I Want to Be Alone

Dear Helena,

I like to eat lunch at this place that is jammed with other office workers. The other day I went alone, and the server asked if she could sit another person with me at my two-top. I’m assuming as a solo diner I have the right to my own table. How can I politely tell the server that? If a place is seat-yourself, is it OK for me to tell a stranger I don’t want to share my table?

Also, when I eat alone at the bar, people are always trying to chat with me. It’s as if people assume I sat there because I wanted to make friends (even though usually I’m there because the restaurant didn’t want to waste a two-top on me). Is there a polite way to reject such overtures? Or do I have to smile and make nice? —Lone Ranger

Dear Lone Ranger,

Restaurants don’t ask parties of three or five to let a stranger take the empty seat at their table, and they should not expect parties of one to do so either. David Guggenheim, a server in Los Angeles with almost nine years of experience in the industry, says: “If I ever got caught [asking a solo diner to share a two-top], I would have been in a huge amount of trouble.” Asking you to share your table is like asking you to share your soup: It’s such an absurd request you need not explain your refusal. Just say, “Actually, I’d prefer to keep the table to myself.”

But if the person who asks to share is a fellow diner, it’s another matter. People only ask to share tables if a place is packed. So if you say no, the person will have to trudge around until he finds another seat, or else he’ll hover over you glowering, and ruin the rest of your lunch anyway. So treat him as you would like to be treated: Let him sit down.

If you’re seated at the bar (or at a chef’s counter), you’re not obliged to make small talk, any more than you have to talk to your seatmate on the subway or on a plane. A book or magazine is the best defense against unwanted overtures. (At a bar, there may not be enough room to unfold a newspaper.) Beth Whitman, author of Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo, is experienced at warding off strangers’ advances. She suggests writing in a journal. Avoid eye contact. If your fellow diner plunges into conversation anyway, respond in as few words as possible.

At this point, most people get the hint. But occasionally, people are blind to social cues. They’re lonely, or drunk. Then you have to spell it out. Whatever you say, rejection will sting. But, as with breaking up with someone, you can minimize the damage by making it all about you. Say, “I’m really sorry, but I’ve had a long day and I’m not feeling very social.” Don’t try to soften the blow by saying, “You seem like a very nice person,” or words to that effect.

I sat next to someone on an airplane once who wouldn’t stop talking, even though I was wearing my headphones and reading a book. Every time he asked me a question, I answered in monosyllables, but he didn’t get the message. Eventually I said, “It’s nothing personal, but I’d really prefer not to talk.” However, I’ll always feel a little bad for the look of shock that appeared on his face. He didn’t utter a word for the rest of the flight.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.