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Recently my husband and I were enjoying a night out. We were seated at the bar of one of our favorite local establishments. On my husband's left was a somewhat inebriated couple, and when they got up to leave, the woman tapped my husband on the shoulder (as he was facing away from her) and said, "Hi, I'm P——." We didn't mean to be unfriendly, but neither of us was interested in giving a conversational opening to them. Caught off guard, my husband responded with something along the lines of "That's nice," or "Good for you," while I kept my gaze averted and both of us busied ourselves with our delicious Irish coffees. P—— flounced away, muttering angrily.
We have two questions: Is there some unwritten rule that if you sit at a bar, you wish to be conversed with by other patrons? And can the Gentleman Scholar recommend any polite responses to give random people who introduce themselves for no good reason when one does not wish to talk?
Thank you for your question.
I’m afraid that your husband, in his flusterment, may have been unduly snide. According to my reading of social contract, one is obliged to be about 25 percent more genial to strangers he meets in a bar than those he meets in a fast-food restaurant: A bar is not just a trough, it’s a community space. Still, I will restrain myself from scolding your husband harshly, especially given the vagueness of your recollection. There is a bit of daylight between “That’s nice,” the lightly chiding coyness of which nearly approximates mild warmth, and “Good for you,” with its directly sneering sarcasm. The former is permissible in certain contexts, the latter a provocation to be avoided (unless, perhaps, the interlocutor seems to expect her name will be recognized, in which case the statement of indifference indicates a systematic resistance to celebrity worship).
Don’t get me wrong: Given that a glazed stranger had interrupted his conversation, your husband was entitled to harbor a certain snide attitude, but if he had kept this attitude private from P——, then he could have enjoyed the satisfaction of having behaved graciously in the face of mild obnoxiousness. Besides, distancing disses like your husband’s are always most entertaining for everyone involved when the parties are already acquainted. I rather savor my memory of the birthday party at which I was reintroduced to a novelist only to be reminded that he had a beef with me about a mixed review. “We’ve met before,” I said. “Yes, we have,” he countered, leaving it at that and thereby raising my appreciation of his grudge-holding abilities.
In the instance you describe, I would have assumed a slightly formal posture and adopted the aloofly inquisitive face one makes when approached by a stranger who may or may not be asking for loose change, then said, “Hi, I’m Troy.” Then, modulating my tone so its briskness would not quite tilt into brusqueness, I would have blankly absorbed a few moments of chit-chat before faking a mild smile and negotiating an exit. I have cultivated this approach over hundreds of barstool hours, many spent alone but for the virtual company of the author whose thoughts are illuminated by candle and beer light, and I tend to indulge obnoxious intrusions. They occasionally yield anecdotes worth talking about with people one actually wants to be talking with, and they almost always afford a chance to study human nature, as the intruder is too busy being obnoxious to notice that he is an object of inspection; when I’ve collected my data, I say, “I hate to be rude, but I need to get back to my book. Thanks for chatting.” Sure, once every couple of years, one finds oneself getting aggressively hit on by a dude who, being both drunk and crazy, interprets one’s rejections of his advances as outright snobbery and whose demented persistence makes one viscerally flare with rage and fear, but in my experience the bartender will generally kick the guy out and then give you a drink on the house, so it all comes out in the wash.
Now, there are certain places where local custom forbids a solitary bar-going experience. If you try to read a book in a Dublin pub, they will kick you out, at last call, after having soaked your evening with bonhomie and stout.
At some point in a man’s life, he will have become too old to rely on the patience and couch-space of his friends in other cities for accommodation when traveling. It seems clear that one’s 20s are dependent on this kind of arrangement (usually in tandem with an inexpensive ticket on some regional bus line), but surely a grown man must at some point trade in the rustic charms of the futon for the privacy and dignity of a proper hotel room, no matter his financial station. When is the cutoff?
Thank you for your letter. We invite you to grab a pencil and use our handy calculator to determine exactly how unseemly your freeloading is.
Have you ever lived with the crashee? If yes, add 3 points.
If you have not lived with the crashee, have you otherwise bunked with him or her (e.g., at slumber parties, on camping trips, while splitting a hotel room, as a consequence of jointly crashing in the apartment of a third party)? If yes, add 1 point.
Has the crashee crashed on your couch within the last 18 months? If yes, add 2 points.
Is the crashee a childhood friend? If yes, add 1 point.
If the crashee a family friend? If yes, add 3 points.
Have you ever casually hooked up with the crashee? Zero points.
But, like, was it just for laughs, back in college? A friends-with-benefits things? If yes, add 1 point.
Did you ever date the crashee in, like, a serious way? If yes, subtract 1 point.
Are you still hung up on him or her? If yes, subtract 4 points.
Does the crashee live alone? If yes, add 1 point.
Is the apartment a studio? If yes, subtract 3 points.
Does the crashee live with one roommate? Zero points.
Does the crashee live with more than three roommates? If yes, add 1 point.
Does the crashee live with a wife, husband, or other significant other? If yes, subtract 1 point.
If the crashee is married, were you invited to the wedding? If yes, add 2 points; if no, subtract 5 points.
Have you ever dated the crashee's significant other in, like, a serious way? If yes, subtract 4 points.
Are you still hung up on him or her? If yes, subtract 7 points.
Does the crashee have an infant child in the house? If yes, subtract 2 points.
Are you visiting one of the five most expensive hotel cities in the U.S. (New York, Honolulu, Boston, Miami, New Orleans)? If yes, add 3 points.
Is the primary purpose of this trip, or this leg of this trip, to visit with the crashee? If yes, add 2 points.
Are you in town for a job interview? If yes, add 1 point.
Is it an entry-level job? If yes, add 1 point.
Has the crashee explicitly given you a standing invitation to crash? If yes, add 2 points, unless you initiated the conversation about crashing, in which case: zero points.
Are you in college? If yes, add 2 points.
Are you in grad school? If yes, add 1 point.
Don’t you have, like, some points or frequent-flier miles you could convert into a hotel discount? If yes, subtract 4 points.
Are you good late-night company? If yes, add 1 point.
Do you make a good breakfast? Zero points.
Will you make a good breakfast? If yes, add 1 point.
Do you take brief showers? Zero points.
Do you take long showers? If yes, subtract 1 point.
Do you not take showers at all? If yes, subtract 3 points.
Do the math and face the truth:
— Less than zero points: We hope you enjoy your stay at the Best Western. Continental breakfast starts at 6.
— Zero to 10 points: You may crash, but be aware that this is likely your last hurrah, and be on your best behavior. Show up with a good bottle of wine. Follow up with a kitchen tool, houseplant, or other housewarming-gift-type token of affection.
— Ten points or more: These are your prime crashing years. Make the most of them. Show up with a gift of coffee or alcohol with a retail value of no less than $40. Follow up with a handwritten note and a sincere offer to pay for all damage incurred.