Did you hear what I said?

My school just hosted our first in-person conference day since October of 2019, and since I graduated out my previous advisees from the Class of 2021 in May, this was my first time meeting many of the families of my new group of Class of 2025 advisees. In preparation, I watched the NAIS webinar “Less Stress, More Success: Managing Back-to-School Nights and Parent Conferences for Maximum Impact” with Michael Thompson and Robert Evans. One of my main takeaways was reaffirming something I already believe. Take people seriously. They may be anxious or excited; either way, their feelings are real and valid to them. I will also put in a plug for the book Hopes and Fears Thompson and Evans released this summer. It is some of the most directly helpful professional reading I’ve done in years, and I can share with folks the five pages of notes I took as a result, particularly the toolkits that are geared towards helping educators communicate more constructively with families.

Which brings me to a conversation I had with one of my senior Capstone students, someone who is in the library 90 minutes each day building her research project. She and I talk multiple times each day, about academic sources, about college plans, about theater. One day I found a book on her Capstone I thought she’d find fascinating, but I was feeling pretty lazy as she sat twenty feet away.

Me: “Hey, can you come here for a sec?”
Student: “Yeah, yeah. I know what this is about. My 20 overdue books.”

Of my passions about library work, tracking down overdues is not in the top twenty. I run overdue notes once a month and then ramp up my attempts in December and May to talk to students directly to get the books back on the shelves. Needless to say, I don’t sit around on a random Tuesday stalking students who choose to study in the library and questioning their reading habits. My thought process was more, “I’m thrilled you’ve taken all the Psychology books home and are reading a ton. You’re a fabulous fit for Capstone.” But I can see how she might think, “I have a huge piles of books I need to return but keep forgetting, and why can I never remember to bring them in and why do I never remember. I just shouldn’t borrow books…”

Whenever the receptionist calls me to ask a student to stop by the front desk and they and their friends give the inevitable “oooh you’re in trouble” face, I remind them that I was called down earlier this year because a mom had baked cookies for a club I sponsor and had to wait until they were cool enough to pack for travel. So yes it could be detention but it could also be cookies. Cookies!

I’m counting on the inimitable Dottie Smay to confirm this next example. During the AISL Boston conference, we were eating at a bistro in the North End. When the waiter found out we were librarians, he was quick to share his memories of those dreaded buildings. He had been shushed as a child. Repeatedly. And I might be conflating library stereotypes but I’m pretty sure there was a strong association with fines and money collection. Dottie, ever the library cheerleader, offered to pay him an additional tip if he would walk through the doors of a library in the next year. Have you seen the Boston Public Library’s central branch? No dice. That negative connotation was just too strong.

 In our professional and personal lives, we’re all bringing our own histories—those hopes and fears—into the ways we approach each day and the interactions within. The words we say matter, as does the tone we use, and the subtext the listener hears. Returning to the notion of overdue notifications, my student’s response to receiving a note is grossly disproportionate to the occasion, even with the old text, “The following title is currently checked out to you. Please return to the library. If you believe you are receiving this note in error, see Mrs. Pommer.” Their worry over receiving such notes, however, did not correlate with a prompt book return rate.  On the listserv last spring, I shared how I changed my notifications.

The library is trying to locate all materials before inventory this spring.
Please return this slip to your advisor with one of the following options circled:
Thank you for using the library! Mrs. Pommer

While there were still students concerned I was judging them for keeping out books, I found many more students were perfectly willing to let me know the status of a book — including that it was lost — than ever before. Giving students the opportunity to explain themselves, even in a basic way, made a huge difference in their engagement.

Thoughts from others about ways their tone has been perceived differently than their intentions or how they’ve changed up procedures based on the responses they had received?

4 thoughts on “Did you hear what I said?

  1. This is such a thought-provoking post, Christina. I’ve definitely also encountered students (and faculty!) who are reacting and responding to something other than what I thought I was saying. I love how you changed your overdue slips.
    I don’t know if I’ve done deliberate work on this, but it’s definitely something I think about when communicating with faculty. I think sometimes teachers are worried about being judged for doing research “the wrong way.” I’ve tried to do as much “yes, and” framing when talking with teachers about their ideas – acknowledging that I want to build on their ideas, not reject/replace them.

  2. This is such an important reminder of how we communicate matters! I know all of us are striving to combat the negative stereotype that librarians are punitive beings. I was able to eliminate overdue notices and I think that helped but I still get the guilt-ridden apologies when an item is returned overdue. Thank you for sharing your insight with us!

  3. Thanks for the responses! It’s really funny because shortly after I posted we had advisory and we were talking about good listening. Linguist Deborah Tannen came up because we were discussing when the group felt like they were being interrupted rather than interpreting that their conversational partner was eager to participate in the conversation. She coined the term cooperative overlap to describe the ways that some people show engagement by jumping in a conversation compared with those who are turn takers. (https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/conversation-style-interruption-cooperative-overlapping.html) That reframing works perfectly in this situation.

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