A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

The Eyes Have It

by on November 20, 2012

Most of the tweens who come in to the library seem to have trouble establishing and maintaining eye contact.  I often observe them turning slightly away from me and glancing at the shelves or down at a piece of paper.  Even when they really need help from a librarian they cannot force themselves to walk right up, establish eye contact, and ask politely for information.  Obviously this is not true for every tween who comes in, but often enough that I see the pattern in their behavior.

I could put forth a dozen unsubstantiated theories about why most tweens do not want to look me in the eye.

1.  It is because they are so accustomed to looking at their electronic devices that they find human eye contact uncomfortable.
2.  All modern people are becoming detached from one another and do not know how to interact anymore.
3.  The young adolescent’s frontal cortex is still not fully developed and they are unsure of how to act in this situation.
4.  Tweens and teens are just rude and disrespectful in general….

None of these theories has any merit, especially not the last one.

Truly, it doesn’t matter why they act this way, the only thing that matters is how we respond to them.  Asking tweens to turn and look at us and repeat the question is too aggressive.  Demanding that they speak up and quit mumbling and repeat the question is not appropriate–unless you’re a drill sergeant in the military.

As a public librarian I’ve had to sharpen my listening skills to tune in to what tweens are saying.  Look for cues in the context and watch body language.  Don’t be demanding and irritated if you cannot understand what they have said to you. Don’t stare at them as you pass by.  Wander by where they are congregating and ask if they need help with anything.  Make a friendly comment about the magazine they are looking at, and walk away so that it doesn’t seem like you are watching them. Never correct their manners—that is not the role of the librarian.  If absolutely necessary, ask them kindly to repeat what they’ve said.  Ignore what may seem to be rudeness.

In reality, most tweens are intimidated when interacting with adults and that can be expressed in shyness or in what looks like surliness to most of us.  Always assume that their behavior is not malicious, and keep trying to reach out to them.  That is  the only way to build bridges of communication.  It is not always easy, but once you have built relationships with the tweens who come in to your library, it is enormously rewarding.