I spend a lot of time writing in cafes.

Mostly this works out well. I have a few favourite places where they take good care of me and I order plenty of food and coffee and I can tune out the hubbub and get heaps done.

But as an introvert, someone who notices way too much and is easily overstimulated, I do get distracted by certain kinds of people.

Sometimes it’s a person so enamoured of their own opinions they don’t want to limit these precious nuggets to the lucky person they’re sitting with, so they speak very loudly. The more you try to tune them out, the more volubly they hold court on a broad range of topics.

Sometimes it’s something else.

Other People’s Children And Personal Space

Recently I found myself completely distracted by a young girl at the table next to me. The seating was a single long bench with small tables at regular intervals. Because the cafe was open to the shopping mall I kept my bag on the bench, safely close beside me.

The girl’s mother was doing something on her phone and the girl, I guess around 10, was reclining on the bench, well beyond her table’s space and completely into mine. That didn’t particularly bother me (well it did, but I was trying to ignore it); what did bother me was the way she kept kicking her shoes into my bag.

I moved along. She kicked harder. I moved to the very end till I could move no farther, still her boots kicked and kicked into my bag. She must have felt she was grinding her boots into something, but… was she being naughty? Did she genuinely not realise what she was doing? I couldn’t say.

And that’s when I realised her boots were covered in mud – which they were now smearing all over my lovely bag (and the bench).

I looked despairingly to the girl’s mother – why wasn’t she saying anything?

I’m not sure how much this is an introvert thing, but I’m not good at speaking up, even when I think I have a right to. Although being an introvert is not the same as being shy, many introverts are generally reserved.

Introvert Dilemma: Should You Speak Up For Yourself?

In this situation, what were my options?

Should I just get up and leave?

Sometimes that’s the best thing to do, no question. But sometimes it’s good for you to speak up, to feel assertive, to not feel like a wimp.

Okay then, should I say something to the mother?

Personally I don’t think speaking to a parent about their kids is a great idea. Nearly all parents are doing the best they can, and you never know when someone is having a crappy day and you are the crappy icing on their crappy cake.

Plus there are some people to whom you cannot say anything without causing offence, so why ruin both your days?

I didn’t know what was happening with this mother, but I did know she wasn’t going to notice what her daughter was doing.

The Third Option: Little Girl You Are Freaking Me Out

But then I realised something: there was a third option. I could actually speak to the girl myself. Not to chastise her, which of course I had no right to do. Not to tell her off, or in any way rebuke her or her actions.

No, I couldn’t speak to her about her, but I could speak to her about me.

So, before my brain could get involved and think better of my plan, my mouth sprang into gear and I addressed the girl.

Excuse me. I’m not sure if you realise but there’s a ton of mud on your boots and you’re rubbing it on my bag. Trying not to fall off the end of the bench, I held up my now mud-encrusted bag. See? Could you stop please? I kept my face friendly.

At this point my brain began to register a shift taking place in the air, and it started to regret not getting involved earlier when simply leaving was still an option.

We all waited to see what would happen next.

The mother had now looked up from her phone, her jaw hanging open. It didn’t seem like any words were coming out of there though. Was she appalled at the daughter or at me? I couldn’t tell.

My brain, rolling its eyes at my mouth, held its tongue and let things play out.

My mouth, mercifully, shut up and waited.

The girl, staring fixedly but not unpleasantly at me, moved her feet down from the bench and onto the floor.

My brain, smoothly taking over before my mouth piped up again, plastered a smile on my face and a jaunty tone over my voice said, Cool. Thanks! 

Then, ever the peace-maker, it added, Cute boots, because that’s something it would notice, and they were.

The mother’s jaw closed and, glancing at her daughter with an expression I couldn’t read, she promptly returned her attention to her phone.

No further discussion seemed pending, so I settled more comfortably on the bench and got back to my writing. For the next half-hour we continued sitting there peaceably in our own respective little worlds.

The ‘Fellow-Customer’ Relationship

Because introverts are reserved, many of us avoid confrontation. We push things down, or walk away.

I’m someone who rarely speaks up, generally preferring passive-aggressive options from the dirty-looks and irritated-sighs genres.

When I speak to a total stranger it’s usually because I’ve completely bypassed forethought and, as in this case, hearing myself speaking out loud comes as an unpleasant shock to my frontal cortex. So I certainly don’t consider myself a poster girl for introvert assertiveness.

But I guess in this case I must have intuitively believed that speaking up was a good thing to do. The girl seemed old enough that I could have a fellow-customer ‘relationship’ with her. Maybe you think I was wrong, but I felt I had a right to ask her directly not to kick my bag.

And it seemed to work out for everybody.

I was happy to resume work at a place where I was productive and the coffee was good.

The mother seemed genuinely relieved to have been kept out of the whole palaver.

And, perhaps best of all, that girl gained a newfound appreciation of something truly important: cute boots.

How about you? What would you have done in my situation?

Are you good at speaking up? If so, any tips for the the rest of us?