You can't win, you twerp!
September 30, 2008 7:07 PM   Subscribe

Help me resolve a Catch-22 about meeting new people of the opposite sex.

I almost never work up the nerve to talk to a girl standing near me at a bookstore or coffee shop. That's bad enough. After talking to a lot of people (friends, and even a few MeFites!), I discover a surprisingly common theme: people alone in public places don't want to be confronted by strangers. They don't want their book and coffee and 'me time' to be ruined by people like me trying to make small talk.

As I see it, then, the very foundation of meeting new people (get out of the apartment and do something, you twerp!) is a paradox (I'm trying to read my book in peace, you twerp!).

Is this an accurate sentiment? If so, how do I get over the anxiety it produces? It boils down to wanting to be not bothersome first, and a good conversationalist second: I certainly don't want to bother people if they don't want to be talked to, but I honestly can't distinguish the receptive from the hostile.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (46 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I just open with "Sorry to bother you, but . . ." and if they don't want to talk, it's usually evident quickly.
posted by melvinwang at 7:16 PM on September 30, 2008

I think the conventional "get out of the house" wisdom is more about getting out and joining things to meet people. If someone joins a photography club, they are not adverse to meeting people (or they'd just take their damn pictures by themsevles!) In public, you don't know if people are out looking to be friendly or they just wanted some coffee.

If you just want to talk to people in a coffee shop, taking a moment to observe what they are doing will probably help. If they appear to be studying or working, you should be aware they may not want to be bothered. When you do initiate conversation, keep in mind some signs that people want to be left alone. If someone keeps looking back to their book/laptop and providing short answers, they don't feel chatty.
posted by lacedback at 7:21 PM on September 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Some people can chat anyone up just by going to a cafe or bar or whatever - most people can't. That's ok! Two ideas:
1. get out of your apartment and go to the *same* place regularly, where outgoing girls can get used to seeing you, the cute coffee shop guy (or whatever) and hit on *you* OR
2. get out of your apartment and go to something specific where people expect to interact. adult ed classes are great for this - as are casual sports leagues. (Go to one of those things and *most* of the women will be single and looking to meet you!)
posted by moxiedoll at 7:22 PM on September 30, 2008

First off, if you're playing the odds, avoid someone actively reading or with headphones on -- these are things people use to tune out their environment. No guarantee that a pleasant hello wouldn't be a welcome distraction, but a better chance that it wouldn't be.

Then realize that the situation is rarely going to make or break it for you. The "right" person is rarely an unwelcome distraction. Don't bother with a line. Just be friendly. And as melvinwang said, it should be evident pretty quickly whether she has any interest in talking to you.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:23 PM on September 30, 2008

First of all, no one wants to be "confronted" by strangers. People like to make conversation with others in public though. If you're confronting, that's no good. Just (1) use the 3 second rule and say whatever pops into your head-- no editing-- that makes for something authentic which is the point of having dynamic conversation anyway (2) ask a question that is not trying to lead into some sort of pick-up or long term thing.

"Wait, are you reading that book by XXX XXX?" Because you're not trying to pick them up, you can't get "rejected" in that moment. If the girl is too busy or just doesn't want to talk to you it will be apparent-- don't push it. It will be apparent quickly if she wants to keep talking. Follow it up with asking about her opinions. Her reaction to you is mostly not about you. It's about her, and her stuff.

How to get over the anxiety? (1) Practice just saying "hi" and smiling to women who walk by. (2) Try to talk to more women, even ones you think are completely not hot. Give yourself points for more risks that you've taken, and look at the experiences (good or bad) as material you can learn from. (3) Most guys try really hard to get out of the friendzone. Realize that you can't interact with women without knowing how to be a good friend first. Really get yourself into the friendzone with some women, and you can use that to help you network and meet their friends, etc. Good luck!
posted by No New Diamonds Please at 7:24 PM on September 30, 2008 [5 favorites]

I just open with "Sorry to bother you, but . . ."

That's a lousy opener. To apologize to a stranger right off the bat implies that you know you want something that might bother this other person (money, time) and sets off their alert that they need to be on guard around you. Don't set yourself up to fail. Better to make conversation naturally as it comes up. "Boy, the line for coffee sure is long this morning," and so no.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:26 PM on September 30, 2008 [8 favorites]

All you need to do is figure out how to tell the receptive from the hostile.

Short, one word answers mean hostile. Long pauses, lack of continuing conversation, etc, probably do too.

Smiles, invites to sit down, continued conversation- these mean receptive.

Of course most cases are in between the two, and that's more difficult; for example, plenty of folk bring a book to a coffeeshop but don't read it. Watch a little longer and notice how people respond. Also, go places that are more likely to be hang-out zones than study/work zones. The same place can be both depending on time of day/year as well.

So, amend the "get out of the house" to "get out of the house and go someplace social". If you really can't tell, go to events that are explicitly labelled social (although I think you'd be better served to learn the difference).
posted by nat at 7:27 PM on September 30, 2008

Some people can approach anyone, anywhere. Some people are, in turn, receptive to being approached during their “alone in public” time. I’m not one of either type of person. Sounds like neither are you. If I’m sitting in a coffee shop or reading a book, I’m anchored somewhere: I can’t politely decline your attention and walk away without losing my seat/table, so that’s kind of awkward. I’ve also, on a really basic level, signaled to you (or whoever) that I’m not interested in talking to people at the moment. Frankly, you should be anxious about approaching me because I don't want you to do it. I don't mean to be flip, I just mean it's extra hard for you to do because I/whoever don't welcome it.

But I think you’re going to the wrong places. It wouldn’t be weird to approach someone at a class or an explicitly social event, or even shopping. Generally, a situation where everyone’s walking around is a good bet. You can approach, your, er, “target” and s/he can choose to chat or decline your company.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:28 PM on September 30, 2008

get out of the apartment and do something

Do something where other people have an expectation of being social (book club, casual sport, church event, political activism...)
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:28 PM on September 30, 2008

Correct. Contrary to what movies might lead you to believe, approaching strangers is not going to get you anywhere, unless you live way south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Most people meet prospective friends and significant others through overlapping groups or communities - work, school, friends of friends, etc. If this setup isn't currently working for you, look to expand your membership and participation in other such groups (join a class, volunteer, etc.)

Your approach will rarely work outside of the counter of a singles bar. I think that your frustration is coming from a fundamentally flawed interpretation of how people meet nowadays. Cagily flirting with a strange girl and offering her your number is, barring any serendipitous icebreaker, strictly the purview of sleazeballs.

I am not a woman, but anywhere, not least in a city, I would be pretty creeped out if someone did this to me when I was alone in a public place.

This makes me think of Town Mouse and Country Mouse for some reason.
posted by softsantear at 7:32 PM on September 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

I met 'moonMan on the train. I just started talking to him, I made a random comment about his iPod and then we were talking for an hour. And now... we live together. It can be done.

The one "trick" that I would advise, what's always worked for me in the past, is to lead with a genuine compliment. It's pretty easy to find something, even a small something, to compliment someone on (especially if you're looking to start a conversation - clearly, this person has interested you somehow) and people really love to hear nice things about themselves. People who are receptive to conversation will keep it going. People who aren't... well, aren't.

Make it sincere though. People can gauge pretty easily if you're just telling them you like their shoes because really, you want to get into their pants. Don't sound like you're just feeding them a line - be honest.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:33 PM on September 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am by no means an expert, but smile and make eye contact. if the girl smiles back, you have a chance. If not, move on.

But it's a very hard thing to do. This gets a lot of press (the whole "meet in the grocery store" thing), but do you know anyone who actually met their significant other "cold" like that? I don't think I do. Most people meet in the ways mentioned above, through friends, at work, or in groups of people with similar interests. So if you never master the "cold approach," it doesn't doom you to a life of loneliness.

I am not very good at this myself, but I've gotten better. And you don't have to go it alone. I think those "wingman" scenarios are incredibly cheesy, but my female friends do naturally start conversations with other girls when we're out in public.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:34 PM on September 30, 2008

ha, as I was posting, grapefruitmoon posted above me about meeting "cold." So it obviously does happen. But there are lots of other ways to meet people too.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:35 PM on September 30, 2008

I've found that randomly talking to someone is less intrusive when it happens in the context of some sort of shared activity or event -- say, you're at a book reading or a play or a film screening by yourself, and see someone else there on their own: "so, have you read Author X's new novel?" "do you know someone involved in the production? I'm [director's] student at [school]" etc.

Being able to read body language still applies, however. If you're at a play and the person next to you is turned away slightly with their headphones on while intently reading the program, they'd like to be left alone, please. If they're sitting slightly toward you and they're looking around the theater, open to eye contact, your chances of striking up a good conversation are vastly improved.
posted by scody at 7:35 PM on September 30, 2008

If you, I, and Meg_Murry aren't in the minority then we are at least not a majority. A lot of people are perfectly happy to have random conversations and it's usually fairly easy to tell after a brief "excuse me, but have you had the mocha here? Know if it's any good?" A simple question that someone has the option to answer without continuing the conversation is no real imposition, and I say that as someone who doesn't really want to chat with people in line.

Just to be clear; I'm not usually interested in a conversation, but sometimes the mood strikes me and sometimes it's an issue I'm passionate about. And there was a time in my life when I was looking for a significant other and would have been delighted to have been chatted up by a woman, even though it's not my inclination. So if you're out somewhere and someone strikes your fancy for some valid reason (left as an exercise for the reader) and you have a reasonable question to ask, ask. If they want you to FOAD it'll be pretty clear.
posted by phearlez at 7:39 PM on September 30, 2008

I'm with softsantear. While meeting someone randomly on the street is possible, it's probably not the best way to meet people. These are probably better:
* clubs (eg, book club; poker club; San Francisco Stamp Collectors; East Bay Road Bikers),
* volunteering (Obama's campaign, a religious institution, Food Not Bombs, crisis hotline, Habitat for Humanity),
* classes (photography, wine tasting, pottery),
* gyms (this is iffy, but a subset of gym-goers do make friends with strangers there),
* large organized events (eg, the Turkey Trot 5k -- again iffy)
* work, a second job, conferences, random professional networking events,
* school,
* friends' parties. Perhaps most likely is that you'll meet someone through the above list, become friends, and then go to their parties, and then meet someone there that strikes your fancy.
posted by salvia at 7:45 PM on September 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Try this one (a girl did this to me on a line in a coffee shop): She leaned forward and put her nose on my shoulder, sniffed my shirt and asked me: "mmm.. what detergent do you use?"

That was it. Because she knew that I knew it was a line. Fucking fantastic.
posted by Zambrano at 7:51 PM on September 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

"The one "trick" that I would advise, what's always worked for me in the past, is to lead with a genuine compliment. It's pretty easy to find something, even a small something, to compliment someone on"

Probably the single best piece of advice I've heard on the subject. A simple "hey, I like your hat" or something like that, can be instantly endearing, and the person's response will (usually) clearly indicate whether there's any point in talking any further.
posted by bilgepump at 8:13 PM on September 30, 2008

If there are a lot of people getting out of the house and meeting people, there is a good chance that some of them are sitting in cafes and bookstores to do that, and DO want to talk. If they really don't want to be disturbed they should stay at home. If they do want to be disturbed and don't respond to a certain person, perhaps they just aren't interested in talking to that person, which is allowed.

I find that mundane and short does the trick and will quickly reveal if more conversation is possible. Keep it super simple, even as simple as asking the time or finding out the wifi password or asking where the outlet is. Make something up, just keep it to a few words: that way you won't stumble over a prepared speech and you won't bore them while you work your shtick. If you ask the time and the response is without eye contact or a smile, you might want to just back off. If there is a glimmer of some opening, follow up with something short and mundane but a little more personal and friendly/funny: "wow, and here I thought it was still morning, ha ha!" or "cool watch!" Again, if the response is some eye contact and a smile you can continue. I think it comes down to listening to the person's cues and backing off when you don't get any encouraging cues, and then keep trying with others in other places, other days, just making it a daily habit.
posted by kenzi23 at 8:24 PM on September 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Try this one (a girl did this to me on a line in a coffee shop): She leaned forward and put her nose on my shoulder, sniffed my shirt and asked me: "mmm.. what detergent do you use?"

That was it. Because she knew that I knew it was a line. Fucking fantastic.

If a dude did this to me, I would run SCREAMING. That does NOT work with gender reversal. (Also tends to indicate that you are a stalker creep if a guy starts invading your space.)
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:27 PM on September 30, 2008 [5 favorites]

With the right attitude, you can do anything. Be genuine and non-expectant: say something nice and if they are't interested, then leave them be. Don't be that creepy person that people will dread making eye contact with.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:39 PM on September 30, 2008

Other people have covered the fact that 'get out and do stuff' doesn't generally mean 'chat up random strangers', but I'll offer a bit of advice if you do want to chat up random strangers. I've used this with some success to start conversations on public transit and in various line-ups for various things.

Wait for something remarkable to happen. Remark upon it.

But not to anyone. Just out loud, to the room. Whoever responds wants to chat. Whoever buries their nose deeper in their book doesn't want to chat.

There's a pretty low threshhold for remarkable in this instance. If a car burns past your bus stop going really quickly, "Wow, that guy was in some kind of hurry." If the line next to you is moving faster than yours, "My incredible line-up stopping powers work every time." Whatever. It doesn't have to particularly witty or interesting, it's just there to help you sort the people into chatty and non-chatty groups. Respond to whatever response you get, and presto, conversation.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:52 PM on September 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

The SIRC Guide to Flirting breaks this down in a way even I could understand it.
posted by specialfriend at 9:01 PM on September 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

A lot of people do go to cafes and other places in part for sociality. Sometimes I just want to bury my nose in my book, and I will signal that by giving short answers and not making eye contact if someone starts talking to me. And sometimes I'm open for talking and will start chatting with whomever is at the next table.

But I think you are getting knotted up too early in the process:

I honestly can't distinguish the receptive from the hostile

Of course not — you have to say "hi!" before you can find out if the person wants to talk or not. You can't tell by looking (well, sometimes the body language is really clear, but mostly it's sort of neutral or ambiguous). Don't be pushy or confrontational, and don't be like that guy last week who was going from table to table trying to find someone who would talk to him. But saying hi and offering a basic conversation starter is totally fine, as long as you can manage to figure out whether or not the response is an invitation to keep talking or not.

Also, as someone who is a regular at the same cafe, I've found that it is a lot easier to chat to someone you see every week, than it is to start talking to a stranger. One day you exchange three words about the book you are reading, the next day you ask about their new hat, and eventually you aren't talking as total strangers.

(The caveat here is that I am "attached," in the language of my MeFi profile, and so I'm not hoping to turn these conversations into dates these days. But I'd guess that at least once every week or two I have a conversation with someone in a cafe or other public space that could easily turn into a date, or at least a "can I get your number and call you about the whatever" sort of thing. So I'd say that there isn't any reason not to be open and friendly in public spaces, as long as you can religiously avoid being a creepy weirdo.)
posted by Forktine at 9:17 PM on September 30, 2008

The caveat here is that I am "attached" taken

I swear, I can flirt better than I can type.
posted by Forktine at 9:20 PM on September 30, 2008

Meh, for me, it depends on my mood and the way you approach me.

I think you should go for it, though, but just make friendly, idle conversation. If they're interested in talking, they'll make equally friendly, idle conversation. Even if it leads to nothing more then "Hey, nice talking to you, have a nice day!" as she grabs her cup of joe from the counter, you have gained experience talking to strangers in a pleasant, casual way, which IMO is the only way to successfully turn a stranger into a friend.

If you can come up with a genuine compliment/comment that is geared to them (hey, I see you have a Freitag bag! I saw those at MOMA last year, is it true they're made of truck tarps?), tailoring the conversation to them is better- it makes it clear that while you are inoffensive and casual in your conversation, you're not just talking to the person standing beside you, you have a genuine interest in them (or some aspect of their personality).

I like talking to strangers when I'm alone. I travel alone a lot and talking to strangers has led to the most wonderful, astounding things- dinner with families in countries around the world, innumerable drinks, and very odd experiences. You're missing out on a lot by not talking to people every chance you get.

On the other hand, sometimes I really don't want to be bothered. But I'll let you know in a friendly way, and you'll leave me with a smile on my face as I go back to work/my book/class.
posted by arnicae at 9:43 PM on September 30, 2008

I wish I could find a copy of this comic to link but I can't so bear with my description.

Two panels, in the first a woman is sitting on a park bench when an attractive man walks up and says "Hi!". woman's hearts kips a few beats, she blushes a little and responds with a little "eeep!" and little cartoon hearts appear.

Second panel is virtually identical. Same woman, same park bench, aman approaching her in the same pose, still saying "hi!". xcept this time athey guy is an old man.says "Hi!". Woman cringes away and says "eww, grosss!". Where there were hearts there are now skulls and crossbones.

That's pretty much what you're talking about. A cold call is fine if the other person likes what you're selling, otherwise not. But you don't know until you try. So go ahead and try! I know people who are in happy long term relationships from a cold call in a public place, one from a coffee shop, one from a grocery store. If you get a good response, go forward and reap the rewards. If you don't... well that's the risk you take to meet someone fun and interesting and new. And you know what, it's really not all that bad. It's devastating when you're 19, but a few years later, it's just the way the world works.
posted by Ookseer at 10:15 PM on September 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't bother women in public who haven't made eye contact. That's really all there is to it. If women aren't occasionally making eye contact with you, work on your appearance.
posted by nicwolff at 11:14 PM on September 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

I hung out at a coffee shop for years, and I could basically boil it down to: (a) I don't mind being interrupted if you're cute, and (b) I DO mind being interrupted if you're not cute. Unfortunately for you, you have almost no way of knowing whether or not I think you're cute unless you happened to try to chat me up. I suppose long stares across the room would help. Try that first, for sure.
posted by timoni at 11:21 PM on September 30, 2008 [5 favorites]

You might get some mileage out of not "chatting up" pre-targeted people with a certain goal in mind, but just getting used to dropping random remarks to strangers left, right & centre - young & old, male & female. Takes a bit of the pressure off, because then every conversation isn't an attempted "sale".

Something along the lines of what jacquilynne said, too: comment on something vaguely remarkable around you. It needn't even be superlatively outstanding, eg in line at the cafe: "god-DAMN that blueberry cheesecake looks great - wish I wasn't on a diet!" *pulls puppy dog face*

("haha - yeah, tell me about it..." (etc) or end of interaction, whatever, it doesn't really matter, because it's a percentage game anyway, and at this point the ball isn't in your court)
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:42 PM on September 30, 2008

As others have said...join a group activity so you have some common ground- and also other are likely joining the activity for the same reason...

Hiking is good, as it keeps you fit as well.
posted by mattoxic at 3:18 AM on October 1, 2008

I disagree with people advocating you practice cold-calling. You may be thinking "Hey, why not give it a shot," but for the woman it can be tremendously obnoxious. Many, many women have experience with random guys wandering up to them and hitting on them simply because they are female and alone in a public place. For most women, a guy approaching them, no matter what the guy says, is eliciting the mental response "Here's another dude who noticed I have a vagina and wants to put his dick in it." It kind of sucks for her.

If you must cold-call, it should be because you are tremendously interested in something she is doing. Like, she has the pin of your favorite band, or she is reading your favorite book. And then you make sure she is open and engaging when she returns your questions. Smiling is not enough, because a lot of women will smile to be polite.
posted by schroedinger at 5:39 AM on October 1, 2008 [7 favorites]

From personal experience, the Freitag bag line works. In my case it was unintentional.

But compliments do work best--the key is to realize what it is you like about the person that does not have anything to do with their body. If it is a physical feature think about what it says about the person--for example nice clothing to me says the person has taste and, once you get into the conversation, a relaxed and friendly smile says the person is easy-going and fun.

For girls, go ahead and compliment looks on the guy you are fancying.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:26 AM on October 1, 2008

Some people can approach anyone, anywhere.

I guess I'm an edge case, but I HATE being approached in public. I can't think of any time, ever when I've wanted a stranger to approach me or have been happy when one has. It always irritates me. I know that paints a terrible picture of me, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't true.

It's my tragedy to be misanthropic in this way while having an incredibly friendly, non-threatening face. So people constantly approach me, ask me directions, etc. I bring this up to illustrate that if you want to approach strangers, you have to be willing to risk irritating some people. It's just going to happen.

But you know what? It's not the end of the world. As much as I hate interacting with strangers, I don't think they're assholes for approaching me (unless they do it in a rude way or don't back off when I make it clear that I'd rather be alone). I do realize that when I'm in a public space, I'm in a public space, and that if I want total isolation, I should stay at home.
posted by grumblebee at 7:03 AM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

moxiedoll: get out of your apartment and go to the *same* place regularly, where outgoing girls can get used to seeing you, the cute coffee shop guy (or whatever) and hit on *you*

Just a quick anecdote that this actually does work. I worked at a coffee shop where a very cute, shy guy was a regular. I flirted and then asked him out. We've been together for over seven years!
posted by crunchtopmuffin at 7:23 AM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Correct. Contrary to what movies might lead you to believe, approaching strangers is not going to get you anywhere, unless you live way south of the Mason-Dixon line.

HA! I meet so many strangers in NYC it's crazy. I really like strangers. That kind of cheerful, friendly attitude goes a long way.

Everybody wants to be liked!*

--Don't focus too much on only hot, single girls. Everyone is friends with other people who might be hot single girls. More important than that, people are cool and you need friends.

--You're going to feel like a failure if your goal is to get a date from everyone you talk to, and the odds of that happening are low. Set yourself up for success and make your goal to talk to a stranger. Period, the end. That's your only goal. Level cleared. Success. Ticker tape parade.

-Focus on making them smile, helping them, brightening their day. If you think your own thoughts too much and focus on YOU, how YOU look, what they think of YOU, it will turn you into a sweaty, inconsiderate mess.

~Success Stories~

--I met a great girl because she was telling everyone the subway wasn't working, so they didn't have to climb up the stairs for nothing. She was telling everyone, not just the people she wanted to boink. We didn't really date, but man she's awesome.

--I met a handsome academic at a cafe. I was sitting in a prime spot, next to a wall with an awesome view. He was obviously a regular who was trying to write a paper. He looked agitated and like he couldn't get comfortable. I offered him my seat so he could write. BAM! We were friends. I am not single but, hey. I do have a lot of great female friends...

--I met my ex when he saw me at a party getting busted for underage drinking, and was acting as a lookout so that some of us could escape. It didn't work out but we had a lot of good times and my friend and his friend ended up hooking up and are still together after 3+ years.

Hope something works out for you. Until then, remember that talking to someone is a great goal in and of itself and you should be proud of yourself for trying even if it doesn't work out exactly as planned.

*Maybe not, but the people who want to be disliked need friends & acquaintances to alienate--so it works out anyway.
posted by sondrialiac at 7:32 AM on October 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

There are a whole bunch of different decisions points being made when conversing with strangers in a public space. I'm one of those open-faced friendly-types of people most of the time [and when I'm not it's generally crystal clear] so people talk to me pretty often and if I had to break it down I'd look at it like this

- be friendly and not totally ego wrapped up if someone doesn't want to talk to you [there is nothing worse than having someone try to strike up a conversation at a bad time and THEN get huffy if you don't have time to chat. I don't know if this is a gender thing but I'm surprised how often this has happened to me considering how clearly rude this is]
- keep it to small talk and if possible direct your remarks to a group rather than one person at first
- be hyper-acute at looking for go-away or not-now-thanks cues

- approach someone where they're stuck with you even if they don't want to talk [this is a problem for me on airplanes -- if I have my nose in a book and someone tries more than once to start a conversation with me I basically have to flat out tell them "I'm really into this book right now." and then sit next to them feeling like I've been rude to them for the next several hours]
- open a conversation and then turn it into a verbal jousting match. if you're going to talk to someone cold, be prepared to be friendly and agreeable more than witty and ascerbic [in most cases, I'm sure there are times when snarky is just the thing]
- get into someone's space before you're clear they'd like to talk to you [sitting down at their table, standing between them and a graceful exit, this can be seen as creepy even if you're just doing it by accident]

Since I'm a thinky type I'm usually sizing up a situation like this in a lot of ways that sort of progress. Like Forktine, I'm also "taken" but I do like other people generally. So my thoughts go like this

- Is this someone I want to talk to AT ALL [very few people fall into the "no" category here, but if you seem like a crazy/dangerous person I may pretend I can't even hear you/see you]
- Is this someone I would talk to briefly [you need to know what time it is but I'm sort of busy, for example]
- Is this someone I'd like to talk to generally [you like the band, I like the band, hey did you know the guy in this band is also in that other band? oh no I didn't tell me more]
- Is this someone I'd like to talk to more at some other time [this is the big *conversion* point I think, having a conversation is one thing, wanting to have future conversations is something different] this is also where you have to be clear that you're talking to someone you're possibly interested in, instead of just a random friendly person who happened to say something nearby

And then for other people this may move on into "Is this someone I'd like to consider seeing romantically?" Basically for me once I get to the "yeah this is someone I'd like to see more of" stage, I usually want to find a way to let them know that I'm not single, so we're clear on what's going on. I think also for many people this is the point at which having a blah blah how's the weather discussion can get trickier. You want to see more of them and you want to know if they want to see more of you.... If they don't want to see more of you then you have to sort of think of what to do next. Some people are okay with opposite-sex [or preferred gender] people as friends, some people who are actively dating but have enough friends want to really focus on people for dating.

The reason people find the coffee shop thing so appealing is that if you two are regulars, you sort of know that you'll see them again without having to force the issue which gives you more idle chat time before you have to really make a "move" so to speak. This is also a strong srgument for meeting people in situations like people have outlined above, where you're in an activity group and can see people over a period of time which gives you both a chance to get to know each other a bit more before moving into one-on-one time together.
posted by jessamyn at 7:54 AM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

For most women, a guy approaching them, no matter what the guy says, is eliciting the mental response "Here's another dude who noticed I have a vagina and wants to put his dick in it." It kind of sucks for her.

It sucks for everyone, leading to a climate where you can't ask a woman for the time (because you want to know the time) without her assuming you're trying to pick her up, and she acts accordingly, which is obnoxious in a whole other way.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:14 AM on October 1, 2008

I agree with lacedback. The "get out of the house and meet people" idea doesn't mean go out to public spots and chat up strangers to me; it means go out and get involved in projects etc. where you're doing a shared activity and gradually getting to know team mates. It's like how you meet people at the work place and sometimes become friends--you're just expanding that type of environment to non-work place interests.

Personally, I never want to be bothered by a stranger in public spots. I have only ever befriended or become romantically involved with people due to meeting them being secondary to some other situation--whether it be a dinner party where I meet a friend of a friend's, or a volunteer project, or a pottery workshop or reading or cooking club. The idea of going out JUST with meeting new people as the naked motivation in itself is off putting to me. People vary about this, though.
posted by ifjuly at 10:22 AM on October 1, 2008

In addition to what folks have said above, I think you give yourself the best chance if you look presentable, are well groomed, are not at all scary, and come off as cheerful and having a sense of humor. For some women this is actually a bit of a safety issue. It can seem a little more dangerous to get into a conversation with a guy who might be tricking them into conversation to rob them or get something from them. So if someone is wearing a suit or otherwise looks clean cut it seems less risky to interact with them. (This is coming from someone who works in a big city.)

Also, I am more likely to respond positively to someone who is being cheerful or helpful or has a sense of humor about things than some stranger who is complaining or being negative, because who wants to spend time I could be using to do something else on being negative? Which is not to say that one shouldn't be honest or never let a bad word pass your lips, but it shouldn't be the main impression you are giving off if you want to get somewhere.

Sometimes the random interactions I have with strangers waiting in lines etc. are among the best parts of my day. Why not spread a little cheer and helpfulness, if you can?

Good luck!
posted by onlyconnect at 11:44 AM on October 1, 2008

I think it depends on the person. Making sure they're not busy doing something before you interrupt them is good, but I can honestly say I don't like it when anyone in public tries to talk to me. Even if I don't look like I'm doing something, I'm busy thinking about something and I don't like losing my train of thought. I apologize for contributing to your paranoia, but it's true. For what it's worth, I don't hold it against people as long as they back off after I give a few terse-but-polite answers. There are definitely people who will be assholes about it, though, no matter what you do.

With that in mind, I still think you should try. The worse than can happen is you'll annoy someone, and really, even when it happens to me I forgot it pretty quickly. I've never had my day ruined by someone trying to talk to me or anything. I wouldn't think you were a bad person, either.
posted by Nattie at 12:58 PM on October 1, 2008

I disagree with people advocating you practice cold-calling. You may be thinking "Hey, why not give it a shot," but for the woman it can be tremendously obnoxious. Many, many women have experience with random guys wandering up to them and hitting on them simply because they are female and alone in a public place.

For what it's worth, my suggestion had nothing to do with "wandering up to", which contains a strong targeting element. It's just making smalltalk with whoever happens to be nearby. Probably half the time I do it without even knowing who (if anybody) is near me ("holy shit - did you see that guy cycle past in a tutu?" *looks around for acknowledgement*)

It sucks for everyone, leading to a climate where you can't ask a woman for the time (because you want to know the time) without her assuming you're trying to pick her up, and she acts accordingly, which is obnoxious in a whole other way.

This too, although it is understandable. In my worldview, anybody who can't at least be civil in a situation like that most likely isn't worth speaking to anyway, because they've got a chip on their shoulder as big as the Ritz. This, of course, assumes you don't look like a homeless wino with a bunch of sticky old porn magazines poking out of the pocket of your tattered, vomit-encrusted overcoat.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:40 PM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Try this one (a girl did this to me on a line in a coffee shop): She leaned forward and put her nose on my shoulder, sniffed my shirt and asked me...

If you are a man, do not lean forward and place your nose on an unknown woman´s shoulder.

To generalize, do not face a unknown woman´s backside and place any of your body parts upon any of her body parts, unless it´s to keep her from being run over by a taxi or something.
posted by yohko at 1:41 PM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Smiling is not enough, because a lot of women will smile to be polite.

Yessssssss. Don't take a smile or even a low=grade friendly response as a green light to sit down at my table. A bit of smalltalk is ok from anyone, but if I don't want to talk my response will be a friendly-enough "heh, yeah. tell me about it" with a little smile, and then I will look down at my work again. It won't be the total freeze-out or the "you know, I'm kind of busy here" unless you've really, really crossed a social line. So the smile and the friendly but close-down response is not a green light.

The dudes who have not taken the hint here -- presumably because I smiled and didn't totally ignore them -- are like barnacles who won't let go. Arrrgh. The iron law of the coffeeshop is: if you have initiated the interaction, you need an active response from the other person in order to keep it up. Just a polite "yup, sure is, heh" type of response is not enough. You need the other person to say "yup, sure is, heh. So, I saw you in here the other day with an Aristotle book; are you in school around here?" They will ask you an open-ended question back, if they want to keep talking to you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:19 PM on October 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Exactly, LobsterMitten.

For what it's worth, it's never been my experience for that kind of random chitchat with strangers to lead directly to friendships or dates etc, although you might sometimes chat for the duration of a bus ride or whatever if the person is good natured & in the mood for human interaction.

If anything, it's just a way of breaking the ice in situations where you're likely to be seen again & again. I believe that most people are warm & friendly deep down, but understandably wary about strangers, so need to work out for themselves that you're not malicious or dangerous.

Pardon the metaphor, but it's not unlike what The Little Prince says about how humans tame animals. Wild animals are naturally wary, so drop a tiny morsel of food. They take it, and nothing bad happens. Rinse & repeat until trust is established.

Then you can clunk them on the head with a club, take them home & roast them on the spit. *did i just write that or was i thinking aloud again?*
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:38 PM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

How to Succeed with Women. This book's methods worked great for me, who was clueless about flirting with and courting women until I was 40.
posted by neuron at 8:59 PM on October 1, 2008

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