Picking up on social cues

I would like to think that I’m usually pretty good at picking up on people’s moods.  As the receptionist in a counseling center I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good at deciphering when a student has an academic or personal problem. 

However, I recently had an experience that made my question my abilities.  It was definitely a learning experience.

A student, I’ll call her Wanda (I do not know her real name), walked up to me and asked if we had a catalog for one of our local 4-year universities.  I said that we did and pointed her to the direction that they were housed.  Because there was someone behind her I said that I would be over in a minute to make sure she was finding everything all right.

The people behind her walked up. It was a staff person with a student that was hoping to touch base with one of our counselors that was done with appointments for the day.  I told them that they could go ahead and poke their heads into his office.

Then Wanda came up to me in tears telling me that she just wanted to talk to someone briefly as well and that I was discriminating against her.  Luckily we had another counselor that was just wrapping up with someone and she helped Wanda.

However, I was very much taken aback by Wanda’s comment.  I did not feel that I was being discriminatory because Wanda had not asked to meet with a counselor.  But I have to be honest, I am curious.  I don’t feel that I treated her any differently than I treat anyone else, but is that true?  Wanda was a latino woman.  As a white woman did she feel I was behaving in a superior manner?  I certainly hope not.  Was is possibly an age issue?  Wanda looked to be at least 15 years my senior.  Maybe she thought I was being uppity.

I have gleaned a few nuggets of wisdom from this experience that I am hoping will be helpful to you as well.

1) If you are in a setting where you need to “check in” before meeting with someone, try to give the front desk staff as much information as possible.  It can definitely be uncomfortable, but they are trying to help you. 

2) If you are in a situation where you’re the one asking questions, try to do so in a sensitive manner.  In this situation, perhaps I should have double checked with Wanda to see if she had any quick questions and what some resources could be for her.

3) Just be patient.  Nobody is perfect and we all make mistakes.

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3 thoughts on “Picking up on social cues

  1. I think you did just what you should have done. You responded to what you were asked for in a caring way, in both situations, Wanta’s and the other people’s. Wanda did not aske to see a counsellor and you had no way of knowing she needed one. When she tokd you what she wanted you met her needs, even though, in her upset state of mind, she accused you of discrimination. You are not to blame for her distress. You did help her when she indicated she needed help. As long as you continued to respond to her respectfully after she blamed you, I believe you did all you could.
    Her “problem” might just be that she doesn’t tell people what she needs and then blames them for not knowing. Don’t take it on.

  2. True, true. My point here was that it’s definitely important to be sensitive to the needs of others. But also to make sure to ask for help when you need it without being cryptic about it.

  3. I agree with treewithroots. Like you’re saying, I also try to be sensitive to people’s needs and to intuit what they might want, but ultimately, it’s THEIR job to express those needs, rather than ours to intuit them. Unfortunately, this student is probably used to being treated in a discriminatory manner and assumed that your motives were the same, but that doesn’t mean you’re at fault.

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