First and foremost, the only circumstances under which it is okay to talk to a person wearing headphones and staring at a screen are: A. they are on fire, B. a lion is about to eat them, C. they are physically blocking you from something you legitimately need, like an outlet, a table, or your baby (indicate this as quickly and simply as possible, with hand gestures instead of speech if you can).
You don’t know their life, they could have ten minutes to write a eulogy for their Aunt Edna, they could be sending instructions on how to defuse a bomb. Or they could be writing the stupidest fanfiction of all time, but that’s their right. They don’t want to talk to you, that’s the important thing.
But what if they’re still settling in? What if they’re not wearing headphones and seem to be spending just as much time looking around as looking at the screen? Well, maybe. I’ve listed some of the reasons you might talk to someone sitting alone at a coffee shop, and graded the acceptability of each.
1. There has just been an earthquake. When there is an earthquake, even a small one, everyone in the coffee shop becomes close friends for 1-6 minutes. You make speak to anyone during this time, but be aware that when they start posting on twitter and facebook, you’re all strangers again. A+
2. You want to hit on them. Ugh. Just don’t. Okay, sure, it’s possible they’re your soul mate or someone who would be totally interested in making kissey faces with you, but statistics call it unlikely. At the very least, play the long game. Make eye contact, smile, then let it be. Take off your headphones, leave the newspaper on the corner of your table so they can ask for it, whathaveyou. Maybe you’ll see them next week again, and exchange smiles, and then be in the line at the same time and can talk about the parfaits, and eventually it’ll happen and you’ll get married. If you’re perfect for each other, you can wait a week or two. But err on the side of not being pushy about it. Look at it this way: If you don’t hit on them and they wanted you to (but were too shy, or you both read this blog) then you both might miss out on getting all kissy face. That’s one bad outcome. But if you do hit on them and they didn’t want you, they may feel awkward and want to leave sooner than they’d planned, or even feel uncomfortable about going back to that coffee shop. It really is truly unpleasant to have someone aggressively hit on you when you don’t want them to. You feel guilty, or scared, or both. If nothing else, your desire to be polite keeps you from whatever you sat down in the coffee shop to do. I’m sorry, but that’s a lot worse than maaaaaybe missing out on just-barely-possible kissy face. F-
3. You want to ask about their incredible keyboard/laptop case/whatever. I kind of love it when people ask me about stuff. My AlphaSmart 3000 gets lots of attention, and I’ve more than once stopped what I was doing to show people how my wireless keyboard connects to my iPad through the magic of Bluetooth. But I’m possibly the exception. So, if they’re not already hard at work, go ahead and ask, but let them guide the conversation. You can ask what it’s called and where they got it, but let them decide if they want to go into how it works and what it cost and whether they wish they got it in red. B
4. You just got great news/They just got great news. I was in a coffee shop when I got the call telling me I had the job I’d been hoping like crazy for. I hung up, glanced around, saw a person next to me who wasn’t wearing headphones or looking busy, and said, “I got the job!” I felt like I HAD to tell someone. She smiled, congratulated me, asked me a question or two, and we went back to what we’d been doing before, both smiling. Another time, I was sitting at a counter next to a young man. He finished one phone call, quickly dialed another, and said “Mom?! I’m hired! I start Monday!!!” When he got off the phone, I smiled at him and said “didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but congratulations!” He was just so happy, it made me happy. He told me about the wonderful dream job he’d landed, and we went back to what we’d been doing. The key to all this is brevity and reading the room. Make it quick and keep it upbeat. And again—if they have their eyes fixed firmly on something else, go post on facebook instead. C
5. You have a screenplay formatting question. I am often tempted to do this in L.A., because you just know someone sitting nearby has the answer. But, yeah, just don’t. Look it up online, or wait till you get home. No grade, because come on, you weren’t really going to do that, were you?
6. Something creepy or bizarre just happened, like a loud argument between two adult sisters, or a drunk guy singing “My Way.” Nah. That’s what meaningful eye contact is for. D
7. You want them to watch your stuff. This is pretty much okay (although I almost never have the nerve—how do you know they are not a thief??) but you absolutely MUST be back within twelve minutes, no exceptions. NONE. A/F—(grade down for every two minutes over five, additional minus sign for every minute over twelve minutes)
8. They are doing something obviously incredibly inappropriate, like using five tables and six outlets or deliberately, I don’t know, pouring stuff on the floor. Look, don’t get in any fist fights, okay? A lot of places have a policy that if two people get in a fight, and the staff wants to kick out/ban one of them, they pretty much have to kick out/ban both. First, decide if it’s really hurting you/ anyone else, or just driving you up the wall (happens to me all the time; it’s what baseball cap brims and headphones are for). The best thing to do, probably, is point it out to the person as if you 100% assume they are doing it by mistake and are about to be really embarrassed (but don’t be condescending, okay? More like you’re being helpful. It has to be totally sincere-sounding). Then, if they continue to do it, go talk to someone who works there. You can also tell them if they ACTUALLY did something by mistake, like dropped something. In fact, just go ahead and assume anything they might be doing was a mistake, at least at first. B
9. You think someone is being bugged by another patron. This can be really difficult. If you see someone being touched who clearly doesn’t want to be touched, intervene at once, and do it loudly. “EXCUSE ME IS THIS PERSON BOTHERING YOU” will get the attention of nearby people. But if it’s not that overt, it can be a lot harder. If, for instance, you absolutely can’t tell whether the man leaning over the woman’s computer and getting closer than seems quite right is a stranger or her boyfriend. What I try to do in those situations is give her an easy out to move to a different conversation. This is can feel really awkward but isn’t too hard—just say, apologetically, “Excuse me, can I interrupt, is that a [such-and-so laptop, purse, phone]? I was thinking of getting one…” It would possibly be rude if you weren’t secretly doing it to help the person, but as it is you get a pass… only they don’t know that and if they ARE friends and he/she doesn’t turn to you with great relief, you might feel embarrassed. Or maybe not, maybe she’ll answer briefly and go back to her nice conversation. Whatever, do it anyway. It’s another of those worst case scenario things. Be a hero, and maybe someone will be a hero to you at some point. A+
10. You really, really, really don’t want to start writing yet. I understand, I truly do. But you’ve got the whole internet, and it’s there for you. There’s also windows to stare out of, laptop bags to organize, and hey–isn’t it time you made a really good to-do list? D
There are different rules, of course, if it’s several people talking. If you want to contribute something to the conversation (NOT because you want to hit on them, but because you’re interested or have something of value), well, play it by ear. Remember that they’re not there for you, and no one owes you their time and attention. But occasionally you can go for it. If you hear they’re about to go someplace you lived or just visited, tell them about a great guide book or museum. But err on the side of brevity. It’s pretty much always better that way. In fact, I’ll just go ahead and say ALWAYS.