How to deal with people without actually, you know, dealing with people.

I never made this particular training session.  In part it was because I was too busy with certain deadlines.  The session was provided by some outside crowd, some consultancy firm that give advice to – well, to people like us, people whose job it is to help other people find stuff.  The title of the session was ‘The Reference Interview’ – which is a very fancy was of saying ‘How to help somebody find something without wasting their time’ I guess.

As I say I was too busy to attend, but I heard a good account of what went on from a couple of colleagues.

“Do you know what the first no-no is?” said one co-worker of mine over coffee the other day.  “The first thing that they told us you must absolutely never say to any library user?  You must never tell them they ‘look lost’.”

Gulp.  That’s usually the first thing I say: “Hi, you look lost”.  In principle it probably is wrong.  It’s probably better to be positive and encouraging, rather than say something that will probably make them feel more embarrassed than they already are.  But very often people do look lost.  And what’s worse, they seem embarrassed for having to seek help.

Another thing I often say to people who are obviously looking for something they can’t find is: “are you in trouble there”?    Probably another no-no – I mean it’s not as though the bank has foreclosed on them or they’ve fallen afoul of the law (I hope).

Of course we love you. Now get the hell out of here.

But at the end of the day the important thing is that a) they find what they need and b) they don’t feel that they’ve committed some unpardonable social gaffe by having to ask a simple question – so that the next time they need help, they won’t have to think twice about asking for it.

Anyhoo, I digress.  The highly-paid consultants from the firm of AngloNormanton and WaspBury, or whatever they’re called, very emphatically told my co-workers that we  should never, ever say anything so patronising to a library user as “you look lost”.  That we should instead be positive and courteous.  Then what happened?

The door of the meeting room opened, and someone put their head around.  They looked, well, lost.  They asked: “Excuse me, is this the (name of postgraduate briefing session that was taking place elsewhere)?”

And the salaried HR professional from the double-barrel-named firm who’d come to teach us how to be positive and courteous sniffed haughtily, shot them a withering glance and barked: “No it isn’t.


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