Dear Crabby,

I have to go to some kind of store nearly every day for one thing or another. Be it chalkboard paint, Advil, a new alarm clock, sesame seeds or any other random store item, I have to leave my cozy house to purchase some random thing at some random store.

When I go to the store, I want to get it over with as quickly as possible. I’m not in some kind of huge rush, but I also don’t want to be doing anything in there that is unnecessary. For some reason, every store or coffee stand in the United States has instructed their employees to ask their customers as many pointless questions as humanly possible during the 60 seconds they’re spending ringing up your items.

Examples of these questions are

“What are you up to today? Oh you’re working? Where do you work?”

“These are interesting produce items. What are you making for dinner?”

“I notice you are now wearing a ring on your ring finger and last week you were not. Did you recently get engaged?”

None of these questions are ones I came up with off the top of my head. They are all real questions that store employees have asked me.

Is this some kind of store conspiracy to annoy us? Or, are there really people out there who like all of these sorts of personal questions? I don’t want to answer a bunch of questions, I just want to buy things!


Doesn’t Want to Play 20 Questions

Dear Doesn’t Want,

Discourse between strangers is an inherently awkward thing. So, over thousands of years, we as a species have developed small talk to help us navigate that social minefield. That’s well and good. Necessary, even.

What it appears we’re talking about here, though, is the sadly common phenomenon of bad small talk. That is, small talk that causes rather than defuses awkwardness.

I can think of very few things more awkward than staring at a stranger in silence as he or she scans my grocery items. But a barrage of personal questions definitely is one of those things. It really should be as simple as: “How are you?” “Fine. How are you?” “Fine.” And then maybe something about the weather. “Where do you work?” and “Are you engaged?” go far beyond that. So I understand your annoyance.

I suggest you respond to these ridiculous questions with ridiculous answers. That way at least you’ll have fun with it. The key is to be cheerily strange and act as though nothing you’re saying is crazy.

Here’s what I mean:

Clerk: “These are interesting produce items. What are you making for dinner?”

You: “Oh, you’ve misunderstood. These aren’t for eating. I’m staging a puppet musical based on Ingmar Bergman films, and all of the puppets are going to be made of vegetables. For instance, the character of Death from ‘The Seventh Seal’ is a radish. To answer your question, I’m having pizza for dinner. The vegetable puppets can have some, too, if they want. But they probably won’t.”

Clerk: “Hmm. The weather sure is warm.”

You: “Yep. Sure is.”

And so forth.

Hope that helps.



• If you have a question for Dear Crabby, email it with the subject line “Dear Crabby” to On magazine lead writer Pat Muir at We’ll keep your name anonymous and do our best to give you some truly horrible advice.