But after a year and a half of working the reference desk at the public library, I've discovered the hardest thing about working with the general public is not working with the irate and unpleasant patrons but it's with the ones that are too nice.
When I say "too nice" I'm not talking about uber-friendly or annoyingly cheerful people. I'm not talking about cute kids coming up to talk (even though I'm on the 'adult' side, I still get some fun little visitors).
I'm talking about people (unfortunately most often men) that seem to misunderstand the difference between being polite/helpful and something more personal.
I've had to learn the skill of politely and non-offensively turning down offers of dates. Or politely accepting small gifts without any indication that it establishes a personal connection. Or ignoring puppy dog eyes as they follow my progress as I walk across the room. I've had to let someone know that I am not available to sit and chat with them at my desk for an hour as they relate "there I was" stories.
There is a fine line, I've discovered, between showing enough politeness and interest in order to get people to let you know what kind of information or help they really need and appearing friendly enough that they want to tell you their life story. I didn't realize that reference librarians are stand-ins for counselors and bartenders. Even learning how to toe this line I have heard about:
- Criminal backgrounds
- "Friends" who need extradition laws for other states
- Marriage woes
- Divorce woes
- Child custody battles
- Gender confusion
- Dead relatives
- Living relatives
- Parenting disasters
- Financial difficulties
The question I have found the most awkward so far was a lady with an Irish accent (notable because it's unusual here) and her two small children (boy and girl about 9 and 5, respectively). She came up and in her lovely, lilting accent asked, "I can't figure out the computer system. Where are you books about rape and incest?" I blinked twice and then found some things that would work and led her over to them. I was hesitant to ask too many question about who/why it was for since her children were right there. My internal monologue was on a roll, though. "Who is this for? You or your kids? We don't have a How-To on that!"
The ultimate goal is to not show judgement or undue curiosity for anybody that asks me questions. My job is to help them find the information they need, no matter how uncomfortable it is for either/both of us.
But, that nonjudgmental demeanor, combined with politeness, has its pitfalls with those who are so unused to kindness that they misjudge it and take it for flirting. But I guess if I had no challenges, this job wouldn't be nearly so interesting.
I was thinking of getting a shirt that expresses it clearly, though.
What do you think?