Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Why Coffee Shops?

Assuming that expressions of cultural incomprehension fall under the 'et cetera' component of this blog's purview, let me ask: why do people like to meet in commercial places (coffee shops, bars, etc.)? It seems to me like a double cost: firstly, the environment is intrinsically less pleasant than elsewhere (cf. a comfy private lounge, or stroll through the park), and then - to add insult to injury - one is expected to waste money on consumables whether one really wants them or not.

Maybe the idea is that most people really like the consumables. That'd be fine, I'd happily endure a cramped and noisy coffee shop for the sake of a caffeine-craving friend. My worry is just that there seems to be a social norm that people should meet in such places, and so a group of people might end up meeting there merely due to the norm and not because anyone actually prefers this location over non-commercial alternatives. "Meeting for coffee" is the expected behaviour. I'd rather invite people for a stroll in the park, but they might think that weird. Depending on my mood, that may or may not bother me, but it seems like the sort of thing that would deter many people from socializing in a way that they'd actually enjoy more. (Whether there really are "many people" who share my idiosyncratic tastes here is, of course, another question!)


  1. When meeting strangers or near-strangers, public places with lots of people around can feel safer than private homes or, in many cases, the park. Coffee shops and so forth fall into that category, and they serve refreshments. I doubt that's more than a possible contributing factor, though.

  2. Maybe it has to do with the fact that commercial situations have definite temporal benchmarks: you order, then you get your [food, coffee, whatever], then consume it, then you pay your check, etc. The sequence gives people an inkling as to when the encounter is finished, or at least when it is appropriate to leave.

  3. Good for you for bucking the trend. I hate dropping money on coffee, so I tend to stay away. But I'm quite happy to pay for air condition/heat.

  4. Another possible explanation is that it allows all the parties to meet amicably and enjoy themselves, without one of the parties feeling responsible for hosting.

    I love coffee shops - out on the west coast of Canada, there is a coffee culture - going to the coffee shop is a social experience that is neither costly (all things considered) nor does it require planning or significant commitment. Most west coast coffee shops are aesthetically pleasing and comfortable, with plenty of comfortable seating and a very relaxing atmosphere. Out in Ontario where I have been studying for the last 6 years, this is not so much the case. Here coffee shops seem to be an extension of the office, an informal and neutral ground upon which to do business than they are a place to socialize with friends.

    As for me, I love to study in a west coast style coffee shop. Coffee is always good and easily accessible, and it carries none of the distractions of home and none of the banalities of the office. With the proliferation of free wireless access points in coffee shops, there is no longer any reason NOT to work and play where I get my coffee.

  5. Coffee puts the system under the strain of metabolizing a deadly acid-forming drug, depositing its insoluble cellulose, which cements the wall of the liver, causing this vital organ to swell to twice its proper size. In addition, coffee is heavily sprayed. (Ninety-two pesticides are applied to its leaves.) Diuretic properties of caffeine cause potassium and other minerals to be flushed from the body.

    All this fear went away when I quit, and it was a book that inspired me to do it called The Truth About Caffeine by Marina Kushner. There are five things I liked about this book:

    1) It details--thoroughly--the ways in which caffeine may damage your health.

    2) It reveals the damage that coffee does to the environment. Specifically, coffee was once grown in the shade, so that trees were left in place. Then sun coffee was introduced, allowing greater yields but contributing to the destruction of rain forests. I haven't seen this mentioned anywhere else.

    3) It explains how best to go off coffee. This is important. If you try cold turkey, as most people probably do, the withdrawal symptoms will likely drive you right back to coffee.

    4) Helped me find a great resource for the latest studies at CaffeineAwareness.org

    5) Also, if you drink decaf you won’t want to miss this special free report on the dangers of decaf available at www.soyfee.com

  6. I think it is because of two things.

    1) Known event. A coffee shop is a safe and known environment this makes it good for inviting new acquaintances or if anyone else in the group might want to invite such a person. and as dk said - it contains a known set of actions so peopel can feel comfortable about what is proposed and when they are there - how far through the event they are. Coffee shops help avoid the complex analysis involved in figuring out what people want to do.

    2) The social norm - you invite people to go to coffee because thats what people do ie it could easily have been some other event as a result of a quirk of history.

    I suppose in a free market that should result in coffee shops overcharging for the coffee until it costs more for marginal consumers than it is worth.

  7. A sketchy evolution of the Starbucks date:
    1) Increased trade in the reconnaissance plus new crops in the New World brought more coffee to Europe.
    2) Middle-classes with time in their hands gathered around cafes in places like Paris and Vienna to get their fix.
    3) These gatherings became increasingly "intellectual", especially in the 18th century. Hegel's death in the 1820s was said to be caused by drinking too much coffee.
    4) The intellectual likening to coffee brought the drink to German and French universities, and other learning centers caught on. (really sketchy, but plausible)
    5) Jumping to the 20th century, opening the universities up to more people exposed them to the drug.
    6) Jumping again, the yuppie generations of the 80s and 90s, just out of college, needed their fix-->enter Starbucks, and a shift from cultural to commercial impetus for coffee drinking.

    [shrugs, sips coffee]

  8. Actually, it was the British who brought coffee into Europe, and until the East India Company created the need to generate markets for tea, London was the coffee capital of the world, with a scene that matched Paris or Vienna in later centuries. Lloyds insurance started out as a cafe where captains and officers would discuss trade and shipping.

    But I digress. I read recently of a study that showed that caffeine intake, with sugar, gave a significant temporary increase in functional IQ. When you froth the milk at high temperatures, you turn many of the carbohydrates into sugars.

    (disclaimer, I work on a cafe at my university!)

  9. Oh, I should clarify that I don't have anything against coffee. Shops just feel a bit foreign to me, is all.

    Several people have noted that it's useful to have some norm or other. (Would a little more pluralism really hurt, though?) All we really require here is a safe "public" space in which to perform some relatively well-defined, scripted activity. If the world conformed to my wishes, there would be more beautiful walkways, and public spaces with games tables and such. But I guess from a more objective perspective there's not much in it. Cafes serve their purpose well enough for most people.

  10. George-
    Good call. Maybe you an answer this question for me: where do the coffee plants originate? It's defintely a drink that is common in very many cultures (except, so an anthropologist friend tells me, in the coffee producing regions of South America--so we might cross that off the 'native' list).

    And how significant is significant? Too much caffeine, it seems, ruins concentration.


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