things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #16: my least favourite library customers

I must preface this post with a happy disclaimer: I love library customers. I love helping them. I love giving them a good feeling about the library. I value great customer service and I love to provide it. At least 90% of our customers are polite and appreciative. Perhaps another 5% are developmentally or socially disabled, and may or may not be conventionally polite. No problem. The other five percent is not a big deal.

Another preface: I am always very patient and polite. Some of you know about an incident when I lost my temper with a customer - with good reason! a dangerously neglected baby! - but I used that experience as a learning opportunity, and I've never come close to doing that again. I've perfected the facial expression and body language that doesn't agree but doesn't challenge: the tight semi-smile, the slight shrug, the noncommittal head-tilt, the raised eyebrows. A kind of "whatever you say, you won't get a rise out of me" kind of face.

So when I tell you these are my least favourite customers, you can be sure of two things: one, they are a very minor part of my job, and two, I keep my feelings well hidden. But I do need to vent!

Least Favourite Customer #1: The Unbeliever

Unbeliever: I'm here to pick up a recreation pass for my father.

L: I'm afraid we don't have recreation passes here. What kind of pass is it, maybe I can help you find the correct place to get it.

Un: No, it is here. The email said I can pick it up at any community centre.

L: I see. This is not a community centre. There is the Recreation & Parks department across the way, but they close at 4:30. [It is now 8:45, 15 minutes before closing.] Can I get the name of the pass so I can check for you?

Un: No! It said any community centre! It said I could pick one up here!

L: I'm sorry, sir, but this is not a community centre. It's a library. We don't have recreation passes here. I'd be happy to--

Un: I am here to pick up a pass! Just give me the pass!

L: Sir, I would be happy to help you if I could. If I had the pass you need, I would certainly give it to you. Could you please tell me--

Un: This! [Pointing frantically at a printed-out email.] This! This!

L: Let me check online and see what I can find. [I Google the name of the pass, find the page immediately, and turn my monitor so Un can see it.] Here is the list of community centres where you can pick up the pass. Do you live nearby? The closest one--

Un: Right here! [Frantically stabbing the screen with his finger.] Right here, it says I can come here! Right here!

L: That's the Burnhamthorpe Recreation Centre. That's on Burnhamthorpe near Dixie.

Un: No, not that, not that! Scroll down! Scroll down!

L: These are all the community centres in Mississauga. It looks like you can pick up that pass at any of those, or at the Recreation and Parks department across the way [I show him where that is], but they do close at 4:30.

Un: [Muttering] Oh. OK. [Walks away.]

[Internal only: Don't you think if I had the pass I would freaking give it to you???]

Least Favourite Customer #2: The Ranter

I saw a Ranter just this morning, moments after we opened for the day.

L: Good morning, how may I help you?

Ranter: I don't have a question, just a general comment. Did you see the article in the paper about the decline of math scores?

L: [External facial composure, noncommittal look and slight shrug. Internal eye-rolling. I recognize a Ranter and I know my goal is to get rid of him as soon as possible. If he baits me into discussion, I'm sunk.]

Ranter: What do you think of that? What do you make of a society that doesn't teach kids the basics? I mean, we have 9, 10, 11 year old kids using calculators, punching buttons! That doesn't teach you anything! No one learns the basics anymore!

L: [Quietly] I wouldn't really know what is taught. [Internal: Why are you telling me this????]

R: Let me ask you, do you have any kids in the school system anymore? [Whole lotta assumptions going on there!]

L: [slightest shrug] I've been seeing stories about declining test scores all my life. I don't put too much stock in it.

R: Right, right. Around here, we have all the Asian families, they send their kids to Kumon, where they drill, drill, drill, and they get the high math scores.

L: [External: smile gone, replaced by slight look of inquiry and waiting] [Internal: Where are we going with this? How loud is this guy going to be, and what will he say about "the Asians"?]

R: Do you see the names of the kids who win the math and science prizes? They're all Asian. You don't see one Canadian kid on that list.

L: [slight smile] Those children are Canadian, too.

R: Yes, of course, of course they are Canadian. But you get my point, right? You know what I'm saying?

L: [tight lipped, nod] I believe I do.

R: All right then.

Ranter is not always racist. But Ranter comes to the desk only to rant, to announce, to declaim.

Should I feel sorry for him because he has no one who will listen and he must resort to Ranting to strangers? Maybe, maybe not. But really, all I think at the time is, Why are you telling me this????


allan said...

What about that guy awhile back who was at a computer trying to bait you into an argument? What category did he fall into?

laura k said...

I think he was one of the mentally ill. He thought the error messages were directed at him. Only him.

John F said...

Suggested strategy for the Ranter:

L: Let me check Google for you sir. Ah here we are. [points to screen] Here is a list of local Tim Hortons for you to hold court in. This one is even near a Legion!

impudent strumpet said...

It would be entertaining to interpret the Ranter's statements as a request for resources to help his children with math. And just start talking, in a brisk, bustling, helpful tone, not letting him get a word in edgewise. "So you're looking for something to help your children improve their math scores? Good for you, sir! Let me see what's available. We have a wide range of different resources that use different approaches and are suitable for all ages. You say you think drilling techniques are more effective? Here's what we have in stock at this branch that meets those criteria, and there are others that you can put on hold or pick up at other branches. Let me just print out a list for you, and here are some brochures about our homework help programs. Just have get started with this, show it to your kids, see what works, and please don't hesitate to come back if you need anything else. Have a fantastic day! Next?"

laura k said...

Oh man, I'd love to use either of these responses! I'd have to wait for the day before I quit or retire. :)

deang said...

I've had public arts center information desk jobs before and something had similar things happen. I would usually just try to change the subject as quickly as possible to something actually related to the facility we're standing in, especially when the speaker started veering toward racism, like with the Asian comment from your ranter. I learned that whenever someone started mentioning "home schooling" it was time to get away from them; a right-wing screed was sure to follow, with the added irritation of them thinking that because I'm a white male I would be simpatico. Sounds like you handled your ranters well.

laura k said...

with the added irritation of them thinking that because I'm a white male I would be simpatico.

Yes! (And grrr...) This must be known to every non-racist white person. The racist assumes that they can say anything to you, because you're white.

And of course, the fact that they wouldn't say the same thing if a person of colour was around doesn't mean they're racist. "People are so sensitive these days..." Yeah.

laura k said...

But oh yeah, changing the subject. Does that work? Does the ranter go with the subject change?

deang said...

The few ranters I tried changing the subject with seemed to look bewildered at first but would usually follow my lead or beg off to go to whatever function they were there for. If redirecting them didn't work, I feigned having important work to do and that always worked, since I really did have important work to do that they were usually interrupting.

One time when I actually got more engaged with a racist than usual, a white male right-winger was ranting to me about how movies and TV programs today discriminate against white males and have people of color dominating everything. I really don't watch TV, but I knew he was just repeating lies and misrepresentations he'd picked up from Fox News and right-wing radio, so I questioned him: "Do you mean that if I turned on TV tonight or went to a movie, most of the characters would be Black or brown and they'd be discriminating against white people? I don't think I've seen that." The guy was left sputtering, "You know what I mean!" and stomped off. That's the most direct I've ever been with one of these types, but I made my point and succeeded in making him go away.

laura k said...

Awesome. Well done.

I've used a similar tactic in other situations. When I hear something about "those people," I'll say, "Really? I haven't found that to be case." But fortunately I have very little opportunity to test this at work.

johngoldfine said...

I don't see why these two bozos would not fit into the mentally-ill category. Mentally-ill people notoriously drive the people around them nuts, as these two were attempting, however unconsciously, to do with you. Neither was acting in a way appropriate to the social context.

I also have to take issue with your characterization of the Unbeliever as an unbeliever! Rarely have I read a description of such faith in the ultimate rationality of the universe we find ourselves in, despite the efforts of librarians to obfuscate the certainties and confuse the faithful as to the Existence of the Holy Pass. This fellow was a True Believer.


laura k said...

I almost wrote True Believer! Seriously!

We don't want the category of mental illness to be so elastic that it encompasses the merely annoying. Or do we?