremely effective because it brilliantly accomplishes the following:

1) Short-circuits anyone from criticizing my computer skill level; I beat them to it.

2) Removes any expectations that I'll help resolve my own computer problem.

3) Isolates my computer problem from my competency in other areas of my life.

4) Begs help from sympathetic computer literate people since I'm now a helpless "victim."

Now, lest you think I'm accusing all self-professed computer novices of being sinister, I'm not. I admit that for some, the term "computer illiterate" does apply. I've also found that most people are better on the computer than they'll admit. The good news is that CI a relative term and should be worn only temporarily. The not so good news is that if you have a computer to use regularly, there's no excuse for staying CI since using it for general purposes requires no more memorization than learning to drive a car. If the police pull you over for not paying attention to a sign, you can't use "vehicular illiteracy" as an excuse.

Go easy on your ego! When calling for technical help, there's no need make your lack of computer skill obvious to the person helping you. What follows are some simple tips that will help you seem (and become) more computer literate while at the same time allowing your technical-rescuer to more easily help you resolve your problem.

1. If you get an error message, write it down exactly and have it handy. When asked for the message don't lead with "I don't understand what this means but..." That's not necessary! Just read the error aloud and wait for the next question from the person providing help.

2. Learn how to go to a web site. Open Internet Explorer and click in the "address" window and then type "www." + a web site you want to visit. A simple skill and easy to memorize. A support person may ask you to go to a particular a web site to get more information about the problem.

3. Learn how to get to your computer's Control Panel. In many cases that's where your technical support person is going to take you to resolve a problem. If you don't see Control Panel after clicking the "Start" button, move up to the "settings" menu and you'll see it from there. Practice it a couple times. Seriously!

4. Have an inventory of your computer. If you don't have the original manuals, you can visit a site like where you can get a free written inventory of your computer in only a few minutes over the Internet. This information will enable you to answer simple questions like how much memory and hard drive space you have on your computer. You'll look like a genius (OK, at least technically "with-it!")

5. Call for help sooner rather than later. Most computer problems happen while using software manufactured by a company you can call for support. If you've done #1 then they can likely help you solve it quickly right on the phone. The longer you work on a problem without knowing what you are doing, the more problems you'll create and the more obvious it will be you didn't know what you were doing. (See more at "knows enough to be dangerous.")

Of course, the more time you invest the more computer literate you'll become but few people will invest the time to improve and expand their skills. If you only begin with these simple tips you'll do wonders for your cyber-ego if you currently rank yourself low on computer skill. With even a small amount of dedicated time for learning some computer basics you'll be surprised how quickly you graduate through the ranks!

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