Writing in a Café: How to Keep Your Space

Nah, not like that. But it’s an option. It might lead to you being banned from your favourite café, though, so use with caution. Or opt for openly and loudly applying hand sanitizer.

Odds are that there will be people in your café who aren’t there to work, meet up with someone they arranged to see or just enjoy their own company. In fact, they might be looking for the company of others, be it just a chat or something more. This is normal coffee shop/ café culture . After all, you’re a social person as well (most of the time, I’m guessing), and you’re perfectly open to meeting new people, networking, possibly forging a neighborhood familiarity or even a new friendship.

I’m not averse to engaging, because that is also another reason you venture out to work away from the comfort of your home. But I came here with a purpose, so how do I keep the space I need for it?

As already hinted, have a pair of headphones handy. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re listening to music. Or maybe you feel fine without them – also great. But as a woman coming in alone somewhere I’m used to being approached or talked to, even if it’s a short exchange, not necessarily an unwanted one too. If I’m settling down to work on a writing or blogging idea I’ve been carrying around for days, teaching it how to walk on its own before I release it into the world, I need to stay focused. I’ve carved out time for this and I want to make the most of it. Plenty of people still have an inner social brake if they see someone with headphones in. And if not, you have the right to look properly annoyed if you get tapped on the shoulder (depending on the situation and who’s tapping, of course) and have to take out the headphones after all.

Wear comfortable clothing (not PJs, although it’s so tempting – I just imagine it sometimes) that you don’t have to think about once you sit down. Nothing that you need to tuck in or adjust periodically, pull at, maybe a favourite scarf in the event of a draft (so distracting and who wants neck pain after), a signature accessory (I’m that writer/ blogger/ creative person/ everybody look at this thing I got on vacation).

Take a book or notebook (don’t forget the pens!) with you to do something else between typing if you need to pause or think something through, so you still make it clear that you’re occupied. Write some to-do-lists, answer your friend’s text, think about what to give your dad for his birthday, get up and ask the barista about that tea you liked so much. Only if you want to, though. Everyone should be able to stop and stare into space if they wish to.

If you get approached or spoken to, I’m sure you’ll be able to play it by ear. If you don’t want to engage in a longer conversation, there are polite ways of ending it (“I really have to get back to work now”, “Well, thanks for the tip (put headphones back in)”, “Have a nice day (put headphones back in)”, just to name a few). Most people will pick up on social cues or just follow plain good manners. And if you want to continue talking, it’ll happen naturally.

This all goes both ways. If I want to approach someone or ask a question beyond whether I can borrow the sugar, I’ll watch them for a little while first (in a non-creepy way is the obligatory addition to this sentence). There are loads of polite openings that will soften the possible blow of essentially intruding on someone’s bubble of time, and hopefully I’m also socially competent enough to recognize when the interaction is over or if it will continue. Obviously there’s always the option of exchanging contact information and picking up where you left off later, when neither person is deep in answering the muse or working towards a deadline.

I just spotted the jovial middle-aged newspaper reader from yesterday, good that I’m already settled and typing. He’s looking around! Headphones? Mais oui, bien sur! Also one of my neighbours who was very happy when I lent him a stepladder once and enthusiastically attempted to engage me in a subsequent conversation about whether I was Turkish (that was a new one, considering all the stuff I’ve already heard), repeating his name two times, sat down at the table next to mine, despite there being other free ones and me silently asking him not to in my head. However, he didn’t seem to recognize me or simply didn’t want to talk – score! His phone and the pinging noises it was making proved to be more absorbing.

An illustration to all of the above. I looked up on reflex at the person settling at the free table next to me and was pleasantly surprised to see it was an author whose (thrilling and wonderfully written) book signing I had been at fairly recently. We smiled and said hello, chatted a little, then I said I’d let her work in peace. I put my headphones back in, she got her drink, sat down, plugged in her own headphones and began to work. That’s how it’s done.

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