Etiquette Questions, Answered: Social Situations
How Do You Dissuade a Stranger From Speaking to You?
Q: How do you politely get a stranger to stop talking to you without causing offense?
A: Picture this: I was boarding a flight from San Francisco to New York a couple of months ago, shuffling down the aisle toward seat 23A with a laptop, a stack of my graduate students’ ungraded papers, a month’s worth of unpaid bills—and a bold plan to spend the next six hours catching up. On everything. In silence. Too bad 23B had other ideas. “Do you live in California?” my seatmate asked. “I used to,” I said, my heart sinking as I asked in return (to be polite), “And you?”
This was a mistake. Even as I opened my mouth, I knew that we would soon be deep into 23B’s life story. Dim memories surfaced of bygone bouts of unwelcome chitchat—the loud person sitting next to me at the movie theater, the treadmill talker at the gym, the grocery-store clerk who held up the line to inquire, while ringing up the basil, about my pesto recipe.
We were somewhere over Denver (and had yet to dispense with the last of 23B’s college boyfriends) when I excused myself for an unnecessary trip to the restroom. While standing in line, I had a eureka moment in which I finally figured out a strategy to avoid this problem in the future.
When you don’t want to talk to strangers, I realized, the solution is to be honest with them about your circumstances. Explain that now is a bad time. You have a lot to do. It’s really nothing personal.
I returned to my seat, smiled sweetly at 23B as I opened my laptop, and said, “I am so jealous of you, getting to spend the rest of the flight watching movies or napping while I have to work.” Taking 23B into my confidence worked like a charm. In fact, she felt a little sorry for me as she put on her headphones and settled in for an old episode of Friends. My direct approach saved her from the embarrassment of rejection, and me from the guilt of hurting the feelings of a perfectly nice person.
Simply explaining why you can’t carry on a conversation at a particular moment works beautifully in a variety of awkward situations. Here’s what to do.
First, go ahead and exchange brief pleasantries with Stranger X. And by “brief” I mean three sentences at most.
Should Stranger X keep talking, customize your excuse to whomever you’re addressing. To a chatty store clerk, say gently, “I feel terrible holding up the shoppers behind me.” To a movie talker, whisper, “Ask me after the lights come back up, OK?” To the bus seatmate who interrupts your reading, confide, “This novel is so good, I’ve been sneaking off to read it in the ladies’ room at work,” before returning to the book.
And, yes, I got all the bills paid and the papers graded before the plane landed. When 23B and I met face-to-face again at the baggage carousel, we greeted each other like old friends.