Think of the typical fast food drive-thru experience as one big, complex reading experience. As a “workplace writing” instructor, I can’t help but think about the fact that someone – or some team – wrote everything about that experience. What a writing challenge! Worthy, perhaps, of reverse-engineering.
Page Format: Lines, Lanes, and Signs
During my week, I teach undergraduate English classes centered around “workplace writing.” For reasons I am ever pondering, I also assign the occasional traditional essay. This pondering process carries over into my lunch break, and I often find myself looking at and thinking about all of the writing that exists in the real world – writing that exists in real workplaces – writing that looks nothing like essays.
What I continue to find is that real-world writing is more than just words. It includes, as an essential counterpart, systems of symbols, signs, and designs. And increasingly, I am feeding such observations back into Academia.
For example, in a manual published by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, you can find Pantone color specifications for road signs and the yellow paint used to separate driving lanes. As it happens, the same hue graces the feet of McDonald’s Masterbrand Golden Arches logo; at my local McDonald’s, where I go regularly for coffee between teaching classes, I am surrounded and guided by this color. It tells me where to go and what to expect.
When we write, for example, in an academic context, we receive similar messages in the form of notebook dimensions, software-based page guides, and assignment parameters. But in the fast food drive-thru, there is really never any confusion about where to go and what to do. No one needs a textbook to navigate these lanes.
Messages about the Impending Transaction
Furthermore, I notice more and more the use of meta-writing: for example, a message painted on the pavement that says something like, “Both lanes open,” or hanging, printed signs that say, “Please have payment ready.” If, experimentally, we think of the average McDonald’s drive-thru experience as a complex document, then already we are looking at a few interconnected messages and distinct purposes designed as a kind of interactive reading experience.
I’m not anti-essay. Let’s be clear – I believe that the essay can be useful, instructive, and artistic. But I can’t help but notice that the traditional approach to the essay, arguably, provides no real choices to the reader. The Drive-Thru Document does.
Manual Changes and Busted Plastic
One of the more common buzzwords in writing pedagogy is “technology-mediated,” as in, “technology-mediated writing” or “technology-mediated reading.” Scholars and educators have long expressed an active interest in the complicated interrelationships between the act of writing and the means of writing.
I remember one morning watching a restaurant employee changing part of the drive-thru menu so that the latest breakfast promotions were featured brightly; I felt almost embarrassed to glimpse fluorescent bulbs within the menu sign. It was, for me, bizarre, to know about the machinery of this interaction. I thought about this when, more recently, large LCDs were installed in place of the older style menus.
Big, Winterized Tablets
One LCD display came to life as I entered the drive-thru line. It was programmed to show high-resolution images of new menu items and their corresponding catch-phrases. A second display, one car-length further along, displayed a neat menu.
Scripts and Sound
Visually, and through word choice, I discern overlapping message systems. Communication vectors, in the form of standardized questions and responses, reveal another difference between this and the essay: traditional essays cannot invite real interaction, try as they might. Remember, when I’m ordering, I’m aiming my face at a menu. Inside, the authors’ representative can see me – and we can hear each other – but I am speaking to a portion of a document. It is the interactive menu paragraph.
Consider, also, how much more sophisticated the transaction becomes when we include such options as mobile ordering or McDelivery/Uber Eats. From any angle, the fast food communication protocol is layered. It draws from multiple ‘ecosystems’ – marketing and branding, social context, graphic design, color theory, and ergonomics. It is simultaneously print and digital, static and dynamic, linear and interactive, text-based and speech-based. It can be “read” by the vast majority of humans. Even a cursory look at companies like Everbrite will reveal that this particular form of “workplace writing” has a long history and intersects with highly innovative technologies on an international scale.
The receipt for my transaction adds yet another several dimensions to this document. I’m pretty sure that I’ve thrown away every single McDonald’s receipt I’ve ever received – along with all of the food wrappers and packaging material which also contains writing. Once I begin to take a mental inventory of all of the pieces of information that I give and receive at the drive-thru, culminating with satisfaction surveys, store numbers, timestamps, recycling reminders, and financial records, I almost wish I could live in the simpler realm of the academic essay.
If my phone is involved in any way whatsoever, I need also to take into consideration the secondary and tertiary stakeholders (for example, Android and iOS developers, service carriers, and network infrastructure security contractors) in order to make a thorough analysis. Printed essays have exponentially smaller footprints.
In this simple scenario – drive-thru coffee at the local McDonald’s – I find reason enough to question the usefulness of the essay in the context of, “workplace writing.” Again, it has its virtues – I mean no disrespect to a genre that helps writers express and organize in a fairly straightforward way. But, outside the classroom, you don’t have to go far to find something remarkably more complex and innovative.
As you travel around your world, look at the writing that is all around you. Look at the communication systems that govern where you go, what you do, and how you do it. These, I suspect, are the real workplace genres. These are highly practical, functional, accessible forms of writing that are far more likely to mean something to all of us. Ask yourself, as I am doing, how can we learn lessons from these pervasive text systems?
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