When you work at the Information Desk in a public library, you get asked every kind of question imaginable and then some. Last week, an elderly gentleman asked my colleague and I whether the library had a dress code for its employees. We asked why he wanted to know and the gentleman said that he wondered if my skirt was too short and, thus, in violation of the dress code. I am 49 years old. My skirt was not too short. It was above my knees, but, believe me, everything was covered. I was wearing maroon tights and flat Mary Jane shoes, which may have created the visual impression that my skirt was shorter than it was. I often wear boots, which reduces the amount of leg I’m “exposing,” so that might have been part of what was going on. But, still.
My colleague was awesome about laughing this off and reassuring the gentleman that, in fact, I was not violating the dress code. I pretty much didn’t bite. Often, these types of patrons want to engage you in some kind of discussion that only lead to awkwardness, at best, so I’ve acquired some skills at sidestepping this kind of debate.
After the gentleman left (and seemed disappointed that we hadn’t taken the bait and discussed the pros and cons of short skirts, dress codes, etc. with him), my colleague asked me what the weirdest question was that I had ever been asked while on desk. One was, “How do you like being a woman? Do you ever wish you were a man?” My co-worker said someone came up to the desk once and asked, “Do you have a brick in your toilet?” But, topping that, was, “Are you circumcised?”
Just think about that. Do YOU work in a job where people think it’s okay to come up and ask you random, personal questions? We get them all the time. “Do you have kids?” “Don’t you think they should impeach Obama?” “Don’t you wish you could kick all the homeless people out of the library?” “Where do you live?” “That woman over there, don’t you think she should do a better job of watching her kids?”
A lot of the time, people just want us to agree with them, on whatever topic currently matters to them. They want someone to concur with them, reassure them that they are not alone. Today, I can already tell, will be one of those days. I guarantee that a huge number of people will come into the library and ask me whether I’ve heard the news about Osama Bin Laden. They’ll want me to engage in some type of patriotic fist pumping. They’ll be disappointed if I don’t match their fervor. What I’ve learned, though, is that I need to acknowledge what has been said without any kind of agreement or disagreement. I cannot engage with these people. I have to smile and vaguely nod my head, or maybe shake it from side to side in a kind of “Isn’t that something?” sort of way. You have no idea how difficult and exhausting this is (unless you already do this).
So, today, if you come into my library and you notice that my eyes are glazed over and I appear to be avoiding making any real contact with the public, you’ll know why. I simply can’t engage in the equivalent of a “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” chant, no matter how many people want me to. I will, however, be happy to tell you that I do, in fact, have a brick in my toilet.