Be Authentic

Lately I’ve really felt a yearning to work more with teens. I recently had the opportunity to booktalk some of Adam Selzer’s books to some fifth grade classes, and it was amazing. To prepare, I asked Adam for some fifth-grade related biographical tidbits to share with the kids. One question was, “What did you think about going into sixth grade?” Adam’s answer was, “Getting to be in a different school than my younger brother.”

When I told the kids this information, I added a personal anecdote about how when I started Kindergarten, my sister paid a girl named Stormy five dollars to play with me, so she (my sister) wouldn’t have to be bothered. I told it with the self-deprecating verve of Louis CK, and half the kids laughed while the other half sort of gasped. It was really quite something to see the kids react to my sad little tale. I think they appreciated how vulnerable I was, while being humorous with it at the same time. It was a true story that they could identify and empathize with, and it really got them on my side for the rest of the presentation.

For another example, after showing the kids some pictures of Adam in fifth and sixth grade (which, man, those pictures are awesome), I wandered off on a tangent about hammer pants, scrunchy socks, rolling one’s jeans, body touch clothing, and stirrup pants.(I may also have sung a bit of, with hand actions, 2 legit 2 quit.) The kids had very little idea what I was talking about, but they (and their teachers) definitely responded to my dorky enthusiasm.

I think this trips up a lot of people when it comes to working with teens. They don’t need–or particularly want–you to be into exactly what they’re into, but they do appreciate if you are into your own thing, and can geek out, and therefore understand the feeling when they’re geeking out about something.

Sometimes your interests will overlap (some eighth graders I know share my enthusiasm for Doctor Who, and like that I know quite a bit about memes) but this definitely is not required to work well with teens. What they respond to is whether or not you’re being authentic, real, and genuine. You might have absolutely not idea what they are rambling on about, but if you’re genuinely excited that they are excited, they’ll keep talking to you, and let you in on what inspires, excites, and amuses them. If you’re fake, it doesn’t matter if you’re faking it about all the things they’re really into, they’re not going to like you. Nobody likes a poseur. It makes people feel like you’re not taking seriously something that’s important to them, and that pisses people off. Teens, especially, have finely tuned bullshit detectors. Don’t force squeals about Justin Bieber if it’s really Michael Buble who really trips your trigger (and don’t try to use teen slang if what you’d actually say is trip your trigger, awesome sauce, or 2 legit 2 quit).

I think that teens need to see people who are fully and confidently themselves, when they are in such a period of flux, growth, and discovery. At the very least, it’s a model of interaction that I’ve been able to use with success. What about you? Whether you work with teens or not,  are you able to be as much your authentic self when you’re at work as possible? Or do you feel the need for an elaborate workplace persona?

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5 thoughts on “Be Authentic

  1. I worked with teens a lot in my last job, and I found that being myself definitely worked best in trying to bond with the kids. The adults they liked least were the ones who looked like they were trying the hardest. Now, though, working with babies and toddlers, I feel like I do work more on trying to have a persona. I’m never not myself, but it’s as though I turn certain aspects of my personality on or off depending on the age of the child I’m talking to. I have a certain warm tone I use when addressing the little ones, but then I’ll turn to talk to a teen or tween, and I’ll use my normal speaking voice. But I do think I am still mostly myself, and that seems to work well for me.

    • This touches on something that I couldn’t quite work into the post–the idea of personas (which I think I’ve written about before). I definitely interact differently with babies, toddlers, preschoolers, grade schoolers, and teens, but it’s essentially tweaks to my approach and my core personality–goofy, irreverent, yet devoted to good experiences and quality information–remains fundamentally unchanged. But of course when talking to babies my voice pitches up (like every other human), and when I talk to teens I am much more insouciant. But no matter which Julie I am putting forward, I make sure it is a genuine one.

      Thanks for the great comment!

  2. I agree with you very strongly! I’ve frequently been told – in library school and in the library world afterwards – that we need to “relate to teens” i.e. know all the popular culture, everything that’s in, be young and hip, etc. etc. I don’t really think that’s true. The kids love gasping at my lack of knowledge of their particular interests and enlightening me as to “who’s hot.” We’ve had impromptu “what was the coolest place you ever visited” discussions, that degenerated into “the grossest place you’ve ever visited” (my fault for talking about my Greyhound bus trips). We have a lot of problems with middle schoolers at our library due to lack of staff, programming, etc. but when I have time to chat with them or ask them for help they’re always enthusiastic and interested. What’s the point of continually telling the teens in school, books, etc. to “be yourself” and then not being authentic yourself?

    • I think having a passing knowledge of all pop culture is handy (especially when finding items for kids who mumble), but no, we don’t have to be into it or pretend we’re passionate about it. We need to be passionate about their passion, and let them teach us about what they’re into.

      And yeah, just like preschoolers, teens sometimes like it when we are dumb or play dumb. Getting to outsmart a librarian can be a great feeling for any kid, and letting them tell me about something–even if I do happen to know about it–goes a long way in creating a relationship with a kid.

  3. Well, crap . . . I had a big and well thought out comment all typed up and then wordpress got all tetchy about being logged in. Now the comment is gone forever and I am too lazy to type it all out again in its entirety . . . not to mention having terribad memory. Anyway . . . here we go.

    I agree with your wholeheartedly. Anyone, regardless of age, is going to be sensitive to whether or not you are being genuine in your service to them. Whether that service involves answering a reference question to something as simple as everyday communication. Being true to who you are greatly impacts your patron’s sense of satisfaction with you and your library.

    Specifically in regards to being genuine with teens . . . there is no single thing that has been more important to the success of my interaction with my teens than being honest. Is it helpful to be into the same things your teens are? Of course! But only if you truly have an interest in such things. Espousing your love of Fluttershy and all things MLP related will get you absolutely nowhere with your teens if you don’t genuinely have an interest in ponies, whether they be little or not. If they are geeking out over something, never feign interest to geek out with them. As you say, merely having the capacity to geek out about something is what is important. Well, that and having the sense of self to be able to geek out about something in front of your teens. Being able to empathize with how your teens are feeling and vice versa is a huge step in creating greater communication between you.

    Related to the above is not being afraid to check out the things your teens talk about. Don’t condescend to their interests by assuming it will be sophomoric or somehow below your interests. You are doing your teens and yourself a great disservice with that attitude. Over the years, my teens have exposed me to so many amazing things through talking with them and actually exploring the things they geek out over. Great games, great music, and even great suggestions for food can filter their way from them to you if you only allow yourself to explore. Just knowing you checked out what a they were geeking out over the day before is enough to raise you several levels on their appreciation/validity scale. And let me tell you, if your exploration of that thing they were geeking out over results in you also geeking out . . . nothing makes them more happy.

    All that said, we all take on a certain persona from the moment we walk in the library doors. That can not be denied. Our professional person does not exactly line up with our personal person. When my teens are discussing something that segues nicely and hilariously into something that happened at last week’s Cards Against Humanity game with my friends doesn’t mean that is something that would be appropriate to share with those teens. And I certainly wouldn’t talk of my love of Rumchata when one of my teens discusses the tasty horchata to be had at the papusaria down the street. While that seem more like a filter than an actual persona, it DOES have an affect on how your teens see you. This is fine and not antithetical to being honest and true to yourself.

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