7 Ways To Keep Strangers From Engaging You In Conversation While You’re Just Trying To Live Your Life

Yesterday I accompanied my three-year-old nephew, Jackson, to his swim lesson. The tyke was overly enthused to show me his skills and since my sister had to actually be part of the swim lesson for the younger nephew (the brute of the two of them), I agreed to watch Jackson and clap ecstatically whenever he did something “cool.” My overuse of this word, as well as “whatever” and “because society says so” have officially made their way into his vocabulary, and as far as the neighbors as concerned “because society says so,” is now the answer to every question.

At first it seemed like Jackson was the only one in his class, to which I was relieved because I’m not so great at clapping and cheering for three-year-olds who can put their face in the water, and I didn’t need or want an audience. However, about 10 minutes into his lesson a woman showed up with her kid who looked about 12 (although she claimed he was only four), and despite there being several chairs from which to choose, she sat herself next to me. I immediately went into “busy” mode which, in my world, means feverishly looking at my phone and sighing a bit. I could tell she was a “talker” from the get-go, so I figured in staying one step ahead of her by putting it out there that I was extremely important and didn’t have time to banter about the fucking weather or kids or swim trunks or the coffee price at Starbucks, she’d take a hint and ultimately take a hike. But the problem with hardcore talkers is that all they want to do is talk, and until you pull out the big guns, as I eventually had to do, they will not cease.

As one who does not care to talk to strangers pretty much ever, (unless I’m drunk and I’ve just realized that the stranger is obviously my soulmate), I have mastered ways in which to keep people from getting all up in my grill when I just want to be left alone. Here are seven foolproof ways to get some random stranger to quit chatting your ear off. Unless you’re dealing with someone who is so clueless and so hard-up for chatter as the woman next to me was yesterday, all of these, if used appropriately, should send them packing. If not, slide seven (the “big guns”) will always win — as it did for me yesterday.


Photo: StickyComics

Share This Post:
    • Jenn

      I used to have random people try to strike up a conversation with me on the Metro when I was riding alone. So I took to wearing earbuds. No iPod, just the earbuds, with the other end tucked into my purse. I was still aware of my surroundings, but no one took it amiss if I pretended not to hear them. Or, if someone tried to talk to me, I’d do the overloud “WHAT?” and pluck an earbud out with a slightly annoyed sigh.

      • Amanda Chatel

        That’s always perfect for the metro… but in line at a store or sitting somewhere vulnerable to the world, it’s not so easy. I’ve stopped trying to read books in coffee shops because people ALWAYS want to talk to me… I don’t think I look even remotely friendly.

      • Nancy

        Just staring them right in the eye without speaking helps creep them out, too.

      • Jenn

        Nancy, I think you underestimate the creepiness of people on the Metro who strike up conversations with random girls.

        Amanda, I once had a guy in a coffee shop ask if I could keep an eye on his computer while he went to the bathroom, only to have him come back like 10 seconds later and admit he was just trying to find a way to start a conversation. “Oh. Um. I’m really just here to read this book.” And, no, I don’t remember which book I was even reading.

      • Amanda Chatel


        Seriously… was that like a pickup line or something? Or he just wanted to have a chat fest? Either way, I do not approve of his behavior. I do approve of the fact that you may have been reading something with Fabio on the cover though.

      • Jenn

        Yeah, you totally called it. We went on a whirlwind, quirky date, were together for a few months, before some zany misunderstanding led to us being separated by fate, on opposite ends of the country, during which time I fell for a throwaway newcomer, so that I had to choose between them when he found his way back to me again. Because that’s how love works, right?

        Also, knowing my taste in books at the time, I was probably reading either some sort of obscure-ish classic, possibly The Invisible Man. But we can pretend it has Fabio on the cover; he’s just invisible.

      • Nancy

        lol! You’re right Jenn, I was just thinking of older ladies when I said that.

    • Nancy

      What’d she do when you started crying?!

      • Amanda Chatel

        She looked confused and asked if it was something she said. I got up and stepped away from her to blot my eyes. But hey, she stopped talking!

      • Nancy

        LOL! That’s awesome!! I can’t wait to try that. Thanks for making a shitty situation entertaining for me now.
        Could you give me a tip for dealing with my boyfriend’s sister? She talks about herself non-stop, NON-STOP for hours and hours, and he leaves me with her! He said to just ignore her because that’s what he does, but it’d be so rude if I did it. (When she stayed with us, she’d talk non-stop to me from the time I came in the door after work about 5:30 until she went to bed at like 11. I’m dreading the next time I see her. She’s very nice, though….)

      • Amanda Chatel

        Hmm… while I don’t think I should be dispensing advice unless you want to seem bitchy, I’d pull the passive aggressive card or start asking absurd questions.

        I have an acquaintance who occasionally I meet for brunch with mutual friends, and she spends the entire time talking about herself, how the waiter wants her, how great her job is, how bad her life is, how she needs to lose 2 pounds… she’s just all over the place.

        After we all kick each other under the table for about 30 minutes, we finally just get really passive aggressive: “Oh, really Amy? Is that so?” If she doesn’t get it, we start asking absurd questions: “But do you think the waiter would still want you if he was a donkey?” It doesn’t make any sense, but causing confusion usually helps a situation like that because they’re forced to stumble over their words and eventually just shut up!

      • Nancy

        That’s actually a wonderful idea, and I bet I could do it without sounding bitchy! I’ll just sound silly! I don’t understand how people like that don’t pick up on normal social cues, I guess they just don’t want to… Thank you, Amanda!

      • Amanda Chatel

        Let me know how it goes! If it goes well, maybe I’ll start an advice column… god help us all.

      • Nancy

        I will! It might be a while until I see her again, though (fingers crossed!). And you totally should!

      • Jen

        Seconded. You totally should.

    • Maggie

      My fail safe for this type of situation: picking my nose. Sure it’s gross, but who wants to talk to some weirdo who’s just sitting there digging for nose gold? It works every time, especially if you look directly at the person while you’re doing it.

      Don’t worry, I always wash my hands after ;)

      • Amanda Chatel

        That’s amazing. I almost just blew coffee out my nose from laughing so hard.

    • Amy

      I always have this problem. The worst is when you are intently (or fake) reading and some rando is all, “what book are you reading?” to distract you from reading and thus become available to engage in conversation with them.

      • Paul Bonzulac

        If someone asks, “What are you reading?” you can always pull a Hamlet and reply blankly, “Words.” If this doesn’t work, try “I’m not here to give book reports to strangers.” Once they’re finished calling you names, you can return to your reading.

        I take the bus and have lonely cretins who willfully do not take hints acting like bus stops are cocktail parties all the time. I’ve used every one of the above stratagems except crying; my big gun is just telling them to fuck off, because I’m huge. But by doing that I’m sort of giving in; these people don’t just want conversation, they want an emotional response. Even if they ask you a yes or no question, they invariably act like they didn’t hear you if you respond with a “yes” or a “no.” The most extreme personal example was a time I was in a men’s room stall and a knock came on the door: “Is someone in there?” “Yes.” “What?”

    • Lucky
    • Sarah

      this is the best list i’ve ever seen. my god, I hate talking to strangers! I have a 3-yr-old and live next dor to the park, it’s basically your pool situation every day for me.

      now if only i could use some of these on my overly talkative coworker who sits directly across from me.

    • Oliver Gogarty

      I have a few more, only some of which typically lead to violence.

    • Heather

      I find that arguing aloud with myself while staring off in another direction is the perfect way to stop someone from attempting to have a conversation with me. Another effective trick is to begin eating something and drop one’s mouth open slightly, allowing some drool to escape. That would definitely count as using “big guns”!

    • Michelle Ireland

      Headphones + phone always work for me! And if someone insists on getting your attention you can just take a headphone out (keeping it close to your ear), answer them as quickly as possible but with a sincere friendly smile and then pop the headphone right back in as fast as possible and zone in on the phone, particularly if you have digital books on your phone. This way no one gets hurt because theyve been acknowledged but also signaled in a clear way that you arent interested in taking it furthet. I’ve also been known to carry an actual book or magazine or even a pamphlet or pad of paper to scribble meaningless calculations or words on. And if anyone asks me what I’m doing I say in a nice but brisk way “Oh haha just trying to work something out while I have the chance. Sorry to not chat, but cant lose this train of thought, im on a roll!” to hint that I’m going to need focus.

    • Sky

      How old are you? 15? Grow up and learn to treat people with some decency.

    • http://www.victoriasviewpoint.wordpress.com/ muse2006

      Thank you for this article! I am so tired of random people getting offended because I do not want to talk to them. Glad to know there are others out there, too.