This Seat Taken?

Once upon a time, a commenter on this blog mentioned it can be easier to make friends abroad because in other countries it isn’t weird to park it in an empty chair at a coffee shop, even if there is already someone sitting at the table. Sharing a table in a crowded European pub or restaurant is friendly, rather than the American personal-space invading.

During my trip to London I’ve witnessed this firsthand. On Sunday night I saw a couple ask another couple if they could sit with them, even though the other couple was quite obviously in the middle of dinner. It seemed quite weird. I don’t know that I’d want strangers blatantly interrupting a dinner with my husband. (And to be clear, these weren’t tourists, these were just regular locals eating dinner). But as the night went on, the couples chatted a bit, and seemed friendly enough. I don’t think they’re necessarily going to call each other at home, but it was certainly one way to attack the whole couple-friending blind date issue.

As we watched the couple crash a dinner table, my friend and I dissected the situation. She thought it was a bit odd, too, but explained that—just as that commenter once said—such an encounter is much less unusual in London that it would be in, say, New York City.

I wonder what it is about us Americans. Are we just more protective of our personal space? Are we more private? More wary of strangers? Ruder?

Have you noticed that strangers are more willing to share space and chat outside of America? Or am I reading too much into this? If it is true… why?


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31 responses to “This Seat Taken?

  1. Valerie

    Hi Rachel,

    This posting really resonated with me. I live in Honolulu, HI (the Aloha state), but recently, when I asked if I could sit at a table for four with one other person, the other person said, “only for a moment, I’m expecting someone.” When the second person showed up, I continued eating my lunch in the food court of the mall. I was asked to leave because the two individuals said they wanted to have a private conversation. So I moved to the table next to them where a young man was sitting by himself. Again, when I asked him if I could sit there, he said he was expecting someone so I could only sit there for a short period of time. I don’t think the second person ever showed up because after I finished my lunch and my shopping, I passed by his table and he was still sitting by himself, working on his computer! What’s up with that? I don’t mind if a stranger sits with me when I’m by myself! I was surprised because Hawaii is supposed to be the Aloha state. By the way, I’m from the Midwest (the land of friendly people)!


  2. I’ve noticed this in Canada also — we’re supposed to be real friendly here. Perhaps it’s the population increase in cities & towns whereby we’re all losing personal space so now we protect whatever amount we can get? Perhaps we trust others less?

    • Ladysas

      As a fellow Canadian I agree it’s not really done. Though I would never consider asking a stranger if I could join them normally I recently did so on vacation in Cuba. Perhaps it was the margarita I just finished that made me bold or the vacation atomosphere. I saw a couple that were just finishing their meal and I wanted their table as seating was informal but limited. I had noticed them over the past couple of days we were there and was intriqued by them & interested in meeting them. I asked if we could join them as they were finished their meal & just sitting & chatting with each other but made it clear we wanted to join them, not boot them out. They agreed and we had a lovely visit before they excused themselves to head back to the beach. My point here is that normally if I was approached I would wonder if someone was asking to join me at a table to get me to leave rather than to meet me. It’s not like in Rachel’s book where she’s choosing a potential friend.

  3. Laurie Lee

    I could see one person asking to sit at a table in a coffee shop with another person by themselves but not for a dinner where there’s a big investment in a night out. I couldn’t imagine being out for a nice dinner with my hubby, something we don’t do that often , and strangers joining us. However, if I was at Starbucks and someone wanted to sit with me I wouldn’t consider that too big a deal as long as they were quiet and not yapping on their phone the whole time.

  4. Nancy

    I go to lots of conferences (librarians) and we often ask to sit at tables with others. No one seems to mind. In fact, we enjoy talking to each other. One time my friend and I went to a sports radio program at a restaurant and asked to join a couple of women because it was so crowded. And I’ve done it in a crowded restaurant on game day. No one has ever seemed to mind, but I’ve never intruded on a romantic dinner for two either… I think it just depends on the circumstances and the ambience. Try it!

  5. I’ve honestly never seen this happen in Europe, except when there are no other seats available and you’re hogging a table for six all by yourself. On the rare occasions I’ve sat with a stranger, we sat as far away from each other as possible and didn’t talk.

  6. I’m a fairly shy and solitary person, so I wouldn’t dream of asking to sit with someone I don’t know. However, if someone asked me, I’d probably be okay with it, as long as the person didn’t seem threatening.
    I think that many Americans are paranoid that there’s a scam or a catch. Untrusting.

  7. Yes, at first the sharing table thing was awkward. Now I welcome it. It has happened to me several times in England, and with the English abroad, when a restaurant is full and there is space at your table. I have met many wonderful people this way. It is a cultural difference. The Brits are supremely polite and always ask politely before joining you. It first happened to me in London in the early 1970’s when I was a teenager. It last happened in Halifax in 2011. A great opportunity to meet interesting, friendly people & an interesting cultural variance that I have learned to appreciate.

  8. I live in Shanghai and there is a sandwich shop near my place that has long tables and benches as seating. You have to sit with strangers if you want to sit. Every time I eat there I make friends. That never happens in the states.

  9. Yesssssssss. I’m from South Africa but have travelled to both London and the rest of the UK, and to the USA. And yes, you guys are far more into protecting your personal space than elsewhere 🙂

    I do think that everywhere if there’s a free table, people would ultimately prefer to sit there but then afterwards (like orbitals), people start filling up without problems.

  10. As a born and bred Londoner I found this a little funny to read! I’ve never encountered anything like this in all my years in the city! Especially from the local Londoners. Us Brits are such private people. Sharing space is not something we do all that happily.

  11. This has happened to me while alone and with hubby when we travel. Germany; bigger cities, Italy; busy tourist places, and London; everywhere. I think it has to do acceptable personal space limits. In larger cities and highly populated areas you get used to have people in your space.

    If you can sit on a bench in the London Underground and carry on a private conversation, why couldn’t you do that at a restaurant with strangers seated next to you. I think it is because big city european folk tune out others whereas Americans are much more nosey and interested in the goings on around them.

  12. Amy

    I have noticed this in Europe the couple times I’ve been to Germany and Switzerland. I agree with a couple people above that Americans are less trusting of each other and also nebby! Once my BIL was getting gas in Switzerland when a man – a complete stranger – asked if he could hitch a ride with us for awhile. He said sure! I was paranoid about it but it turned out well. The man just needed a ride and we did our good deed of the day I guess! And recently I went to a Hibachi restaurant at home with friends for the first time and was initially uncomfortable with the stranger sharing seating set-ups but I relaxed and ended up enjoying the interactions with them. It made me wish Americans were more social in this way! It seems people are only friendly and open when my baby is with me!

  13. I moved to the US in my mid 20s, so my impression is that Americans are very protective of their personal space. They are super friendly if someone is introduced to them by another person they know; and there are definitely a lot of fake smiling going around when you’re at a grocery shop need to get by someone. But otherwise, it’s a huge personal space issue that doesn’t exist to such extent in Europe.
    Having said that, at times it’s nice that your personal space is respected and the whole world isn’t in your business the entire time.
    Balance! That’s what we need!

  14. I think it’s absolutely true that Europeans have less hang ups in general. I wish Americans (myself included) could get over ourselves and share the world in happiness. Just my two cents but I think we’d all be a lot happier.

  15. I’ve never noticed this in the UK! My experience is that people only ask to share tables if there is no other option (besides giving up and leaving)… and the people they’re asking only say yes because they’ve been told it’s bad manners to refuse.

    I *have* done this and had it done to me, but it’s only ever resulted in two whispered conversations going on, not in a bonding experience between strangers!

  16. As someone in small town England – no, this would be an absolute no go. It would be very awkward to share a table with someone. The only way I see it happening is if you are in one of those restaurants that cram people in, and then only exceptionally friendly people would actually speak to each other!

  17. My husband and I just spent some time in Munich, and this happened nearly every time we dined, and I loved it! It was such a great way to meet people. Sometimes we chatted with the folks who sat with us and sometimes we kept to ourselves. This was the case in 2003 when I was in Munich for the 1st time, also.

  18. Suzannah

    I feel pretty safe saying here in Texas we would say no! Cuz we would assume they are CRAZY:-P

  19. Love this post! I’m constantly sharing your posts with my friends on fb and they are very well received! 😀

    I have experienced this for the first time in college. I like it. I think it’s fine for people to say “yes” or “no” honestly. The problem with people who say “yes” is that they might frown down on people who say “no,” which seems judgmental. Everyone should reserve the right to say no.

    Personally, I would only say “no” if I were in a bad mood, wanted to chill with myself, or were on a date.

  20. amommys2cents

    I’ve travelled by Amtrak trains a couple of times and when eating in the dining car they seat you wherever an empty seat is. It was pleasant enough, usually just a little small talk but mostly eating our own meals and enjoying the view out the window.

    My sister is in the Army and was travelling home when she tried to get a meal at a crowded airport restaraunt. A man offered for her to have the other seat at his table. He finished his meal not long after and left. My sister later found out that the man had also paid for her meal! There’s good people out there.

    • Wow, I got all teared up over that. What your sister experienced would never happen in Europe. That kind of generosity only exists in the heart of Americans. You made me a little homesick.

  21. My favorite strangers-becoming-friends story happened outside of a little restaurant in San Francisco. There was a huge line for the small restaurant. Two ladies in line started chatting about life and travels, and when it finally came their turn to be seated, they decided to just save some time and space and sit together and continue their chatting. I’m still waiting for that to happen to me. I’d love to fall into a spontaneous friendship, even if it only lasts through breakfast.

  22. Aha! At last–here is my blog post about friendship and Sex and the City:
    I am obsessed with friendships, and plan to visit this blog obsessively. Thanks for writing it!

  23. Wow! I must really come across as pretty weird then. Whenever I’m in a crowded restaurant/pub/coffee shop/library or anywhere else in a crowded space, I ALWAYS approach someone sitting alone. Most of the time the person doesn’t mind. Sometimes I do get the “I’m waiting for someone” reply and in that case, I just approach the next singleton in the mix. When I’m in a cafe and see it’s crowded, I would move my stuff out of the vacant seat to kinda “signal” that I’m open to sharing a table if approached.

    Five years ago in Houston, I was in a crowded La Madeleine and I chatted up a guy in line. I’d already secured a seat before entering the line, but he quickly noticed that he had no where to sit. He asked whether I’d mind if he sat with me and I told him he was more than welcomed to join me. He paid for my lunch, we chatted some more, and we went out on 2 more dates later that spring. I know I wasn’t seated when he asked, but it’s the same concept, right?

  24. Jen Q

    The only time I asked to sit down at a table with a couple strangers (two 30-ish women) with the only free seat. I was ready-to-pop pregnant and it was a packed full coffee-shop – before wifi so no-one was working on their laptops even, and they said No, then put stuff onto the chair! Other people saw this and just averted their eyes. Must have been 30 people in there. So I went next door to a pizza shop with my drink and asked them nicely if I could just sit (they were nearly empty). They treated me like a queen and said I could do that anytime without buying anything. I recommended that pizza place highly and ate there too thereafter. I digress, but even when a person is obviously uncomfortable and have no other option but to stand or leave, some people will say no; others will be kind. If I had been fit and comfortable instead of achy and akward, I’d probably not have asked, as I guess I expect people (in the USA) to be guarded.

    I do think it is an American thing, as I saw in China, people get much closer to strangers all the time and it is just the norm everywhere I was, which was 5 different major cities. Some chatted, some didn’t. Always it felt like just normal comfortable behavior, respectfully done.

    I have always said yes when people asked me if they could sit near me, or even offer when someone is looking and it is crowded, at a mall food court or a subway train, where ever. And if someone pregnant or elderly comes along, I give up my seat! I have chatted with friendly couples and single people both as a result, or sat in comfortable silence. I do not expect to be “alone” in public. If I want to be guarenteed to be alone, I stay home.

  25. I thought about this a few weeks ago when I was in a Tim Horton’s near my university. It was packed, mostly with students, and the only available seat was in a booth being used by one girl. This booth could have sat four people, but she had her laptop and books spread out over the table, so no space went to waste. I thought about asking to sit there, since there were no other available seats, but I knew it would probably be super weird so I didn’t. I ended up eating the sandwich I had bought in the car.

  26. Emily

    I work at a wine shop/bar in Ohio and on nights that are very busy we encourage our customers to share tables. At first they look at us like we are crazy but they almost always have a fabulous time with each other.

  27. I’m the kind of person that will chat to anyone anytime so it wouldn’t bother me if someone wanted to sit at my table or if I had to ask to share a table, I’m in Australia so we have plenty of room most of the time :P, I will ask people to move their stuff if I want to sit on a park bench or at a bus stop or something or even just plonk myself down if they’re hogging the seat. I probably wouldn’t ask to sit down at someones table at a coffee shop cause a coffee shop to me is a place to either sit by yourself, gather your thoughts, and enjoy your coffee in peace, or catch up with a girlfriend and gossip for an hour, so I would be uncomfortable asking to sit with a bunch of other people who were gossiping because you’d feel unconfortable if they obviously stopped talking because you were there, or making polite conversation (but they obviously couldn’t care less) I’ve eaten at tepanyaki restaurants where you’re all squished in together around the cooking area, but all the times I have gone, I have ignored everyone around me and just focusssed on the chef or the people I’m with. I wasn’t being rude but there is like 5 different conversations going on and so much else going on that you don’t really need to be friendly to the other people.

  28. Well, other people usually see us Germans as cold and distant (perhaps it is clichee, perhaps there is some truth in it:) . However sharing a table in a restaurant indeed is rather normal for us. Perhaps it is so normal because we culturally learned to stay away from each other in a discrete way, even when seated next to each other. Which means, leaving each other the space to breath and go on with what you were supposed to do without fearing that the new arrival would invade your privacy. Not until one side gives the discrete signal that he or she would be interested to do so. However, in some popular areas like downtown Cologne or Frankfurt you surely will be seated together. And that is exactly why we go there, I think. To share tables. After a beer or two we love sharing our view on the world. It is not that we start friendships this way. However it feels good leaving each other again somehow richer in experience. We as Human beings are truely social. It is our deepest motivation. That’s why we share our lives on facebook. Why shouldn’t we do so at the table?

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