Dear Prudence

Help! Why Do Strangers on the Bus Insist on Making Small Talk?

Dear Prudence answers more of your questions—only for Slate Plus members.

Every week, Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.

Q. Chicago public transit etiquette: I am a 28-year-old woman who moved to Chicago from New York three months ago. The aggressive friendliness—and sometimes plain aggressiveness—I’ve encountered here is something I find very off-putting. Whether it’s interrupting a conversation with a friend to throw in some advice, asking my nationality, or a stranger on the bus saying “bless you” after my sneeze as an opening to say, “Your posture must improve before it’s too late,” I am at my wit’s end. It’s different from street harassment as catcallers don’t usually expect a response, while these people actively try to engage me, and old men feel like they deserve my number after saying hello to me while waiting for the bus. I find wearing sunglasses and headphones deters conversation, but it’s starting to get dark earlier, so that doesn’t seem like a long-term solution.

I am so uncomfortable that I am considering buying a car to avoid the constant harassment, but I know that while some people are violating my boundaries through rudeness, some of my reaction is culture shock. I’ve tried politely and noncommittally engaging, but then the conversations usually escalate into trying to get my number, and they often just don’t end.

Is there a better way to politely defend myself on my commute? Or a way to say, “Thanks, but I don’t do small talk with strangers”?

A: “This is a private conversation,” “That’s a very personal question,” “Sorry, I don’t do small talk with strangers,” “I don’t want to talk,” “No, thanks,” and silence are all perfectly appropriate responses to a stranger who tries to talk to you when you don’t wish to speak to him or her.

Q. Family ties: About three years ago my husband’s sister “Sue” and her husband, “Joe,” got divorced. Over the course of their 15-year marriage we became very close to Joe and his extended family. Our families all live far away, and Joe’s family became the ones we celebrate all milestones and holidays with. Upon the divorce, Sue expected us to stop talking to not only Joe but all of his family. When we refused, Sue stopped talking to us and continues to say we betrayed her and chose Joe’s family over her. My husband is very hurt and upset by all of this. I don’t feel like we did anything wrong and just can’t understand her point of view. Should we have cut off contact when they divorced? Or is his sister’s request inappropriate?

A: Unless Joe was abusive or cruel, it’s unreasonable of Sue to expect that the rest of her family would excise him (and everyone associated with him) from their lives, especially after knowing him for 15 years. It would have been insensitive for you to, say, invite both Sue and Joe to the family cookout, but you did not violate some Universal Divorce Law by continuing to speak with him on the phone or getting together with his relatives every once in a while. If your husband is hurt and upset, you should encourage him to speak directly with his sister about what they’re both feeling, what they both want, and what they both consider to be appropriate boundaries