Coffee Isn’t Perking Discussion, It’s Killing It
Talkers vs. Texters: What’s the Social Protocol Inside Cafes and Coffee Shops?
Last time I went to a Starbucks, I got shushed.
As in “Shhhh….be quiet.”
The shusher wasn’t out of line. I was talking to a friend, probably too loudly. That’s been a problem for years. I’m still working on it. I’m really trying to be more courteous to others, even to people I don’t give a damn about and will never see again.
So, our chatter may have been annoying to some strangers. But that’s because no one else in the place was talking. Everybody was looking down at their smartphone or pecking away on a laptop. So, our conversation echoed. Sort of like talking inside a cave. They can hear you from 100 feet away. Every word could be heard (including all the cursing, I suppose). In a bar, no one would have even noticed it. This justifies me spending a lot more time inside bars than cafes.
The encounter got to me to thinking about the ways electronic devices have come to dominate our lives at the expense of normal activities. Laptops, tablets, and smartphones aren’t merely conveniences anymore. They’ve become extensions of our personalities and for some — an identity. In public places such as coffee cafes, which were once bustling crossroads of human interaction, routine conversation has been stifled by the reticent language of social media. For some, Starbucks is the new library. For others, it’s an office.
Inside just about any Starbucks or coffee chain, people have become absorbed by a whole new dimension — cyberspace. No one talks anymore, except at the counter when it’s time to order. These millions of androids sipping their lattes aren’t anti-social. To the contrary. They’re often quite engaged in lively online chat and exchanging texts, or reading Twitter or posting on Facebook. They are very much connected to other people — perhaps many people at once, from different parts of the country and all over the world.
Still, critics are surfacing. Social media has become a popular punching bag because it has fundamentally changed who we are and how we act, and not always for the better. Those who spend many hours posting or exchanging thoughts each day increasingly face derision from non-social media followers. Sometimes, deservedly so. Certainly, if you’re no longer bathing yourself or feeding the baby, maybe you’re spending too much time online.
A recent article in The New York Times [“Cafes face dilemma when laptops, silence take over”] framed this new debate about social protocol in cafes and coffee shops. Some owners and managers are becoming increasingly perturbed by squatters. Customers come in, buy one cup of coffee, and then camp for hours.
“Three hours for one $5 cup of coffee is not a business model that works,” one cafe owner complained in the article.
He’s right. Who among us hasn’t abused the privilege of hogging space that either we’re renting or doesn’t belong to us?
Still, Starbucks seems to be doing more than okay with 11,039 stores inside the United States and 26,792 worldwide. That doesn’t count even the number of Coffee Beans and other similar chains, nor privately-owned coffee shops and cafes which have put a coffee joint on every corner. Clearly, there’s lots of coffee drinking happening, but also far less talking.
Fact is, most of us would much rather read and peck at smartphones at our leisure than engage in the captive prison camp of being one-on-one with someone who might be detestable, or far worse — boring.
Unfortunately, some otherwise smart people don’t understand this at all. The same cafe owner quoted in The New York Times article who lamented the proliferation of squatters announced his business would no longer allow laptops inside nor even let customers wear earphones. He wants people to start “talking to each other.”
Oh, my God. Have a conversation? Talk to a real person?
Sounds like a nightmare.
Frankly, I kinda’ like my private isolation chamber. I can turn on, tune in, or drop out anytime I want — a practitioner of the Timothy Leary philosophy, 24/7. I can ignore those I don’t like, nor respect. I can bark. I can bite. I can listen to my music while I’m arguing in favor of gun control (Five Finger Death Punch is a particularly nice serenade). I can pretty much do anything or go anywhere or engage with anyone I wish. It’s paradise!
Contrast this with the imaginary alternative — those crusty online trolls sitting next to you at the coffee shop. Imagine having those you see each day on social media instead at the next table spewing their nonsense. Hey, would you rather argue with Larry Greenfield online on your own terms, or have him sitting next to you preaching the economics of Milton Friedman?
Good fucking Christ man, I’ll take my Larry Greenfield online, preferably in small doses and with an alcoholic beverage in hand, thank you very much. [SEE FOOTNOTE]
Think about it. Would you rather talk to the people you see online in person, or engage them at an arm’s distance on your own terms? The answer seems rather obvious. How many online posters and conspiracy trolls could you bear to spend more than 15 minutes with and not want to storm out screaming? Hell, I don’t even want to spend 15 minutes with the people I like. The internet is the perfect firewall.
Sure, some people bitch and moan that a cup of coffee costs five bucks. Truth is, given what we are getting in return, including maintaining our sanity, that $5 latte your sipping for three hours is a steal.
Now, leave me alone.
FOOTNOTE: I’m having some wicked fun here at Larry Greenfield’s expense. In reality, Larry is a dear friend who I have dined with and argued with many times, always respectfully.