Approaching women they don’t know can be hard for men, or at least I assume this, because they whine about it a lot. But apparently it’s not nearly as difficult as figuring out when to leave a total stranger the hell alone.

Gawker’s Allie Jones recently introduced an incredibly helpful rule largely directed at men attempting to start a conversation with women they don’t know: You Get Two Questions. If a stranger (in this case a man) is interested in another stranger (in this case a woman) he is allowed two questions. If the second stranger doesn’t engage—ask questions back, give more than one-word answers, look him in the eye—then she is not interested in speaking with the first stranger, and homeboy should recognize and keep it moving.

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This rule is great for a number of reasons, but I’ll focus on just two. One, it allows men at least one fair shot, and it does not require some obvious show of interest from the other party. They can put on their brave, grown-man panties and give it a go with the cutie sitting at the bar. Second, it gives a woman the opportunity to reject him without having to be completely straightforward or rude—an important option, as men have been known to react like verbally abusive or physically violent psychopaths in the face of rejection from women.

(A lot of men like to argue that women should just be straightforward. “Just flat out tell men that you’re not interested in them!” they say. Many women have tried this and were probably met with rude-to-frightening behavior—men that continue talking to them anyway, men that get angry or follow them down the street. Further, while interactions between men and women of a potentially romantic or sexual nature can be confusing, men are seemingly able to pick up on a range of other social cues in just about every other scenario in their lives. Call me optimistic, but I believe that grown men can get the hint without it being spelled out for them like kindergartners who are learning when to say “please” and “thank you.”)

The rule that you get two questions is a good rule. I would like to introduce a tertiary rule: Men should altogether stop approaching women who are reading books alone in public.

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With both rules, all it truly requires is a decent amount of self-awareness and social intellect, but apparently you people need more help. The two basic ideas behind this rule:

  1. The fact that she simply left her house does not entitle you to a woman’s attention.
  2. Reading in public is a deliberately solitary activity that in no way invites your participation.

Let’s visit two recent personal examples of this social invasion.

Last weekend I was having dinner at a sushi bar (only because they don’t seat single parties at tables) and reading a book as I ate my meal. A man sat down one chair away from me and proceeded to have a very loud conversation with the chef. When that conversation waned, he turned to me:

Loud Man: What are you studying?

No response

Loud Man: What are you studying?

Me: I’m not studying.

Loud Man: You’re not studying?

Me: No.

I’d like to note that at this point, I haven’t even lifted my eyes from the page to look at him.

Loud Man: What are you reading then?

Me: A book about rap.

Loud Man: You mean hip hop?

Me: No, a book about the history of rap.

First of all, fuck this dude for trying to correct me on something that didn’t actually need to be corrected. Also, fuck this dude because this was rude as hell.

Two days later I was sitting at an outside table at a coffee shop. A white man (this will be relevant, so relax) sitting two tables in front of me struck up a conversation with a young black woman. This interaction included him asking her, “Did you just get your hair did?”

After hearing this, I knew some bullshit would come my way. She left, and I continued reading my book, not looking up at him but waiting—waiting for him to say something some stupid. Sure enough, about two minutes later:

Annoying Man: That book must be real good.

No response. I kept my eyes down hoping he would get the hint. He did not get the hint.

Annoying Man: That book must be real good. You look focused.

Me: Yeah.

In both instances, I had not so much as glanced at either of these men.

When someone goes to a restaurant, a cafe or even a goddamn park bench, they are not inherently soliciting social interaction from anyone outside of the party they came with. If she only came with a book, there’s a good chance that that book is the only thing she is interested in interacting with for the evening.

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I can already hear the simple-minded thinkers among us: Oh, so we can’t talk to ANYONE we don’t know anymore?

No, but you damn well should not be interrupting a total stranger who is obviously engaged in something that has nothing at all to do with you. What the hell makes you think you even have the right to stop her from doing what she’s doing because you want to make chit chat? What kind of entitlement is that?

I’m not sure what else leads these men to believe that a woman out at a restaurant or cafe alone with her own source of entertainment wants to talk to them, besides their own egotistical belief that encroaching on a total stranger is fine as long as that stranger is a lady they want to talk to. Manhood will not cease to exist if it is not constantly foisted upon strangers, trust me.

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If a man sees a woman reading a book and assumes that she’s at all interested in conversation with him, he is either being deliberately obtuse or he simply doesn’t give a shit—he really is entitled enough to believe that his desire to speak to the woman takes precedence over hers to do what she came to do, which is read in peace. That book did not just appear from the sky. Reading is not the same as talking to your random ass. In fact, it’s the opposite. Perhaps if I had looked up a few times at either of the men from my stories, made lingering eye contact or smiled at them, I wouldn’t be surprised by their advances. But nothing I did invited their attention other than existing as a woman out in the world.

So yes, we get it. You want to talk to us. Women are amazing and aesthetically pleasing, I understand why you’re into our whole deal. So, say hello! Ask two questions if you have to, except if I’m reading. Then, ask none.

Illustration by Jim Cooke