Friday, May 30, 2014

COFFEE FRIDAY: Coffee Shop Talk

Coffee Shop Talk
by Judith Cullen
(c) 2014

Coffee shops predate the proliferation we think of as the Starbucks explosion.  Coffee shop culture goes back well into the 19th century and, like cafe culture, has existed seemingly forever in Europe.  Like pubs and taverns, even the most corporate places strive for a certain “local watering hole” quality.  The best of them seem to have the same successful ambience: clean, friendly places where the really good baristas know the customers by name and favorite beverage.  It’s a mix of the familiar, the intimate, and the anonymous.

Restaurants are not the same.  In a restaurant a bubble of privacy forms around your table, intruded upon only by the wait staff.  Depending on the class of the restaurant, conversation is uttered in lowered voices, even leaning in to one another.  It is outré, a gross violation of manners, to have a boisterous conversation that bursts into other diner’s bubbles. While acceptable volume levels vary by establishment, it is most assuredly not good form to be a bubble breaker.  Pay attention!

In many coffee shops, especially in locally owned stores, there is a unique blend that comes from more than the roaster.  It can be both treacherous and invigorating. Like the public house, communities of acquaintance spring up.  Customers not only are known, but come to know one another: greeting each other with warmth, asking after family, inquiring about projects.  Voices are raised in greeting, much like the mythical bar of 1980s television fame, “Norm!”

Yet, at the same time, intimacy exists like subtext: an undercurrent skimming beneath the more public surface.  People lean together, having very personal, very private conversations.  The coffee shop is neutral territory where the public-private combination allows for revelation in a controlled, somewhat calm environment.  I am sure that it happens, but when was the last time you saw someone toss a cup of coffee at someone and storm out the door?  In the coffee shop, when the dial skews to “private,” we invoke our “restaurant manners.” 

Coffee shops become ad hoc conference rooms.  Recently, I observed two leggy blondes walk in with a tall, impeccably suited gentlemen.  They’d arrived in separate vehicle. After the pleasantries of beverage purchasing, the meeting was called to order with all the decorum of a corporate convocation.  Websites, branding, and strategy being pointedly and rapidly reviewed, discussed, and recorded before moving on.  The shop had been fairly empty at the time.  Had it been busier, the meeting would have been absorbed by the public-private anonymity of the shop.  I don’t believe that Roberts’ Rules were being observed, but if they had, Mr. Roberts would have been blowing on his low-fat cappuccino before sipping it, along with the others.

Listening in is rude, I admit it.  But sometimes, when one “goes for coffee” and works solo, it is hard not to hear snippets of the life teaming all around you, breathing in and out, repressing and expressing - mostly expressing.  The coffee shop is safe. 

“Man, I lived here in the 90s.  I’m not afraid of guns.”

“I don’t know how to manage her negativity.”

“You know, we’ll be sending out invites and I’d love for you to come.”

“Oh yeah, I worked on your house!”

“Hey!  World of War Craft!  That was you!”

“She was so cute this morning, she almost cried.”

There are unspoken rules in the coffee shop.  If you come to work, or use the Wifi, it’s polite to buy something – a cup of coffee, a bagel.  It’s also considered polite to clean up your mess.  Pick up your newspaper, bus your debris.  The staff is rarely in a position to wipe up after the volume of lives, known and unknown, coming in and out. 

Above all, observe and learn.  Open yourself to understanding the diversity of intent surrounding you, the differences between the public and private moments in a coffee shop.  Learn to discern the distinction between something that could include you, where you chime in as a member of a joyous community of stimulant drinkers, and a moment between individuals which is not inclusive. If it feels it might be an intrusion, it probably is. Mistakes are inevitable.  Smiling in polite acknowledgement is always in the best taste.  People will forget a blundering comment, but a smile enriches their day long after they’ve moved on.

Above all, respect the life around you: loud, soft, communal, intimate, sensitive, and completely clueless. It’s not a substitute for living your own life, but it is a marvelous sampling.  It is a great opportunity to gain perspective. 

“Mocha no whipped cream, please.”

By Judith Cullen © 2014

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