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Dear fellow cafe goers, please don’t ask me to watch your laptop

Asking a stranger to watch your pricey belongings is oftentimes irrational and disruptive.
Laptop in cafe
Ivan Pantic / Getty Images

It’s barely 9 am. I’m at my favorite cafe, which also happens to be my favorite workspace. The smell of burnt espresso and freshly baked croissants wafts in the air. I type furiously on my laptop, desperate to ride that fleeting window of morning productivity. I’m immersed in my work, and it’s glorious. That’s when I hear the question that always jolts me out of my flow: “Hey man, can you watch my laptop while I use the bathroom?”

I glance to my right to see who suddenly intruded on my awareness. I’ve seen him working here before and asking others the same question. He’s wearing a black suit, and the strap of a briefcase hangs over his shoulder. 

Presumably, if you’re worried about the security of your laptop, you believe a stranger might steal it. But what’s to say the person you ask to watch your table isn’t a thief themselves?

He’s looking not at me but at his phone, his eyes darting left to right and back again as he rises from his seat. There’s an intensity to him, and I dig it. I imagine he’s some sort of corporate executive or financial adviser, fielding urgent questions from clients and delegating to his employees and personal assistant. Or maybe he isn’t. It doesn’t matter what his job is. If he’s anything like me or many other people, his laptop is like a fifth limb through which he communicates, learns, works, gets paid and makes arrangements to meet almost any need. 

I’m sure many of us can relate to this laptop/bathroom dilemma, particularly as fewer professionals are working from traditional secure office spaces. It’s cumbersome to take it with you, but it’s risky to leave it behind. 

So what is one to do when leaving something valuable in the middle of a public space? Here’s a hint: Don’t ask me or any other stranger to watch it if you don’t have a disability that prevents you from taking your valuables with you. It’s a question of whether the person doing the asking is lazy or entitled (potentially without realizing it) versus actually needing help. In many cases, it’s the former, and that’s where my gripe is. 

Hear me out — I understand that cafes, especially those that function as coworking spaces, have certain unspoken rules and norms. Among them are don’t hog four chairs if you need only one and don’t chat loudly on a cellphone while those around you are reading. I’m in favor of social norms when they are rational and useful, but I implore cafe society: Please abandon the ones that are irrational and disruptive.  

Asking a stranger to watch your laptop while you go to the bathroom when it really isn’t a necessity is both, and it needs to stop. 

Randomly selecting one person to trust — out of a room full of people you don’t know — is irrational. Presumably, if you’re worried about the security of your laptop, you believe a stranger might steal it. But what’s to say the person you ask to watch your table isn’t a thief themselves? Or, even if they aren’t, who’s to say a thief would be deterred by someone’s occasionally glancing at a table, if they even notice this watchful eye? It’s hardly an improvement from just leaving your laptop unwatched. 

Some may say it helps foster a sense of community and neighborliness. But does asking a stranger to watch your laptop or any other pricey gadget while you disappear into the restroom really do that?

But perhaps you expect more from the stranger who assented to watch your belongings. It’s hard to believe you wouldn’t, because asking someone to watch something of yours turns them from passive to active bystander. So perhaps you expect them to say something to the thief — or even physically intervene — to prevent an act of grand larceny. But think about it. You know nothing of the person you’ve just asked to watch your belongings. What if they have an invisible illness or disability that prevents them from stepping in? Or maybe they’re a parent of young children or a caregiver of some kind, and they think they don’t want to put themselves in a potentially dangerous situation that could leave the people who depend on them alone. Or what if they are on parole and they’re afraid of violating any conditions? Intervention could be a lot to ask of someone. 

However, if that doesn’t deter you from leaving valuables with a stranger, consider that it could be very disruptive. In my case, it cuts into my productivity, and I’m not alone. Research shows that distractions not only cause people to take longer to complete tasks but also degrade the overall quality of people’s work. Then there’s the fact that the person keeping an eye out can’t get up to order something else, go to the bathroom themselves or leave if they need to for as long as the other person is gone.

Still, some may say it helps foster a sense of community and neighborliness. But does asking a stranger to watch your laptop or any other pricey gadget while you disappear into the restroom really do that? It’s not like you’re getting to know the person. When they reappear, you’ll most likely get a “thank you,” and then you both will probably go back to being in your own worlds. The man who asked me to watch his laptop barely looked at me as the words flowed out. If you want to truly build community, there are much better ways to do it. Why not strike up an authentic conversation — you know, with eye contact — with someone who is sitting in your vicinity? 

So the question is: How can you do your business while letting everyone else mind their own business? Take your laptop with you. Put it in your bag. Place it on the sink. Hold it. If you’re worried about losing your coveted table, leave something inexpensive behind, like a book or a scarf. If you carry a pen and paper, you could even leave a note on the table: “Occupied — be back in five. Thanks!” If you spend a lot of time in cafes, go all out! Buy some place holders that look official. Your belongings are safest when they are with you. Following these tips won’t impose on anyone else, and it makes sense for the world we’re living in.

So, with the weight of societal expectations on my shoulders and the hope for a better future in my heart, I answered the man in the suit, “Sure, but you should know that I stole this laptop last week.” He rolled his eyes and took his laptop with him. You’re welcome.