Etiquette Questions, Answered: Tricky Conversations
Q. How can I ask a stranger who is talking loudly in public to be quieter without causing awkward tension?
Staten Island, New York
A. Generally, you can’t. People are allowed to talk to each other (and on cell phones) in public, and everyone has a different idea of what constitutes loud. If the clamor bothers you, use headphones to listen to music or an audiobook. An exception is if the talker is sitting or standing so close to you that his conversation invades your personal space—that is, you can’t hear Lady Gaga or the audiobook. Then you may join his discussion and say, cheerfully, “I know what you mean—that happened to me!” or “I wish I knew the answer to that myself.” When the talker turns to you in surprise, say, “Oh, sorry, I thought you were talking to me.” With any luck, the speaker will turn away, chastened, and crank down the decibel level.