Reading in Public Is Not an Invitation for Conversation

Woman reading book with her chin on hand
Woman reading book with her chin on hand

Last week I was working in a local coffee shop when a girl my age sat down at the communal table beside me and pulled out a book. It was a crowded coffee shop, so when an older man asked if we minded him sitting at the table, no one begrudged him a seat. He sat there for maybe five minutes in silence, twiddling his thumbs, before beginning to ask the girl questions.

I can't recall the details -- vague small talk -- but she responded to each one with a polite, brief answer and smile before returning to her book. But he didn't get the hint. For the next half hour, he continued to talk to her, ask her questions, and engage her in conversation.

From the snippets I heard of the conversation, there was nothing inherently creepy about the man. He wasn't hitting on her like I initially thought. He was just bored, and had nothing to do. When he learned she was a teacher, he asked her questions about her trade, talking about his own experiences with his kids. He talked about his life, his upcoming move, and asked her questions about private school versus public school. Eventually, with a small sigh, she closed her book and gave up.

At one point I heard her tell the man that she came there to read on her lunch break -- an obvious hint of "please stop wasting my time and leave me alone." But he didn't pick up on it, just kept merrily talking until he got a phone call and left.

I've personally been in this scenario several times before, when it's gone the opposite way. On my last day of undergraduate classes ever, I treated myself to my favorite restaurant, sat at a table outside, and attempted to read my first non-school book in four years. Over the course of 45 minutes, I was interrupted four separate times by older men. One was a grandpa making a silly joke, another was a bored dad waiting on kids. But two of them were hitting on me, a girl at least 30 years their junior. Both of them asked me personal information about my life, and one of them -- without asking -- sat down at my table, even though we were on a deserted patio full of empty seats. And although the latter two men were far sketchier than than the first two, I left the restaurant early, feeling like the four of them had conspired to chase me away.

The girl from the cafe and I were in different situations, but they were equally offensive.

I don't know when reading a book in public became a signal that we're desperate for attention and conversation. But nine times out of 10, it's the exact opposite. As creepy as it is to hit on someone much younger than you, interrupting someone -- of any gender -- while they are out reading is rude, selfish, and abhorrent behavior.

By doing this, you are operating under two false assumptions: that the person isn't doing anything important, and that your desire to talk is more important than their desire to read.

If someone is out reading in public, it means that they specifically carved this chunk of time out of their day to dedicate to a book. It could likely be the only part of their day where they are able to sit quietly and do something that is entirely for them. Even if someone is reading on the Metro home from work, it is a decision -- they could stare out the window if they wanted to. But they didn't.

The worst part is that almost every time I've been approached in public while reading, the person uses my book as a conversation starter. They've clearly noticed that I am preoccupied, and have chosen to ignore it. They've made the conscious decision that their desire for conversation and entertainment is more important.

I'm sorry, but your failure to bring anything to entertain yourself is not my fault. Interrupting someone who is reading -- especially a stranger -- is clearly prioritizing yourself. It's as rude as interrupting someone who's on the phone, or engrossed in a conversation. I won't waste my breath here wondering why I've only ever been interrupted by older, white men who don't take hints (and only when I'm alone). But I will leave you with one parting piece of advice: If her eyes are down and her book is up, shut your goddamn mouth and leave her alone.

Originally posted on Literally, Darling, an online magazine by and for twenty-something women, which features the personal, provocative, awkward, pop-filled and pressing issues of our gender and generation. This is an exact representation of our exaggerated selves.

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