Kinder Words

It’s the quote above that has inspired this Sunday’s blog entry. When I read it, I immediately thought of a Michael Stephen presentation slide featuring a quote from Kate Sheehan, “Kindness is our chief export” (or something along those lines since I can’t find the slide again). In reading Kate’s post that invokes the statement from two years ago, she wrote at the time:

At Computers in Libraries, I closed my portion of Darien Library’s presentation by saying that “kindness is our chief export.” Of course, information is sort of important too, but I think for many of us, the two are irrevocably intertwined. This is how we know how to help people. Without the kindness, we lose much of our value to our community. When I am in need of a break from public facing time, I often say that I am “out of nice” for the day. I’m not out of the ability to find information, but on its own, it doesn’t do much for my organization or our users.

And what of kindness to each other? When we step back to look at the big picture of libraryland, do we forget the incredible amount of effort put forth by legions of dedicated library workers? Are we forgetting to encourage each other’s hearts? Darien Library has seen a huge number of librarians come through lately. Granted, they are a self-selecting group, but they are all people with the right intentions.

Intentions are too frequently overlooked. When we photograph bad signage or criticize seemingly outdated policies, are we encouraging self-awareness amongst librarians? I think that is the intention- to encourage discussion and to work together to figure out how to best serve our patrons, but it’s easy to slide into finger-pointing without looking at motivation. We’re all going to have bad policies or make foolish decisions at some point, but our intentions have to count somewhere. The tremendous amount of hard work and huge number of good hearts on the front lines of every library in the world have to count.

When I was sitting in the jury deliberation room waiting with my fellow jurors to be called into court, I realized that what I was about to hear was the culmination of hundreds of hours of work and effort. The accident was five years ago, the depositions that were referenced were from two years ago, and the people attached to the case (lawyers and litigants alike) were about to present that to eight strangers. From all of that, we would hear and base our decision that would make a difference in the lives of everyone involved on about eight to ten hours of testimony and evidence presentation. That’s an awful long time to work towards something, and it impressed upon me the seriousness of the civic duty. While some of my fellow jurors made jokes (some that I would find cruel), I found myself moving in the other direction toward the somber decorum of the court. The ‘kindness’ here would be to refrain from being dismissive as there was very real money involved in the suit. (As it went, it ended in a mistrial so I didn’t get to see or hear everything. But that’s another story.)

I can appreciate the “out of nice” sentiment that Kate references in her post; I too have had days where I would just like to hide in the office and focus on my off-public desk work. This week certainly tested it when I returned to work on Thursday and Friday. I had a modest pile of messages from patrons who insisted that they could only talk to me about their issue or concern, a decent amount of emails (we usually forgo email in favor of face to face, being a small branch and all), and a pile of time sensitive publicity that needed to go out. That’s only what existed on my desk; I needed to catch up on the various goings-on at the library, especially with a particular problem patron who had been creating disturbances. Toss in some interruptions and it creates an excellent recipe for frustration. (And as the air went out on Friday, add in an unmitigated building temperature rise.)

But, as the entertainment saying announces, the show must go on.

What I’ve learned over the last couple of years is a couple of tricks to put me in a nice mood when I’m having trouble summoning up the energy to do so. First, smile at everyone. By activating those smile muscles, you can actually trick the brain into switching to a better mood as the mind reacts to the actions of the body. It is a matter of actually smiling, not just setting your teeth and opening your lips. There are other muscles in the face that get involved in a honest smile.

Second, in smiling at everyone, people will tend to smile back at you. Our brains are trained to mimic the facial expressions we see in other people. It’s why when you think of a parent or sibling or special person in your life smiling you will involuntarily smile at the thought. Even for a fleeting moment, it will be there. You’ve now taken your mind trick on the road in improving the moods of the people you are smiling at. Combined with a “good day/morning/afternoon/ evening” and it can make that first contact with a patron start on an up note.

Third, and some may disagree with me on this, but I believe that I am in fact paid to be nice to people. As customer service is part of the whole librarian deal, I think that good customer service requires kindness, compassion, and understanding. This is not an invitation to be used as a doormat, but just a recognition that those qualities work in our favor as well to diffuse some anxieties and tensions people may be harboring. I also fully realize that it is not easy to be nice to people who are ornery, angry, or downright obnoxious; I would not tolerate such disrespect either. It’s a fine balance but I believe starting with kindness is the best opening to a conversation with patrons.

And it is possibly the best way to start a conversation with a peer as well on an issue, policy, or position. It starts by asking simply, “Why?” It no longer surprises me when I hear or read someone going off on their own tangent as to why they think something has been done, put into place, or otherwise established when it is clear they have not asked for further clarification. In the rush to offer their own opinion, they have forsaken the basic inquiries to explore the underlying reasons and rationale for a decision or policy. I’m fairly certain I’m guilty of it myself, but I keep working on it as an ongoing process. A little more exploration and a little less pontificating might do some good for unraveling the bad signs and policies that our professional peers end up creating.

Will being kind solve the issues of libraries of all types? No, but it sure won’t hurt it either. In the end, it won’t matter how many questions you answered or how many books or DVDs or database articles you found; it will be how the person felt during the transaction. The reputation economy is alive and growing; it doesn’t hurt for the library to be part of it as a leader in the kindness commodity.

(Note: While I was writing this blog post, Jenny Reiswig pointed out that I had a typo in the original graphic; I had uploaded it to my blog and Flickr as I was writing this. Thanks Jenny!)

3 thoughts on “Kinder Words

  1. Absolutely true about the effect of smiling when you don’t feel like it. I use this on myself, especially at work where it counts. It’s amazing how that mirror effect just raises your spirits and improves your patron interactions. Smiling forces you out of yourself – whatever’s bugging you becomes a thing that you can smile or laugh at, if you’re not too depressed to start with, that is! As Louis said:

  2. Yes! I see too many librarians approaching their work with the public as a way to show someone what can’t be done. Even a few minutes with someone who treats them as the most delightful encounter of the day is enough to bring someone back for more.

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