There may come a time when you want to strike up a conversation with a stranger, for whatever reason: sex, companionship, money, boredom. Here is the rule: You get two questions.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with chatting up a stranger at a public place, like a bar. Face-to-face interaction is a nice vestige of an earlier age; meeting someone not over the internet is exciting. Go for it. However: It is important to remember that this person does not necessarily want to talk to you.
(This reminder is mostly for men.)
A few nights ago, I was sitting at a corner table at one of my favorite neighborhood bars drinking a glass of wine and awaiting a snack. For about ten minutes, I was alone, while my boyfriend placed an order at the bar and visited the restroom. During this time, a man approached me. (I’m not bragging; a woman sitting alone anywhere at any time, occupied with a number of activities or simply staring into space, will be approached by somebody, oh well.)
This man did not ask me two questions. He asked me 12!
Here is a recreation of our conversation, for educational purposes:
MAN: Hi, how are you?
ME: Good, thanks.
MAN: What’s going on?
ME: Not much.
MAN: Did you see the comedy show earlier?
ME: No, I just got here.
MAN: Oh, [some comedian] is here, did you see him?
ME: Oh, no.
MAN: I kind of want to go ask him for a photo. Should I do it?
ME: Yes, definitely.
MAN: What should I say to him if I go?
ME: I don’t know.
MAN: It looks like he’s busy.
ME: [staring very hard at a pole]
MAN: Do you live around here?
MAN: What do you do for work?
ME: I work at a website.
MAN: Which one?
On and on and on. No one question was threatening on its own, but the longer he went on, and the closer he moved his face towards my face, the more I felt that I was about to be murdered. At the very least, I was sure that I’d be trapped in my chair for the next 50 years, eventually succumbing to natural death and never again knowing the pleasure of drinking Pinot Grigio in peace.
Only when my boyfriend returned to the table did the man realize that I was not interested and walk away. This is the most annoying part of it; the time to exit a conversation with a stranger is not the moment you feel uncomfortable, it’s before that.
Don’t wait for another guy to show up and give you a weird look. Don’t wait for the person you’re chatting with to scream or run away. Don’t wait for her to be rude.
I hate to be rude.
If you’re talking to a stranger and not sure whether or not she’s interested in talking to you, she’s probably not, but to make it very easy: Stop after two questions.
When approaching someone you don’t know, start with, Hi, how are you? You can ask one more question after that. If, after asking those two questions, the person does not ask you a question, time’s up. Politely excuse yourself.
This rule applies, broadly. Perhaps you want to chat to the person seated next to you on a plane or train or in a shared Uber car: You get two questions. Standing in line at the DMV: two questions. Hanging out at a coffee shop: two questions, so long as the other person is not wearing headphones. At the movies: no questions. Christ.
In a perfect world, everyone could judge exactly how others were responding to their advances and adjust accordingly, but unfortunately we live in hell and no one pays attention to how anyone else feels about anything. The shortcut for deeper human understanding is: two questions.
Stopping after two questions means everyone around you is more comfortable, and you don’t lose anything by doing it. Consider complying with this rule or stop talking to people you don’t know.