empathy, information, kindness, librarians, strangers

The Ones Who Call

Answering the phone at work is one of my favorite activities. I already like talking on the phone, which is more than many people can say. However, when people call in to the public library (note: I did not say THEIR public library, since we get scores of calls from far, far away), there are good chances the encounter will be positive. This is because:

  1. The caller is likely to be older. Maybe they are physically restricted and can’t make it in, but gosh darn it, they are pleasant on the phone. All it takes is a sweet old lady calling me ‘dear’ and telling me I’ve been ‘so very helpful’ and I am struck with a good mood for at least two hours.
  2. Often, a mobile customer is asking a brief question, ie “are you open?” or “do you have [this book]/a color printer/paper federal tax forms?” and in a ten second interaction, I can provide a solution to their information need. One reason I’m a librarian is that I actively enjoy answering questions and sharing information.
  3. The library employee maintains a healthy amount of control in the event that a customer becomes demeaning or inappropriate. While this does not happen often, in person or on the phone, I treasure the ability to not have to endure verbal abuse for longer than it takes me to say, “sir/ma’am, if you continue to disrespect me like this, I will hang up.”
    • My wise and talented colleague taught me a librarian lesson (our version of life lessons) one day with a customer who wanted to babble with no perceived purpose. She told the man politely, “I’m sorry, I have a customer here and I need to hang up.” And then she did! It was crazy how simple it was to reclaim her time.

That said, phone interactions can go south in many ways. You never know who will call in. There is one frequent caller who asks for various conversions of inches to millimeters and for phone numbers to businesses in the United Kingdom. It is not her questions that rub me the wrong way, but her snappish, pushy tone, and the way she does not believe what I report to her. There are weeks where patients in psychiatric facilities call us and we have to encourage them to call priests or pastors because we cannot answer their questions about sin and forgiveness. There are teens who clearly have not used their cell phones for the purposes of communicating voice-to-voice with other human beings, and people who get angry at us because we can’t hear them due to their poor cell reception.

When I worked in Youth Services, we received many phone calls from one mother whose son visited the library for many hours each school night, and Saturdays, and Sundays. He did not have a cell phone, and she knew to find him there. She called once and asked for her son and when I said sure, I will go get him, she lashed into me. “Why do you know my kid?” The thing about librarians who work with kids is that we get to know them in a safe space: what they like, what they read and what magic makes them who they are. We care about them. This is what makes good youth librarians good at their jobs. I told her that I knew him because he was there every day, and she lost it. She screamed at me about how I was judging her for having to work and not being home with her child. She told me she was tired of us at the library and how if we thought her kid was there too much, she wouldn’t let him go there after school. In between saying that that was not necessary, that of course he is welcome and we all really liked him, she projected all of her guilt and single-parenting issues directly onto me. Though I was conscious I didn’t deserve her misplaced anger, I was still rattled. When she was done berating me, I brought him to the phone to talk to her. Then I took a break to walk it off.

And then there is thank-you-for-taking-my-call guy (TYFTMCG). He earned his moniker because he begins each and every call by verifying the library employee’s name and then thanking us for taking his call. If he is not hard of hearing, he does a very convincing portrayal of someone who is, and he is notorious at our library. An elderly gentleman, he never visits our location. Just calls. All the time.  The first time I had him on the line, he verified my name. “Emory?” “My name is Emily. How can I help you?” “Ah, Emory. Great. Thank you for taking my call.” There is no one on our staff who he does not irritate. After the second call, I memorized the last four digits of his phone number (0241), so I could at least know I was headed into the Emory phone calls, mustering some degree of preparedness.

He asks inane, often un-answerable trivia questions that feel like when your mom asks you “what restaurant did we go to that one time?” or “what is that thing you were talking about that one time when we were at [that restaurant]?” He asks us to repeat our guesses around a dozen times, and often, to spell them, often a dozen times. On one such call, he asked me the name of places where pregnant girls go for counsel. This led to me near-shouting “pregnancy crisis centers!?! Abortion clinics?!!” over and over again. He also doesn’t accept your responses, which means he denies you have found the answer the whole call, and often calls back to try to speak to a different employee.

Many people have competing theories about whether he is annoying on purpose/calls us for crossword clues or Jeopardy questions, but my theory is that he calls us because he probably has dementia and forgets things he has heard about. I believe we are his external memory.

I have been thinking about this man and that boy lately. No one had seen the kid or his mother in a while, and apparently the overdue notices had come back with a forwarding address in another town, where I hope he has a new library with a great youth team. There were many dormant months when we received no TYFTMCG calls. When he called again, I was glad to hear his voice, but I’m worried that we are nearing a time when he won’t call anymore.

The phone is an exercise in kindness, in dedicating your energy to communicating with someone whose body language is absent. One bad customer service call can essentially convince anyone that the person on the other side of the phone is a fool. During my most recent shift, I returned a customer’s voicemail, and concluded my message on her machine by asking her to give us a call back. I started to give the phone number as I have done hundreds of times, paused for an awkward length, and had to conclude by stating I literally forgot our phone number, but she found it before so to try us again.

I aim to grant people as much benefit of the doubt as I hope she gave me listening to that message.

I hope she doesn’t think I’m a terrible employee. I hope she chuckles at my silliness, or understands that everyone has those days. I hope she grants that there are many reasons why the employee could have forgotten. Maybe, for example, she woke up at 6am after 5 hours of sleep, not able to fall back for another couple hours because she is moving in two weeks, breaking up with her lovely boyfriend, and her mind won’t stop, and she was in pain because her neck/shoulder muscles froze from all the tension she’s carrying but she didn’t want to call out to her very-part-time job and she is trying to make the best of the day, though she can neither remember the library’s phone number nor turn her head.

So, yeah. Conversing on the phone is a solid indicator of who a person is in a moment in time. Call your loved ones, call your libraries, call anyone you want to vet before meeting. And be kind.

4 thoughts on “The Ones Who Call”

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