city clerk was impolite, any recourse that's not merely cathartic?
September 18, 2018 6:08 PM   Subscribe

Applied for a marriage license today. When I asked the clerk how to fill out my parents' names in the form, she explained that "normally, in this country" the man does not change his surname upon marriage, and "normally, in this country" the woman does. She spoke loudly and slowly, with unusually simple sentence structure, and repeated herself nearly verbatim three times until I gave up asking for clarification. Is there anything I can do that would be likely to reduce this sort of behavior?

This was in NYC.

The puzzling bit of the form is that each party to the marriage is asked for the "Surname" and "Surname before marriage" of "Father/Parent 1" and "Mother/Parent 2". The correct response is apparently as follows:
| Person         | Changed surname? | "Surname" | "Surname before marriage" |
| Groom's father | No               | Kim       |                           |
| Groom's mother | No               |           | Lee                       |
| Bride's father | No               | Smith     |                           |
| Bride's mother | Yes              |           | Jones                     |
That is, mothers always provide a "surname before marriage" and never any "surname", whereas fathers always provide a "surname" and sometimes also a "surname before marriage", if different.

I was first just confused, and then concerned that, in this presentation, my mother doesn't look any different from my fiancee's mother who now shares her husband's surname. My family has a Kafkaesque history with filling in our names on forms. Just this August, I very nearly lost an apartment due to some disagreement as to whether I had zero, one, or two (?!) middle names.

I have two objections to the clerk's behavior:
  1. I have fluent English and a distinctly American accent, yet she answered in short, simple sentences, spoken slowly and loudly. For Asians, this can give the impression that their English language competence is in question.
  2. I dislike the use of "normally", because I don't think the city's clerks should make normative statements on this topic. I dislike the use of "in this country", because she had on her computer screen in front of her my place of birth twenty blocks away from her seat.
Is there anything I can do which would be reasonably likely to reduce this sort of behavior in the future? With my wedding looming, I'm not interested in windmills right now.
posted by meaty shoe puppet to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, fail. And when I say "reduce this sort of behavior," I mean, is there any avenue of complaint that will be likely to improve the behavior of city clerks? I don't care about my personal treatment, since I obviously hope not to apply for marriage ever again.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 6:11 PM on September 18, 2018

Sorry this happened to you. I doubt there's much you can really do about this, unfortunately. You could try complaining to her direct supervisor if you can figure out who that is, but that may require you to walk in and request to speak to her manager, and people react super badly to that. There's probably even a charitable reading of the situation where she was trying to be helpful (albeit in an unconsciously racist way) rather than being an asshat on purpose, and for you all know this person's manager is inclined to take her side. This is a windmill at which I would not tilt; bureaucracies are enough of a pain to deal with on their best days.
posted by axiom at 6:25 PM on September 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think the standard AskMe thing of asking what you want out of this situation would be a useful exercise. It's unlikely that you're going to get anything beyond catharsis. However, sending a letter to the City Clerk or whoever has an outside chance of being socially useful if the story makes it into a training one day or something. Or maybe they'll make the form a little less sexist.
posted by hoyland at 6:27 PM on September 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

OK, so I'm in Massachusetts not NYC, and maybe things in NYC are totally different, but here's my experience-based answer:

Is there anything I can do that would be likely to reduce this sort of behavior?

No. Nothing. I deal with city building departments just about every day, and about 20% of the time they are openly rude to me despite my making a conscious effort to be extra polite and outgoing and to have all my things in absolutely impeccable order. Much like your own form, building permit applications are obtuse and the people at building departments are very picky and idiosyncratic about the things they want to see on them, sometimes to the point of being just flat-out objectively, blatantly wrong in their interpretations of the forms. There is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Who is going to take your side? Even if you win, do you want to risk your city clerk developing a personal grudge against you? It happens.

I had an admin at a building department be rude to my face just today, after days of phone calls in which they never once picked up their phone or returned a message. I just smiled and nodded and stayed cheerful, knowing that soon my interaction with this person would be over. Save your energy for more productive things, and sleep well in the knowledge that at least you aren't such a relentlessly petty, shriveled person as that.

Oh and 80% of the time they're totally fine.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:27 PM on September 18, 2018 [16 favorites]

Nice work assuming "parents=people married to one another" and "marriage=man+woman" too, Clerk. Just because the form does is no reason to pass that nonsense along too.

I may be being naive here, but it seems like an e-mail outlining your concerns sent to the official City Clerk (since it's NYC I assume you spoke to a staff member) could legitimately help. I feel confident in saying that my City Clerk at least would be righteously furious if one of us treated someone that way. I also recall NYC as having fairly open public records, in which case submitting a complaint also means that your words could be accessed by someone who is looking into such events.
posted by teremala at 6:41 PM on September 18, 2018 [26 favorites]

I don't have any tips about city clerks/marriage licenses specifically, but when someone does this micro-aggression shit to me, I straight up call them out on it. "Hey clerk, are you talking like that because you think I don't speak English? Or because you don't understand my family's surnames?" They usually splutter a bit and then stop. It only works in the moment. Complaining to a supervisor afterwards gets generic non-apologies.

I used to be a smile-and-nod-and-internally-fume type, but after the 2016 election, I decided I was done putting up with covert racism. (And overt racism, obviously. But the covert type is more insidious.) I make an exception for demented/delirious people, but not for their mentally intact family members.

On that form, though, I would have put "Lee" under surname for the groom's mom, instead of surname before marriage. If the groom's mom did not change her name, Lee is still her surname, right? In a legal sense, there is no such person as [Mom's Firstname] Kim. I would have thought "surname before marriage" was like "prior names/aliases" in your passport, optional and gender-neutral.
posted by basalganglia at 6:46 PM on September 18, 2018 [26 favorites]

I think the confusing & Kafka-esque nature of the form is worth complaining about for sure. I think you should complain that the clerk didn't know how to explain to use the form. I think leaving out the complaint about the clerk's behavior will probably give your other issues more weight since they will probably look at it and think "Why should we tell the clerks not to speak slowly& clearly?" Folks in these offices have robot jobs and turn into robot people when they're doing them. You have to think of them that way.
posted by bleep at 6:49 PM on September 18, 2018 [9 favorites]

I was curious so I looked up the online version of the NY marriage license. Here's the info requested for the parents of the spouses:

Surname Prior to Marriage (If applicable):
First Name:
Country of Birth:
State of Birth:

Identical information requested for the mother/parent.

There is a help link which says:
The Bride/Groom/Spouse A's Father/Mother/Parent's last name. If there is only one legal name, you may enter it in either the "Surname" or "First Name" fields.

Surname Prior to Marriage:
The Bride/Groom/Spouse A's father/mother/parent's pre-marriage last name.

State of Birth:
State only needed if Country selected is United States.

So it sounds like the form, unlike the clerk herself, is gender-agnostic. That just makes the clerk's behavior even grosser.
posted by basalganglia at 6:59 PM on September 18, 2018 [7 favorites]

This seems worth doing something about because of the implicit racism involved. The clerk wasn’t just rude. I don’t live in NYC, but you might consider writing to the City Clerk, as recommended above. You could also contact your city council member. In many cities, they play a similar role as members of Congress on the federal level - helping constituents deal with problems they have with agency services.
posted by lunasol at 7:10 PM on September 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

I’m a white cis woman, so can’t address the racism (which I recognize is a huge part of what happened to you here), but in a situation where I wasn’t getting clarification from a male car salesman, I once said, “Is there a reason you’re not answering my question?” That turned out to be a very successful strategy when someone, you know, just won’t answer your question.

And fuck that form.
posted by FencingGal at 7:21 PM on September 18, 2018 [48 favorites]

I had a great deal of frustration related to bureaucracy with our marriage license too (such that when they asked us to raise our right hands and pledge that we were getting married, we both remember doing so begrudgingly and with anger). I ended up emailing the city clerk’s office asking for clarification on the issue inexperienced, and recommending an improvement. I then got an email response from a supervisor actually addressing the paperwork issue in my particular instance, noting that the form rules were arcane, and saying she would share our feedback but that she personally had no control over the rules. It was a surprisingly satisfying resolution. If nothing else, you could email, let them know the form is confusing, let them know you believe staff may not understand how to explain the form, and how you recommend they address the form + staff training. If nothing else, it would be a cathartic email.

(In my situation, I was trying to make my name from “First / MaidenMiddle / MaidenLast” to “First / MiddleMiddle MaidenLast / MarriedLast” and the clerk was insisting that the only legal option was for me to hyphenate my new middle name, because “you cant have two middle names” - even though my spiouse’s paperwork clearly already had two middle names... ah, but it all worked out in the end.)
posted by samthemander at 7:34 PM on September 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

As a lifelong NY’er and former NYC resident that served in local government, I want to hug you and send a gift to your wedding!

I totally understand your concern and complaint. You might try contacting your City Council Person’s office after your wedding. It’s a legitimate concern, put a pin in it! Waste no time now doing anything than enjoying your friends, family, and the union you are preparing for with the person you love!

There is time to improve bureaucratic processes for the next guy after your wedding. Access the services of your City Council Person, that’s why they are there.

Also, register and be a voter in all elections if you are not one already. Thank you.
posted by jbenben at 11:38 PM on September 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

In the future you could speak with sesquipedalian loquaciousness once people speak to you in simple plain english.
posted by koolkat at 1:35 AM on September 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

I work with a lot of kids using DBT strategies and after reading this: She spoke loudly and slowly, with unusually simple sentence structure, and repeated herself nearly verbatim three times until I gave up asking for clarification, I assumed the clerk herself is not all too bright and is doing the best she can with her mental resources.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:33 AM on September 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

You could also contact your city council member.

Absolutely! I think it's a sad measure of how completely co-opted we've been by consumer culture that we'd assume the only channels available are managerial ones through the person's direct employment. You've got a social justice issue here, and part of is to do with a bad form, and the other part is with bad training for the individual who is a public employee. After your wedding, make an appointment with your city councillor, and begin finding out what you need to do to address the issue and prevent it happening to anyone else. This is a process you, as a citizen, have ownership of.
posted by Miko at 5:30 AM on September 19, 2018 [4 favorites]

Did she keep getting louder and louder, acting like you're an idiot?

Call for the supervisor while you're there. Not too much you can do after the fact, at least in my experience. The majority of people with those kinds of jobs usually have had them since forever and in their minds they have great powers.

Shrug it off, life is too short.
posted by james33 at 7:45 AM on September 19, 2018

I don't know how city clerks are selected in NYC, but in my current city, they are appointed by our city council. If there are issues with the clerks' office, we have recourse to complain to the city council. They are her supervisory body and would be tasked with handling it.

In NYC is it likely to go very far? Possibly not, but it's potentially one avenue to express your concern.
posted by zizzle at 7:49 AM on September 19, 2018

Folks in these offices have robot jobs and turn into robot people when they're doing them.

I assumed the clerk herself is not all too bright and is doing the best she can with her mental resources.

friendly reminder, let's not reflexively shit on government workers, the vast majority of them are conscientious, smart, hard-working people who deal with undeserved crappy attitudes from the people they serve every day

that said

write a letter to the city clerk's office, addressed to the department head, describing what happened and why you were displeased with the way the clerk treated you. letters have a better chance of triggering a formal response and being permanently recorded in a way that phone calls and in-person complaints don't.
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:32 AM on September 19, 2018 [8 favorites]

in NYC is it likely to go very far? Possibly not

Just a data point. When I lived in Boston, there was this very racist conductor on the commuter rail train my husband and I took every day (separately). Every now and then, this conductor would drop something in the course of supposed friendly chat that was horrifyingly racist. My husband and I compared notes on things he said a few times, and finally, my husband witnessed an incident he didn't feel comfortable keeping quiet about. He wrote to the transit authority, and they called back the next day to get more info, and say thanks, and in the course of their investigation they told him "we know about this guy and we've been trying to get an incident on record forever."

So you never know when your complaint may be the one that gets action.
posted by Miko at 5:25 PM on September 19, 2018 [6 favorites]

I would also check out if NYC gov has an office of human rights where you can report the incident. DC has one and this is along the lines of the sort of thing they publicize that they want to hear about.
posted by donut_princess at 3:17 PM on September 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

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