“Is this seat taken”…REALLY???

pittsburgh 11

By Kenneth Justice

~ A few weeks ago I was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania visiting coffee shops as part of my Drinking in the Culture Tour, my excuse to get away from the daily grind and experience life all over Western Culture.

I was on break from meeting with readers and fellow bloggers and sitting at an undisclosed coffee shop working on some of my writing when a mid-30ish dude with a heavy German accent asked the young woman sitting directly next to me if he could sit down at her table. She had a bunch of textbooks sprawled all over the table and seemed deep in study. She removed her headphones and asked the guy to repeat himself,

May I please sit down at your table” he said again

The young woman nervously looked around the coffee shop, there were plenty of open tables available but she nonetheless said, “Sure”.

I watched the guy with interest, wondering what type of pick up line he was going to use next after he had sat down, but instead he merely sat their quietly people watching the various patrons coming and going, while he sat their sipping his coffee. He had a wedding ring on and so I couldn’t help but take advantage of the situation,

So dude, clearly you’re from Europe because you have a wedding ring on and yet you asked to sit at table with a young woman, and you don’t even hit on her!” I said

I don’t understand what you mean” he said

Well, we Americans generally don’t sit down at tables with pretty young girls when there are other tables that are empty. I’m guessing however that its pretty normal for you to do this in your country, or maybe you forgot to take your wedding ring on and you’re actually going to hit on this young lady?” I said

Suddenly the guy started blushing, “Oh I’m so sorry, is it considered rude for me to sit at the table with you?” he asked the young woman

She laughed, “Well, I kinda agree with this guy sitting here, it seemed like you were going to hit on me. Why didn’t you sit at one of those tables on the other side of the room?” she asked

This little interchange set in motion an hour and a half conversation among the three of us in which we shared our own cultural experiences, and as it turned out the young woman had recently returned from a one month vacation in Germany where she had stayed with friends; and she and the German fellow had a lot to talk about in relation to her travels.

The German guy repeatedly apologized to the young woman as he had no intention of hitting on her, “I’m so happily married!” he said, “and my wife will be arriving in another month to live with me here in the U.S.

Me being your typical Midwestern kid, I would never even think of sitting down at a table with an attractive young woman and then simply ignoring her. But this guy didn’t even think twice about it; he had simply grown up in a culture where sitting at a table with a stranger was as common as sitting at a table by yourself.

It makes me wonder how far we’ve come in the United States where we’ve become so callous and fearful toward strangers. My Drinking in the Culture Tour this year has been one long example however of the kindness so many strangers have shown me. Over the course of the past three trips I’ve been put up at people’s houses and apartments that I’d never met before. I’ve had fellow bloggers who I’ve never met in person extend tremendously warm welcomes to me and have been amazed at the many strangers who have simply taken the time to reach out to me and share their stories and experiences.

I’ve written repeatedly about my frustrations with the modern NEWS media. So much of the NEWS is produced and written in such a way to create anxiety in the public. Even weather reports are often depressing as weathercasters talk about the doom and gloom of the coming weekend; ‘more cold weather and rain’ as though it’s the end of the world.

However, there are real problems throughout the world,

—-) Slavery in the Ivory Coast

—-) Farmers committing suicide in India

—-) Political unrest in the Ukraine

I don’t want to ignore the very real problems that people face all around the globe, yet on the other hand I’ve grown very tired of the way the typical anxiety-ridden NEWS media controls every element of journalism, television news, and major Internet websites.

This past year I’ve tried to present a different take on writing; I’ve tried to present real-life articles about everyday people. People who struggle, who laugh, who get divorced, who get married, who fall in love, and who deal with death.

I haven’t sugar coated the stories I’ve told; and I haven’t embellished them with lies. With a few details changed at times to preserve people’s anonymity, I’ve presented to my readers the simple exchanges I have with people to give you a look into the world around us. A world that many of us miss because we are too busy with work, with children, or with the many errands or television shows that fill our days.

I’m not entirely sure what the future holds, but I believe this is only the beginning. Perhaps the time has come for a new way to share information; an avenue void of anxiety ridden images.

Yet what exactly all of this means…..I’m not really sure yet. At the moment, I’m simply a dude that likes a good cup of coffee.


Categories: Culture & Society

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76 replies

  1. I like that you are taking a more positive tone to writing. I currently work in the news media industry and, quite frankly, it makes me sick. On a day to day basis I edit stories that don’t sit quite well with me or that are just downright ridiculous in nature. I suppose that’s why I blog and choose to read the blogs of others. There’s more life out there than what we are forced to watch and read in news media. Anyway, thanks for being “a dude that likes a good cup of coffee.”

    • Thank you so much for your words. The NEWS media troubles me quite a bit and for some time I’ve been exploring alternative philosophies and ideas in doing the NEWS :0)

  2. Nice story, remembered me a time when I was travelling across Western Europe, I arrived in Vienna, found a little bar and coffe shop, close to the bed and breakfast where I was staying, sat at an empty table near the counter, it was a small place, and shortly after peoples sitting at the bar asked me why I sat there instead of joining them, and I found too that it is normal in Vienna to sit with strangers, but in this case, they became friends over the months I stayed there in Vienna…not in the coffee shop…:), customers, the owner and waiters, and I stayed in Vienna for four months, I’m not saying it was the reason for me to stay there, a bunch of things felt in place for that to happen, found a place to stydy painting,learn a bit of german, and when I started this one year trip, I was planning on spending a few months in a city I loved, I started with Vienna on my mind, and I founded it like I hope it was, even If it was end of november and damp and cold (when you’re from Montreal, you don’t bother about that..:), …but I did not hit on the ladies sitting there…:, but some became friends as well, for peoples hanging in there it was more like their living room I guess.

  3. I’m curious about your idea that men wear wedding rings only in Europe….?

  4. Interesting read, society needs to live in freedom rather than fear.

  5. ha ha well it is maybe weird to think. But does One person need an entire table to himself or just a seat?
    Germans have a bad name due to some wars. And that should be it.
    Some villages there still close there shop at noon to have lunch. Not a car in the world. sit on an empty seat and who know what conversation you might strike. it is about comfort with each other. a sense of being a community.

    SO funny when I read this. Just shows how different one western country is to another. Or how some thoughts polluted our minds of wrongfully assumptions

  6. Many European countries intermingle with strangers. For so many years the countries have interconnected, it seems pretty natural. Another place where you often found Europeans was at Youth Hostels, sharing sleeping space with strangers as they vacation. In the US, we are more isolationists. We are often not interested in talking to people we don’t know and would prefer to have our own private room in a hotel. Also, in some countries, during the holidays each family prepares sumptuous dishes to share with their neighbors. They then leave their house open for guests to visit in their absence while they to go taste the dishes of their neighbors. Very much a “my home is your home and I would be honored if you came by…even if I was out” type scenario.

    I remember as a child being told not to talk to strangers because there was a child predator who would lure children to his car with candy and then kidnap them. Slowly, over the course of quite a few decades, this uncommon situation has become quite common. So to some extent…the world is truly not as safe as it used to be. But I agree with you on one point and that is, media driven terror feeds negativity. I honestly think that if the media stopped giving heinous criminals their three minutes of fame, we would have less people trying to recreate those crimes.

    I totally agree with your comment about the weather. Just yesterday I was with a client and her mother called from Michigan to tell her to “Take cover…take cover…there’s a really bad storm on the way.” Suddenly my client was getting panicky wondering where a safe place to be during a storm in a highrise condo. She’s wondering if she needs to grab a few clothes and her medication. I could see her mind spinning I had to reassure her that I think the weather over exaggerated the storm and to check the news. I also told her if it was really a serious storm threat that the sirens would be going off…urging people to evacuate. When the news came on, it was a typical thunderstorm and the weather report warnings to “take cover” meant get inside, it’ll be a downpour. But after several days of bad weather for the middle part of the country, this woman who probably watch news most of the day saw it as a potential disaster. I am really disheartened by how many elderly people are just pummeled all day long with the bad news of the media.

    • These things make stress and anxiety levels go up. Being in touch with too many irresponsible sources of poor information can drive you crazy. What to believe?

    • “being in touch with too many irresponsible sources of information can drive you crazy”

      Amen dude… amen.

    • That’s why my tv is OFF most of the time.

    • Great examples Mrs. P, ever since I started reading Neil Postman many years ago I’ve been very concerned with the way the NEWS media (including weather broadcasters) are manipulating people and creating anxiety in the public…. its very troublesome to say the least.

  7. I’m English. My mother was Norwegian. I live in Spain with a German woman. We’ve lived together for ten years. There are a lot of Germans that come to the pueblo where we live. For the life of me I cannot imagine the average German sitting down at someone’s table the way you describe. I know English people often do it in big cities, if cafés are crowded. And often without asking. But it isn´t common in this part of Spain, and neither is it Norway. As I’m talking about Hammerfest, the furthest north you can get in Europe, and Conil, almost the furthest south – we can see Africa from our windows – I think I can safely say it’s unusual behaviour.

    And, having travelled around most of the rest of western Europe as well as part of the east, over many years, it isn´t common at all to see people sit at a table at which someone else is sitting in a virtually empty coffee house, especially at a table where someone appears to be studying.

    I don´t say this judgementally, it´s just a fact.

    Nevertheless, as we often say in England, to break the ice when sitting at someone else’s table, “Turned out nice, anyway.”

    • “turned out nice anyway”

      Love that Bryan!

    • Being English myself, having lived in France, Germany and various parts of Switzerland, and visited many other European countries, I have to agree with Bryan: he doesn’t sound like your typical German! I’ve seen Swiss people glance round a café where each table is occupied by one lone person (plus 3 or 4 empty chairs) and say, “Oh, it’s full!”

  8. Kenneth,
    When you share there is a hint of cultural revolution behind the words 🙂 A grass roots movement that changes our western culture with something so simple as being open to conversation. We’re more open to connection than we’ve been programmed to think … I wonder where that knowledge will take us in the future?

  9. Well, just a thought after reading Ranting Crow’s comment- Germans might have a bad name due to some wars but do Americans NOT have a bad name due to some wars? Other nations? It depends from which angle to view. I am sure, Ranting Crow didn’t mean anything by it, but I just wanted to put it out there that every nation has their military-sceletons in closets.
    I am Estonian myself and for some reason am a huge fan of German nation. I like their punctuality, their hard work ethics and the fact they don’t pussyfoot around topics. Do-what-needs-to-be-done-and-get-over it- kind of attitude.

    For comparison though, in Estonia people don’t tend to speak to strangers a lot. Two strangers waiting a bus/sitting next to one another on a bus/etc would never strike a conversation .. which was hard to get out of me after I moved to Ireland- I think in the first 5 years in IE, I heard more life-stories from strangers than I had in my previous 20 years. Of course every convo would start with the same sentence “Not a bad day at all! Thanks bit of god, we sure do need a bit of sunshine!” 😀

    • For the record I LOVE German people, and I come from German heritage myself. The German fellow who sat with us turned out to be a wonderful dude and we had a great conversation 🙂

  10. Your posts get richer and deeper every day, Kenneth. I would compare them to increasingly excellent coffee, but I don’t drink coffee. Here’s my solution to the news and weather media issues you discuss (which I’ve also noticed): I’ve stopped watching. Instead, I read wonderful blog posts (and other enriching writings, too).

    • Thank you Ann…..i’m noticing that there is a new theme to my writing as I’m beginning to develop a particular worldview/philosophy and have slowly began to espouse it.

  11. There is a specific reason that the media is mostly fear mongoring and fluff. These reasons have nothing to do with public safety or even a hint of the founding ideals of journalism. The powers that be (media) are conditioning us to seperate from and fear others, they are purposely training us to be mistrustful. Most people will adhere to the trends of society, therefor if a society is portrayed as dangerous then the members of said society will become what they are told they are. Divided we fall, divided we don’t realize the story they are feeding us doesn’t make sense. As I’ve said before, thank you for taking the time to tell a different kind of story, ones that humanize the strangers we’ve been taught to avoid. Thank you for helping remind us that underneath it all we really aren’t that different from one another and there will always be something we can find to bond over.

    • The media is just people. It reflects the general attitudes of the society it serves. And it serves up stories in the way, and with the attitudes, that will attract the most viewers and listeners, and therefore sell the most advertising.

    • When profit is the driving factor over what is put in the news, I have a hard time putting any stock in what they tell me.

    • It is good to approach the news presented to us with a healthy dose of critical thinking. However, I do not believe it is driven by some underlying conspiracy. Being driven by profit means giving large groups of people what they want. For the news media, that means telling their target audiences what they want to hear, in the way they want to hear it. If you want to change the media and the corporations, you’ll have to change the attitudes of the society they serve. And that’s a big job!

    • I wasn’t implying conspiracy in my original post, I was referring to the trend in media towards sensationalism, profit and desperate ploys for readers/viewers over the original founding ideals to tell people what they need to know while maintaining a level of integrity. Fear and panic draws an audience, drama draws an audience, silly stories draw an audience and the larger the audience the larger the profit. Make this style of news the perceived notion of what is normal and no one will question it. Changing the attitude of society is something I’d love to do, something I try to do in my own small way, a person at a time. Problem is, if I’m the only one who thinks things need to get better they won’t, plain and simple. If the media doesn’t cover legitimate issues that are facing society and the numerous solutions to them we could be implementing, than the majority of people won’t know there’s anything wrong, and me telling them to “dobetter” will fall on deaf ears.

    • I’m totally with you D, (sorry I’m late on getting that email to you….I moved into my new office yesterday and I’ve been so damn busy)

    • Oh no worries, take care of your business and I’ll be here.

    • Hmm, I would argue that the Media is strategic; great thought goes into the development and production of the News and they want to drive home a particular point….. Neil Postman has written extensively on the subject and I pretty much endorse any of his writings.

    • However, it has to be a point that millions of people want to hear. Otherwise they will lose their audience, which means losing advertising dollars, which means losing profits.

      Different news outlets do appeal to different audiences. However, there must be a large number of people who want that particular perspective, and will tune in to hear it. If a particular station or site starts saying something its audience doesn’t want to hear, they’ll quickly vote with their feet.

      Niche media outlets are niche precisely because they serve niche markets–much smaller groups of people who subscribe to less popular perspectives on life, the universe, and everything.

  12. Great blog. I’m beginning to understand your explanation of kindness of the strangers. You’re trying to counter-balance the fear-ridden news media that’s trying to get a reaction to keep people watching day after day.
    Haven’t read all the comments. So if someone already wrote this forgive me but about the comment on Americans who are callous and fearful of strangers – it maybe a reaction to the news media (?) or it maybe Americans rugged individualism.

  13. This post reminded me of a meme my son showed to me the other day: “Politeness has become so rare it can be mistaken for flirtation”. I grew up with very sociable role models. My grandmother and aunt in particular would chat with anybody and within half an hour would know their entire life story. I’ve picked up some of those traits and truly enjoy talking with people, especially 1-on-1 where I can focus on that person. This has often been mistaken for flirtation if I happen to be talking to a man and it has sometimes been a struggle whether or not to scale back my natural interest and desire to connect in order to avoid an uncomfortable situation.
    I would much rather sit at a table with a stranger and chat than sit alone, but this is a way I do scale back because it would be considered odd to do and would likely be misinterpreted. Yet, if I am sitting alone and strike up a conversation with someone at the next table, that for some reason is more acceptable. It’s really only a matter of geography (same table, next table) but I guess the more direct way is too awkward.
    Then there’s the scenario in the elevator or waiting room. Everyone looking at each other and no one wanting to be the one to break the ice. In the end, it’s way more comfortable and enjoyable to chat than to squirm and try to avoid eye contact.

    • “its way more comfortable and enjoyable to chat than to squirm and to try to avoid eye contact”

      Awesome example and point you make! Times where I was silent in such situations, I really did feel uncomfortable as you say 🙂

  14. I would be interesting in the attitudes from people in India or China where population densities are extremely high. What do they think about the topic of sitting in or close to someone’s personal space? I think we in the US or western Europe are lucky to have ‘elbow room’.

    • Jim, yea, I’m simply not familiar enough with Chinese culture…. but I do know in Arab culture that being in close proximity with each other is a natural way of life.

    • Jim, in South Korea, from what I have learned so far, interacting with strangers is typically not something one often does, likely due to the lack of personal space. If you bump into someone in a crowded street, there is no need to apologize as it is an expected element of life there. On the other hand, going out to eat alone is also seen as a bit odd. It is a social culture, but structured in those social interactions. I’ve found it quite interesting to learn about as it is so different from how things are here in Canada.

    • Thank you for that feedback. It is interesting to see how different cultures do things.

      Have a good day.

  15. About that weather . . .

    In the larger scheme of things, there’s no such thing as “good” weather and “bad” weather. There is only weather that most people like and weather that most people don’t like. And yet, some people actually prefer rainy, snowy, stormy weather!

    Ecologically speaking, storms have a vital role in clearing the air of contaminants and sweeping away what is old and dying to make room for new growth. Unfortunately, many people and animals get injured and killed in the process. However, without the cleanup provided by those powerful storms there would be an even greater buildup of death and decay.

    • Great point Lee. Ultimately, I’m just annoyed at the way NEWS stations profit off of the weather, its kind of disgraceful if ya ask me.

    • I’m not opposed to profits if the goods and services by which the profits are made are serving people.

      Fact is, people want to know the weather. Many people tune in to TV and radio stations specifically, or only to get the weather. And though the continuous coverage of big storms may seem like overkill, the stations do it because there’s a big audience for it. Some people actually sit by their TV or radio hour after hour following big storms. If the station goes to something else for any length of time, they’ll switch stations to find more storm coverage. Strange but true!

      I get the news I need on the weather report. Oh, I can gather all the news I need from the weather report.

      –Paul Simon, from the song “The Only Living Boy in New York.”

  16. I remember a professor who did fieldwork in Haiti. She talked about the cultural aspect of sitting close to one another and how she’d gotten used to it. When she returned to the States, she had a panicked moment on a bus and couldn’t understand why. Then she realized that it was because everyone was sitting so far apart. She felt like she was in a void.

    So I suppose it’s the same in Latin American and the Caribbean.

    As for the guy sitting down while there were empty tables, I would have had the same reaction as the girl – discomfort. I don’t mind sharing, but if there’s space elsewhere then…awkward. I’ve been hit on enough times by strangers sitting next to me in public places to be very wary. Is it fair? No. But experience is a hard teacher with lessons not likely to be shaken soon.

    • Great example Kira,

      Its weird how different us ‘American’s’ are here in the north. I don’t think we used to be this way, but rather that its something that has developed over the years….

  17. I was seriously inspired by this post. I’ve had some really great conversations with strangers and even enjoy hanging out in bars because of the way drink can loosen some people up to be more open. Yet, what do I do? I keep my own walls up.

    Food for thought.

    • I think its only natural that many of us keep our walls up; there are so many elements of our culture that reinforces that type of behavior, sad but true.

  18. “Ya can’t sit here.” “Seats Taken”
    Thanks for the insight, It’s not necessarily that I mistrust strangers innately, Just cultural as you examined. I’m going to try this someday here soon.

  19. Love the picture! So adorable! And what a great story. I will admit that it would freak me out to have a stranger sit down with me when there were other open tables… but I like my space. 🙂

  20. Interesting exchange I think this shows how our society is far to hyper sexualized everything is not about romance but men and women can have a great relationship without that. I wish we could learn more of this thanks for writing this

  21. So many great lessons in your travels. I appreciate them all 😉

  22. Our son is from Thailand. He tends to walk so close we’re tripping and bumping into him. Ha!

  23. Yes, I totally agree with you, the time has come to share information without it being anxiety-filled. And, I’d go a step further in saying this: blogging should become more popular and widespread because it’s a way of sharing news, information, and ideas about issues/things that are important to US, people, not networks or corporate giants, mega rich CEOs who care about ratings and sensationalism, and are too far removed from the common man, to care about the things WE care about. *putting away soapbox* Love this post, Kenny.

  24. Well…This young man came from Germany, so it could explain his behavior. Anywhere else in Europe most guys will sit near a young, pretty woman to talk to her, exactly as young men do it in the US. Try France and Italy, countries I know well, and it will be different. In fact, when I moved to the US (I was young) I was amazed by the courtesy of the American men, so not in your face like most Europeans guys were. So you see it is probably more a question of people than country really. Although I agree that northern Europe is much more educated toward gender equality than the rest.
    Again, thanks for all your impressions as you travel our big land.

  25. Culture and attitude makes a big difference in people’s connection.
    I miss those conversation out of blue back in Europe.
    Your scenario would of been doubtable or confusion for other cultures too; most cases though in Europe communication with strangers it’s common, acceptable behaviour leading to flirting or just simply being polite.
    Thank’s for sharing Dude 🙂

  26. People in North America are offensively uptight at times. Especially in the US. This stance of ambiguity closes us off to new experiences. New friends. I’m not saying we should kill the old adage and start teaching our children to talk to strangers, but maybe a smile, a nod or a casual hello wouldn’t hurt. Then, perhaps, moments like this one would not catch us so off-guard. Nice post.

  27. Great pic too. Do you do your own photos as well?

  28. I love coffee and I love your thoughts as you travel the world. The perspectives are different but in the end, most of us are basically the same I think i.e. human beings living day to day and trying to do the best we can. My one hope though is that we would make a bigger effort to be more understanding of each other and our cultures rather than stand in judgement. Your posts are helping with this. Keep drinking that cofee and keep writing 🙂

  29. I no longer watch the news for the very reasons you stated. It’s the same stories with just different faces. I’m not totally oblivious to world events, but there’s no need to be inundated with negativity. If you want to call me an ostrich with my head stuck in the sand. So be it. This ostrich is smiling!

  30. I admit, if a stranger of any gender asked to sit at my table while others were empty, I would automatically wonder why. It just seems like an oddity, to the point where I’d probably text my friends after about this weird guy/girl who just sat there and didn’t speak to me.

    Now, if the person sat down an engaged in good conversation, I would be delighted. I never assume people are flirting with me because I’m just not the type of person that happens to. A guy usually has to ask for my number or literally tell me “Hi, I’d like to date you” before I realize our casual conversation about the cosmos was actually flirtation.

    Lastly…. add this post to the list of reasons why living in Europe would be awesome.

  31. I cannot imagine ANYONE sitting down at an already occupied table in a coffee shop when there are empty tables around (in Australia). I certainly wouldn’t (and I’m a pretty friendly sort of person – i like talking to strangers).

    Maybe that’s just me.

    I can well imagine an Australian coffee shop being full of tables with one person sitting at every table – lol – seriously!

    The only times I imagine this would differ is if the coffee shop is in a small town/suburb and people become ‘regulars’ and start conversations with strangers they see every week and get to know by sight.

  32. Love everything about this post. I’m not above asking to share a table if there are none empty, especially if there is plenty of room (and the occupant is not sprread all ove rwiht study) and certianly don’t have a problem with the opposite happening.
    Can’t wait to get to the States and hopefully meet up.

  33. A really good discussion/post:)

  34. I liked this. I didn’t see where it was going at the start but I agreed with the sentiments near the end. You are a good story teller.

  35. I don’t know if our attitudes about tables (and theater seats, bus seats, etc.) is so much about callousness and fearfulness as it is about how much space we are accustomed to. In most of America, there is plenty of room. There is no need for a person to share your table so they don’t. And if they do, it feels weird. There’s a lot less free space in Europe (or so I hear) so people are more accustomed to being packed in tight. And may do so even when there is space in order to preserve the free tables for larger groups.

    I visited D.C. last summer and my daughter and I ate at a Fuddrucker’s that had very limited seating but several very long tables. I noticed people sharing each other’s tables even though such a thing is unheard of here in Texas – where we have plenty of room. 🙂

  36. I sometimes have moments like this. Where I become that very German guy. I will do something culturally inappropriate but it just feels natural. And, from an objective view unfettered by disposition, it really is. It usually works out for the best.

    I just don’t see why the only accepted proximity and interaction with strangers should be at a bar. My idea of meeting new people, regardless of gender or attractiveness, does not involve slurring a few sentences back and forth. Of course you can meet people this way but… Yeh…

    Nice post.


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