Friday, November 21, 2014

Update on engagement rings

One of the frustrations of working at a public service desk is that you are kind of trapped into listening to people who don't actually need help (at least not help that you can give them), they just want to talk to you. Usually this takes the form of legal and medical complaints, but the form I find the most unpleasant is being hit on. It doesn't seem to matter what your attitude is, what gender you are, or how you look--as far as I can tell, everyone in customer service experiences it at least sometimes. So I am already primed to cringe whenever a patron starts asking me about my personal life or commenting on my appearance. You start being able to see the signs of unreciprocated flirting pretty early in the interaction.

A while ago I wrote a post speculating on whether getting a fake engagement ring would cut down on this unwanted attention. I never actually bought a ring solely for the purpose of deterring flirtatious patrons. However, about halfway between that post and now, I actually got engaged and now have a non-fake ring. And it has made a huge difference in how I am treated. A single example from earlier this week: In an interaction that really seemed to be veering toward creepy, I incidentally gestured with my left hand, not as a deliberate way to draw attention to my ring, just to point something out or hand the patron something. Immediately, he stopped what he was saying and said "What a beautiful ring! Are you married?" I said that I was engaged, and he said "Congratulations! Thanks so much for your help!" and walked away.

This is an interesting time to be discussing this issue because at the last American Library Association conference (or maybe two conferences ago) there was a big kerfuffle about conduct at the conference that some people saw as sexual harassment and others didn't. The recriminations and arguments spilled out of the conference to libraryland in general. Various library bloggers posted about it, some at a more reasonable and high-minded level than others, and eventually a "Statement of Appropriate Conduct at ALA conferences" was produced.

The debate basically came down to this: people want to feel safe and comfortable and respected at the conference. But librarians are also very much about academic and intellectual freedom, free speech, and providing access and protection to minority viewpoints. Some people argued that coming down hard on sexual language or other controversial speech went against what librarianship stood for as a profession.

As you can see in the Statement, the ALA basically erred on the side of prohibiting potentially objectionable speech. At a private gathering like a conference, the organization has the right to set its own rules, even if not everyone thinks the rules that were chosen reflect what the organization claims its values are. The more interesting question to me is what library staff should expect, and be expected, to tolerate in a regular work setting. Obviously a patron asking if you are single, asking for your phone number, etc. is not at the same level as some of the statements that were made at the conference and is not necessarily sexual harassment. However, it is rare to find an instance of a library staff member who finds being flirted with, asked out, etc. by a patron to be anything other than unwelcome. Despite this, I have never heard a colleague say to a patron: "Your attention is making me uncomfortable. Please stop talking about my appearance and/or asking about my personal life." I have never seen a policy about when this would or would not be appropriate or allowed.

As happy as I am that I am personally no longer the object of much unwanted attention, it doesn't seem fair that my relationship status (and the fact that the fiancĂ© is a bit traditional and wanted and could afford to buy a ring) should affect my job in this way. What about everyone not wearing a ring? Should every employee be issued a fake wedding ring along with his nametag? Do we need to develop a culture where it is acceptable to tell a patron to cease and desist? Or is this unwanted attention part and parcel of working with the public, and something we just have to try to learn to let go?

I expect this issue is much broader than just a library issue. I'm curious about any thoughts other people might have about their jobs, especially if they work in customer service, or if they had a successful relationship that started with someone being asked out at work.


  1. this gets discussed occasionally on The Society of Librarians Who .... While some (not all) library management seems to be good about stalkers, my impression is that front-line people just put up with being hit on. It makes them uncomfortable, but not to the point where they go to management. Often coworkers step in if it's a persistent problem, but only to free the victim from having to deal with the aggressor, not to tell him (her?) to stop.

  2. I worked full-time at a library for five years, and was engaged for the last four months of that time. I was hit on...not *constantly*, but on a fairly regular basis by men ranging in age from around 16 to around 60. That said, the vast majority of these men were polite, struck up a conversation first, tried to at least *sound* like they liked books, and were gracious when I gently said "no" or flashed my left hand.

    I then moved, got married, and worked retail (bookstore) for four years. I was propositioned weekly, quite often by guys loitering awkwardly in the love and sex aisle trying to look cool. The usual response to "No thanks, I'm married" was a wink and a smarmy "Well, I won't tell if you won't..." One guy even grabbed my hand in order to eyeball my engagement ring and wedding band, because he assumed they were fake and I was only wearing them to defray people like him. I was insulted and sworn at when I continued to say no, called obscene names, and at least twice told that I'd better be careful when walking to my car after we closed. The one and only time Management stepped in was when a man systematically asked out every single female employee in the store under 40, then threatened to drag his chosen girl "into the back and show her what a real man was". In every other situation--obscene comments, following me around the store, promises to wait for me in the parking lot after dark--I was told to smile and be polite to defuse tension, as they were the all-important Paying Customer.