"I think I know from where your problems stem. Would you, could you, RTFM?"
— The Internet Oracle
Simply, it's a "Tale From Customer Service": When assisting people with technological items, only about 1 out of 5 read the instructions for the item they've purchased. Fewer still read more than a page or two. Note that the trope title is a more polite version of the real phrase. Other versions are "Read the Friendly Manual," "Read the Foul Manual," "Read the Full Manual," and "Read the Fine Manual."
It's one that you've Seen A Million Times, especially in Sit Coms: "I'm a man; I don't need to read the instructions." Or the manual is in an entirely different language, or it was written in English by someone who can barely say "I doesn't knows speaking English".
In video games, and sometimes other software, the manual may be of no help. For most games, the manual only tells you how to play the game, not how to beat it. (For that, see Guide Dang It.) It won't tell you how to solve any puzzles unless it's some form of Copy Protection. Even worse, the manual might have been written for a pre-release version of the game, with details such as the control scheme differing subtly from the released version. Similarly, in the tech field, the manuals may be written by different people than those who designed the product, leading to a Manual Misprint.
Be very careful when using this response in Real Life. Even if you mean it as an innocent suggestion, it carries an implied insult. There are also people who are asking questions when the answers are All There in the Manual not because they're stupid, but because they don't have the manual. If they bought the product used or were given it as a hand-me-down, the manual was probably lost ages ago. Some products have even shipped without a manual, or with different manuals for different releases, some of which are incomplete. A good manufacturer will post the manual for download on its website, with any updates and errata already applied, but not all manufacturers are good. This is often why they're asking in the first place. And many items these days, particular computer-related ones, are shipped deliberately without the manual -which is to be downloaded from the company's site.
This can also lead to Scapegoat Creator, where people forget to read the credits of a work, or don't even look at the staff.
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Anime and Manga
Amuro Ray of Mobile Suit Gundam reads the Gundam's manual a few times early on, saving his bacon.
In the oddest usage of this trope, we turn to Smile Pretty Cure!. An accident turns Cure Happy into a Super Robot and, to get her to fight, one of the other Cures have to pilot her. The one to do so? Cure Beauty, who has no real interest in giant robots and is only able to pilot and effectively win the day was because she found and read the manual!
In an issue of G.I. Joe: Special Missions, Slipstream attempts to pilot a Russian transport plane he has never flown before. He does attempt to read the manual, only to find it is Russian and Farsi; neither of which he can read. Fortunately the illustrations were clear.
This also sets up a Brick Joke: after Calvin stops making the machine that sets up the plot, Dr. Brainstorm barges in:
"Alright, Calvin! I've gone over that manul [sic], and now I'm all ready for you and your precious little powers! GIVE ME YOUR WORST!"
Die Another Day. When Q gives James Bond the doorstopper manual for his latest gadget car, Bond tosses it in front of the vehicle's automatic shotguns which promptly blast the manual to shreds. This doesn't affect Bond's ability to use the car later on (though given his photographic memory he probably read the manual while the car was being developed).
Q: "Here's the manual, should be able to shoot through that in a couple of hours." Bond: "Just took a few seconds, Q."
In Commando, Cindy successfully uses a rocket launcher (to hit the wheel of a moving truck no less) despite having absolutely no military training. When Matrix asks how she did it she just says she read the instructions.
The Maitlands in Beetlejuice are given a "Handbook for the Recently Deceased" when they die. Adam tries to read through it but can't comprehend it. Every time they run into trouble they're admonished that the Handbook contains everything they need to know. Other ghosts scoff at them for their inexperienced mistakes.
Larry from Night at the Museum tries to read the directions, but they're quickly destroyed and there's no other copies. Luckily, studying the various exhibits teaches him enough to get by.
The Fifth Element features a scene with a bunch of Always Chaotic Evil mooks "trading" for a crate of super smart guns with dozens of different modes. They don't think to ask what all the modes in question are, and decide to find out by just randomly pressing buttons. If they'd RTFM they'd have discovered that one of the little red buttons was in fact the self-destruct...
This is lampshaded later on in the movie. When the good guys are trying to figure out how to get the weapon against the Ultimate Evil to work, Korben says "Every weapon comes with a manual. This one must, too." The "manual", in this case, turns out to be somewhat unhelpful hints from Leeloo.
The little bad working for the Big Bad might have given them the manual if the mooks hadn't bullied a crate of the weapons from him after they (were tricked and) delivered an empty trunk.
Gravity. The female protagonist consults a manual when trying to work out how to operate the Soyuz capsule. Fortunately the Russian manual has an English translation, as it's part of the International Space Station. Later she boards another space station, but the buttons are all labelled in Chinese characters. Oh Crap.
A short story in the Bolo universe, "Operation Desert Fox" by Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon, details the posting of a "Desert Fox" history buff assigned to crew a Bolo called Rommel, who is similarly obsessed. After going on drills and such in their sleepy backwater planet, it is attacked by squads of AI-controlled mecha which Rommel manages to take control of. One problem — they can't control enough of the squads to win without sacrificing the tank's personality. The commander goes digging into the tank's manual, finding an untested "full backup" function. After they win and the commander gives the "restore" command, he falls asleep from exhaustion. He is woken by the tank calling his attention to the jubilant villagers outside,then asking how he managed to save the tank:
Isaac Asimov wrote a short story where two guys are testing a Deflector Shields equipped ship on a test flight which takes them on a fly-by right next to the Sun. The shields work so well they almost freeze to death. They come to their boss, intent on beating him up for sending them on that trip... only to be informed that the manuals (which they naturally threw away without reading) contained instructions on adjusting the shield intensity so that a controlled amount of solar heat could reach the ship.
Live Action TV
In The Amazing Race, many teams have been eliminated because they misread a clue, or didn't notice that all they needed to know was right there. Frequently overlaps with Failed a Spot Check.
In Married... with Children, Al spent an entire episode trying to construct a carpentry workbench, but proves ridiculously inept at it as a result of his apparent inability to follow the the instructions in the manual provided. In a Throw the Dog a Bone moment, his daughter Kelly (who had been flanderised over time to be the resident moron) not only fixes the bench and makes it look exactly like it should, she does so in seconds.
The Doctor threw the TARDIS manual in a supernova because he disagreed with it. This must have taken some time, as the Eighth Doctor claimed there was a volume 21...to the quickstart guide.
In the original series, in one episode, the Fourth Doctor sees Romana reading it, and when she suggests a control that she notices to be essential in operating the TARDIS (and one that The Doctor has heretofore never used), he says "Hmm... Interesting," and then proceeds to rip the page out of the manual and throw it away.
Turns out that refusing to read the manual is part of the reason why TARDIS makes the iconic Vworp noise when it dematerialises. The Doctor forgets to the turn the brakes off, so when this is pointed out to him, he claims that it's actually because he refuses to do so, as he loves the noise.
In the The Young Ones episode Nasty, Vyvyan and Mike are trying to set up their new VHS player and after a discussion about why it isn't working, It turns out that Vyvyan has been reading the manual for a toaster by mistake and (despite making some toast with the VHS player) it still fails to work.
Mike: Maybe you shouldn't have poured all of that washing-up liquid in it.
Vyvyan: But it says here, Michael look, 'Ensure machine is clean, and free from dust'!
Mike: Yeah, but it don't say, 'Ensure the machine is full of washing-up liquid. I mean, it doesn't say, 'Ensure you don't chop up your video machine with an axe, put all the bits in a plastic bag, and bung 'em down the lavatory'!
Vyvyan: Doesn't it? Well maybe that's what's going wrong!
In Man Stroke Woman a recurring sketch is of a man who refuses to read instructions his wife offers him. This always ends in something quite bizarre happening, such as their dog exploding because he was given the wrong food.
In one episode of Home Improvement, Tim doesn't think he needs to read the instructions for his new entertainment system because "this is just the manufacturer's opinion of how to put this together." Hilarity Ensues.
Tim could be the posterboy for Did Not Read the Manual.
In the Babylon 5 episode "Eyes", Garibaldi has the parts to a Kawasaki Ninja ZX motorcycle and is trying to put them together. Good news, Garibaldi has a manual for it. Better news, he's actually trying to read it. Bad news...it's in Japanese, which Garibaldi doesn't understand.
Considering Garibaldi eventually learns Narn in order to read the Book of G'Quan (all Narn holy texts must be reproduced exactly; no translations are allowed), he shouldn't have as much trouble with a human language.
Mythology and Religion
King Uzziah seemed to be a good man, he really wanted to give thanks to God but he did so in a way that brought God's wrath. The priests tried to tell him he should read the instructions because he was in the wrong but he refused, and got an infectious skin disease for it.
Its telling that the Kings of Judah were not only required to read the Torah, but to make their own personal copy, making this more a case of Ignored The Freaking Manual
In a Dilbert strip, Dogbert is working tech support and receives a call from a guy asking how to make a pie chart. Dogbert orders the guy to hack the computer into tiny pieces, mix them with flour and water and bake the mix in the oven. Dogbert then suggested that while the caller waited, he could read "the novel included with [his] software. It is the story of a Spaniard named 'Manual'." The caller then remarks how the book "lost a lot in the translation."
In another strip, he tells a caller, "Take all the parts and arrange them in neat piles. Now stand on your chair so you can see above your cubicle wall... Now shout, 'Does anybody know how to read a manual?'" That was popular with tech support workers.
From another perspective, someone talks about the manual and says that "You must really hate your customers", describing how poorly-written the manual was.
In Calvin and Hobbes, there's a strip where the two try to put together a model airplane. They (or, at least Calvin) ignore the instructions completely, and end up with the newspaper glued to the floor, and a wrecked airplane.
In a Sunday strip, said airplane was, "hit by anti-aircraft guns," to which Hobbes replies, "Your planes seem to encounter a lot of those."
However, there is another strip where Hobbes is surprised because the instructions apparently start in English, but then go into Spanish and French.
In Janes World, she says she can't live in a dumpy rental trailer with her friend, explaining that it says so in the Gay and Lesbian Handbook, which she has in the Jeep she bought (it was tucked under the owner's manual). Her friends, a couple of straight guys, leaf through it, muttering "so that's how that's done...wow..." before she peevishly pulls it away.
Many people who erect signs can sometimes attest to this. A sign can sometimes be staring a person right in the face, only for the person to ask exactly what the sign is pointing out the first place.
Computer hardware manufacturer MSI announced the addition of an RTFM-chip to their products designed to analyze what the user did after a problem, then send the information back to MSI, with the intention of reducing the number of tech support queries and RMA's over problems detailed in the manual.
A common example used in school. A worksheet will read "Read all instructions before completing," and start off with relatively benign instructions. Later on, instructions start becoming bizarre with commands like "Cluck like a chicken," or whatever. If you read to the bottom, the last instruction will tell you to disregard all the other instructions, revealing to the rest of the class who actually read the entire sheet before completing it.
A similar example is a long step-by-step computation with the legend, "read completely before attempting", for which the very last computation is "× 0". note Of course, this trick works best for left-to-right computation. It's a bit harder to pull this off with PEMDAS-style order of operations rules, but a hell of a lot easier to subvert with creative use of parentheses.
This type of test is also used to measure a how good a soldier can follow orders. They are told to read through the entire sheet before they start to answer the questions. Because of a time limit many will start to panic and start filling in the answers. Those that don't panic will finally read that they don't need to answer any questions at all.
There is a manual for Photoshop CS5 that actually is called "The missing manual: The book that should have been in the box" specifically because the manual written by the people at Adobe was of almost no help. It's part of an entire series of books that serve as manuals for programs that either didn't come with one, or came with a really crappy manual.
Reading the Freaking Manual can even help computers! See this news story about how an MIT AI research group's machine-learning system actually read the manual for Free Civ (a Civilization II clone) and used it to improve its victory rate from 46% up to 79%.
RTFM is commonly used by engineering lecturers/advisers when asked a particularly stupid question. Also common is ATFQ, used in longer reports.
Ask anyone in the tech field - especially tech support or customer service. A lot of people are guilty of this. Not only do the customers not read the manual, but oftentimes, the staff doesn't either. Many people assume that because they already know how to use it that they don't need to read the manual.
You begin to understand much of the species seems Too Dumb to Live when working in tech support, as you will find yourself having to tell people how to turn on a computer...
Often inverted nowadays. Most complex technical devices (which now includes TV sets) come with manuals that are thick only because they contain 30 languages, some of which you've never heard of before. The actual content is usually trivial. Without internet fora and similar user-driven(!) information sources, you're sunk trying to even remotely exploit e.g. a smartphone's capabilities.
In some internet discussions groups, posters go overboard telling people who are asking any question to RTFM (anything Unix-related for example), even if said manuals comprise 1000 pages or more just for the overview. Regardless of being helpful or smug, it often translates as 'I don't know either'.
During the War On Terror, American artillerymen assigned to train Afghan soldiers in the effective use of artillery found that the Afghans were using Russian artillery pieces which the Americans were not familiar with. Fortunately, the Afghan soldiers had the manuals that went with the artillery... except that the manuals were, of course, written in Russian.
Amazon customer review pages are loaded with angry 1 star reviews from customers complaining that a product didn't work as expected, even though the very thing they're complaining about is addressed in the Amazon item description.
Many software companies have stopped including manuals at all in the interests of 'going green' (read: an excuse to save money on printing costs). Physical copies of video games and computer software will often be packaged with nothing more than a 2-page leaflet telling you that the manual is either located on the software disc itself or downloadable from the company's website. This substantially lowers the rate of the people that RTFM.
Subverted regularly in Paranoia. In a typical example, Friend Computer assigns you a highly-advanced multi-ton killbot to use to complete your latest Troubleshooter mission. Assuming that it is even available, and not completely blacked out by censors, the information contained in the 'bot's manual will be above your security clearance, and even asking for information above your clearance is treason. Which is, of course, punished by summary execution.
Subverted in a meta sense as well - the players are expressly forbidden from reading the actual rules section of the rulebook. (Of course, the parts they're allowed to read admit that it's entirely in the spirit of the game to read the rules, and then lie like a Persian rug if anyone tries to call them on it...)
It is likewise in the spirit of the game for the GM... err... Friend Computer to vaporize a clone for suspicion of reading the rulebook (as the parts that the GM is meant to read explicitly condone this, too.)
Chris Bores, The Irate Gamer, was in such a rush to play Contra that he refused to read the instruction manual for the storyline, so he believes the game takes place in a straight modern war setting in the likes of Rambo. He is then caught by surprise once the aliens start showing up later in the game.
James Rolfe, The Angry Videogame Nerd, declared the uselessness the speed and altitude readings in his review of Top Gun for the NES. Naturally, he couldn't figure out how to land later on, even though the game lists the desired speed and altitude for landing RIGHT THERE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SCREEN. Rather, he tried to land purely based on prompts like "Speed up!!" "Speed down!!" and "left left!!"
He later did a follow-up video explaining his mistake. To be fair, a lot of other gamers had the same problem, as the "left left!!" commands really grab your attention.
It's also justified that he probably did not have the manual as he buys a lot of his games second-hand, and with buying older cartridge based games, you're lucky if they do come with a manual.
In Ōkami, one of the most common brushstrokes (the Power Slash) is a simple straight line, which can be hard to pull off with a control stick or the Wiimote. It can be simply and easily overcome by pressing another button, which allows you to paint straight lines. This is mentioned multiple times in both manuals, but some people have played the game numerous times without ever knowing this. All the techniques are also described down to the smallest detail in a section on the pause menu.
Ōkamiden prevents this issue. In a more positive example of Viewers Are Morons, whenever you get a new brush technique you are taken to the pause menu to read up on it. This is vital for the Magnetism technique, as there are two ways to draw it that do slightly different things (one attracts, the other repels), and the obligatory tutorial was extremely vague on how the effects were different. Understanding these differences is vital.
People who went to GameFAQs for the transfer codes for Golden Sun discovered that every FAQ covered this subject with "Read The Freaking Manual, because we're not copying it". Many were looking because they had lost the manual, or bought it used (since used game stores usually sell just the cartridge). Moral of the story? Some people don't have the manual. That's why they're asking you in the first place.
The video game Mech Commander features the ability to target specific points for massive damage on enemies, possibly the most useful ability in the game. It's not mentioned anywhere in game, and only mentioned on one page of the manual. Most GameFAQs assumed that people without the manual were playing pirated versions of the game and refused to relist the command, saying RTFM!
Related to the above lists on GameFAQs, if you had gone to the boards before the questions section was put up, chances are you've seen threads asking stuff about the games, only for the FAQ writers and other members to say read the bloody FAQ. This even happened if the FAQ wasn't a very good one (like, say, it was based off of a Prima or Bradygames strategy guide that's half-completed or omits details) or lists information that is incorrect in the games. Especially if there was a difference between regions, or, in the case of some PC games, was not updated for a patch.
On a similar note, the most commonly asked questions about City of Heroes Valentine's Day missions is "How do I destroy the Cauldron/Girdle?", despite the fact that the contact specifically tells you that you must get someone from the opposite side to do it for you.
Also the endless questions in World of Warcraft about how to do a quest when the quest description clearly states exactly what they need to do. Incredibly common in the Death Knight starting quests. Though occasionally, the quest text won't be of any help, such as in the infamous quest to find Mankrik's wife in the Barrens.
This will also happen quite often in cities, with people asking where certain NPCs and services are. You can find all of that info by asking a guard in the city, of which there are several dozen.
In Mass Effect 1, either Ashley or Kaidan can drop the line "Always a good idea to RTFM, sir/ma'am," in a moment of snark during the Noveria mission.
The One Must Fall 2097 manual thanks those who have decided to read it before installing/playing the game and chastises those who have not.
In F.E.A.R. the character Norton Mapes, a computer worker you have to rescue, has a belt buckle that reads "RTFM".
The Elder Scrolls has a fan site called UESP, and they tell you that if you have the manual for Daggerfall, to flat out ignore it because it was based off of an alpha version and incorrectly describes the game.
The third installment of Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness references and parodies this with an attack that Tycho can learn that is titled "RTFM", in which he basically throws a book at an enemy. This is later upgraded to "RTMFM" which doesn't cost MP to cast, and both of these attacks share the same sprite as Tycho's ultimate attack, the 4MP "Master's Thesis".
The manual for Resonance of Fate is accurate, but poorly organized. It's not a problem for the most part, the in-game tutorials and control references pick up the slack. Except for telling you to use the right stick to move the gun base around on the attachments menu, that is. This is critical to getting all your attachments right, but isn't even alluded to in-game, and only referenced once in the manual, as a single-sentence afterthought at the end of a paragraph.
The Might and Magic 6 manual contains several letters written by the king to his wife, one of which tells them where the "Third Eye" is located. However there's nothing in game to tell the player where this item is located. So if you don't read the manual you can't complete the game without searching everywhere after getting the quest to find the "Third Eye" (this item doesn't appear before this quest is triggered).
In Schlock Mercenary, Elf initially appears to be a savant at the fabber, but it turns out that, while still incredibly advanced and far beyond the level one would expect from a grunt who hadn't completed high school... she'd been using the fabber's manual and assist options, which Kevyn calls cheating.
Sergeant Schlock (then a corporal) discovers in mid fall that he doesn't know the exact difference between a plasma rocket and a plasma cannon. Solution — start reading the freaking manual: "No problem we're in no hurry down here".
The Whiteboard gives us two. In an early strip a customer comes in and tells Doc that he can't get the paintball gun to work no matter what buttons he tries pressing. Doc's response is to duct tape the owner's manual to the guy's face. A much later one occurs during a Christmas strip; Pirta is surprised to see Doc reading the instructions since that is a violation of man rules. Doc agrees that this is normally the case but he tends to be more careful whenever he is building anything involving explosives and rocket fuel.
Excessively snarky news aggregator fark.com frequently features comments that are derived from the famous RTFM acronym: posters will advertise when posting that they DNRTFA ("Did Not Read The Farking Article") they are commenting on, or be told to RTFA ("Read The..." Eh, you can guess the rest.) when making a comment that is obviously addressed by the article in question.
A common saying on sites like YouTube is "Read the freaking [video] description!" yet no one seems to bother anyways. Some users don't write a description at all for this reason.
Gaia Online has a whole forum dedicated to being able to ask questions about the site and get answers from other users. That forum would be utterly dead if people would just read stickied threads or the information in the Help Center.
Also afflicted is their MMORPG, zOMG! The forum for said MMO is filled with threads by users asking how to sell their rings... even though the item description for said rings ends with a note that "all rings are soulbound and cannot be traded or sold, with certain grandfathered exceptionsnote rings acquired before the binding mechanic was implemented". Those who did read the freaking manual then spam the forum asking how to grandfather their rings so they can sell them.
Used in the Joueur du Grenier's review of the game based on Airwolf, at the end of his "guide on how to get angry at your computer" skit:
JdG: But if you want to avoid all that, just read the fucking manual!
In Game Grumps, it's common for either Jon and Ego to ignore tutorials (sometimes intentionally) and then complain about not knowing what to do.
The most infamous moment of this was during their playthrough of Milky Way Wishes, where they skip the tutorial and fail to learn the core gameplay mechanic. This leads to them insulting the game for the better part of a half hour and calling it many synonyms for shitty, only discovering the main gameplay mechanic by accident.
The second most egregious example was when playing Sonic the Hedgehog (2006). After defeating Egg Genesis as Sonic, you are automatically warped to a lake. The entrance to Tropical Jungle is in the middle of the lake, and a Hint Mark reminds you of an underused gameplay mechanic that would let you cross it. The Grumps completely ignore the hint mark, walk away from the level entrance, and proceed to wander around the (at the time unnecessary) ruins for about twenty minutes, only realizing their mistake once they decide to read the strategy guide.
Later, the Grumps spent the entire first Naughty Bear video complaining about not knowing what to do because they talked over the narration telling them to burn the present. They addressed it in the 2nd video.
Steam Train has this problem as well, with the Doctor Who episode in particular drawing comparisons to DarkSydePhil.
This has cropped up again in the Steam Train playthrough of They Bleed Pixels. Even worse, they spend a lot of time complaining about the game forcing a tutorial and control instructions on them (which are written on the game's walls throughout the first level), only to then forget certain actions that they can perform, most notably completely forgetting they can duck to avoid enemy attacks, and Ross completely ignoring the instructions written on the walls on how to open certain doors.
Twilight: Nothing's illegal if it's for science! Spike: Isn't that what you said when you tried to clone that burrito? Twilight: How was I supposed to know they'd turn into super-intelligent evil mutants that haunt us to this very day? Spike: Because that's what it said in the instruction book. Twilight: Shut up, Spike.
In one episode of The Simpsons, Homer attempts to build a barbecue grill, but he drops the English-language instructions into the pool of cement he had started, and is forced to follow the French instructions ("Le grille?! WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?!") After a few minutes of frustration, he gives up and tries to do it by himself, predictably leaving behind a jumbled mess (which, incidentally, becomes a critically-acclaimed piece of modern art among the Springfield art community).
One episode of The Fairly Oddparents had the use of the computer delayed by over 150 years because no one would read the manual (or anything else). Timmy hid the deed to a town in the old computer manual, where it remained undiscovered until he came to pick it up.
When Wubbzy gets a pet Fleegle, he throws away the manual because he thinks he won't need it. If he'd read the manual, he would have known that feeding a Fleegle candy causes it to grow exponentially.
Or that feeding it a sandwich causes it to multiply.
In Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, the penguins wonder about a warning light in the plane they're flying. Skipper asks for the manual... and smashes the light bulb with it. "Problemo solved."
One episode of Kim Possible begins with Dr. Drakken stealing a Weather Control Machine for his latest evil plan, only to discover that he has no idea how to operate it. His sidekick Shego eventually convinces him to go back and steal the manual as well.
In the tv moviePhineas and Ferb The Movie: Across the 2nd Dimension, after Perry's cover is blown and the boys find out their pet platypus is actually a secret agent, he gives them a pamphlet which an upset Phineas immediately throws away. Had he read it, he would have found out that Perry kept his identity a secret because he would have to leave them otherwise. It says a lot that Phineas and Ferb forgave and fought alongside Perry even without knowing.
Goof Troop uses both the unwilling and unable variations of this trope. If Goofy is involved, you can bet he will read the manual wrong, which usually but not always brings along a "How To" Narrator who will berate Goofy for making mistakes. Sometimes we get to see the results of his manual-reading gone wrong. On the other hand, if PJ is involved, whoever he's talking to (Max or Pete) will dismiss his sound advice to read the manuals (or similar things like gauges) which invariably leads to disaster.