A Map in Time

Dear Reader,

You can learn a lot about someone by the way that they approach a problem.

This past summer my boyfriend and I hosted friends over for drinks on two occasions. The first time we hosted three people, a couple and a single guest that were acquaintances of mine, and the second time we hosted a couple that my boyfriend is better acquainted with.

Last minute party preparations, Boston, MA, summer 2019

One cool feature of our place is that we have a giant wall map in the living room. At first glance, guests are usually impressed by the size and detail of this map. However, if you look closer you might notice that this map does not represent the world as we know it today.

It has become a game of ours to guess which year the map represents. Little hints like “Russian America” and a colonized Africa give guests clues that this map represents a time over 100 years ago. The first time we had people over the map was a true highlight of the evening. Our guests Hans and Arthur were particularly captivated. Hans focused more on the European history, while Arthur looked at the map more generally and then focused in on specific details. With Arthur, Hans, Emily, my boyfriend and myself, about 60 mins and a few drinks (and a couple of google searches), we narrowed down the timeframe of the map to a specific decade in the 1800s.

Map depicting Russian America

We learned a lot about ourselves in this process. Some of us jumped around the map and looked at it more broadly. While others among us looked at specific details like lines of longitude and latitude to determine just how accurate the borders were. Some of us treated this little task as a game, while others were engaged in heated debate as if our accuracy would have real consequences.

My boyfriend and I had a much different experience with the map a few weeks later when we had his friends over for drinks. In summary, there was less alcohol involved, less time spent on the problem, and less attention paid to the map’s details. These guests were more interested in where we got the map and how we set it up, rather than the map’s content. When our guest Dan undertook the task of determining the map’s year, he focused on the center of the map – Europe and Africa. He was particularly interested in answering the question of whether the map’s colors had any real significance. Later Dan asks “What is Fezan?” (this little square that is where present-day Libya should be). And, then he points out that the map is likely inaccurate because the sizes are distorted (my own interjection here, Dear Reader, but ALL map sizes are distorted, we can’t accurately depict a round object on a flat surface). While focusing on inconsistencies, Dan missed large clues including “Russian America,” several missing South American countries, and an India that is named “Hindostan.”

African colonies

At this party, the map guessing game lasted but a few minutes. What does Arthur’s approach to the map say about him and what does it say about Dan? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, Dear Reader. Both are cool, interesting, smart people, but the way they approach a problem gives one great insight into the way they think, understand, and confront the unknown.

The next time you are confronted with something new, Dear Reader, stop for a minute and think about how you are thinking. Metacognition can be a helpful way for us to learn more about ourselves and how we view the world. And I think, Dear Reader, that I do indeed like thinking about such things.



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