Coffeehouse Culture: The coffeehouse as office

by Sandy Ikeda

My earlier post on “Coffeehouse Culture: New York v. Elsewhere” focused more or less on how groups interact in coffeehouses. But it’s no secret that people don’t always go to a coffeehouse for conversation or even for the coffee. In my favorite neighborhood hangout, for example, the coffee quality ranges from okay to burnt tire rubber. For people like me, the coffeehouses is a kind of “office.”

Coffeehouses are filled with solitary figures who quietly read, write, or, more and more these days, stare into computer screens (although as mentioned in my previous post, some places ban computers, including two of my favorite NY coffeehouses – thank goodness!). The question is: Assuming they really are working and that they have the space to do it at home, why do they choose to work in a public place?

To socialize? In my experience coffeehouse patrons in New York rarely if ever speak to others or even (appear to) look at them, but keep their noses buried and fingers tapping, hour after hour. (Things may be different in more sociable Paris, according to Bogdan Enache’s comment on my previous coffeehouse post which identifies four kinds of cafés – the French, Viennese, Italian, and Turkish – although I wonder whether New York coffeehouses constitute a fifth category and if so what their distinctive features might be.)

And it’s noisy, especially at noon and 3 p.m., when school kids storm in for a snack. So why come to a noisy public place but at the same time keep to yourself? Even with bad coffee “my office” is usually full. True, the coffee guys – I won’t call them “barristas” or whatever no matter what – are friendly and personable, but at the Starbucks across the street – perhaps the originators of burnt-rubber coffee – it’s also very full, and they act like robots.

Because our apartments are so small? Perhaps, but there’s got to be more to it than that. Rather than being squeezed out of our flats, I think there has to be something that’s drawing us to the coffeehouses. Besides, you also see coffeehouses used as offices in the suburbs where residential space is cheaper, although I have noticed that the rules of behavior in a coffeehouse can differ depending on population densities and you need to know those rules.

A great city is full of people, mostly strangers, who have learned how to live close together. If you live in a low-density area, such as a town, you abide by one set of social rules; if you live in a place like New York, you follow a somewhat different set. For example, one of the most important rules, from the standpoint of using the coffeehouse as office, is knowing how to leave other people alone without offending them. It’s harder to do this in smaller towns because the chances of running into people you know is higher, and then it’s harder to ignore them. Not so in a big city. Here, we learn to ignore others without offending them, or to be ignored without being offended (and we know that others know this), so that when we run into acquaintances, after a brief greeting it’s completely okay to go back to your own business.  You don’t have to invite them to join you or ask to be invited and then sit and chat, which would be so distracting that you’d be better off working staying home. Privacy is precious.

The bottom line is that I think people go there to work for the same reason I do: I’m more productive. In other words, for me and others like me coffeehouses are a source of social capital, or perhaps in Lachmannian terms the “social-capital structure” (which I blogged about here). I read more, write more, and just get more things done in a given amount of time than I would at home. (An exception is when I’m working on something heavy and need to have a lot of books and articles lying around, which “my office” can’t really accommodate.) The question is why this is the case.

Which brings us to the role of distractions. Anyone who has tried to work at home knows there are plenty of distractions there, in particular the big four: the TV, the bathroom, the refrigerator, and the Internet. When we become tired and need a break, it’s easy, too easy, to wander or switch over to one of these things and lose ourselves for “a few minutes” that can quietly stretch to a half-hour or more. “Hey, as long as I’m up, why don’t I make a cup of tea?”  You know how it goes.

Coffeehouses, of course, have food and drink and restrooms, and more and more are going wireless. So what’s the difference? I have a theory….


7 thoughts on “Coffeehouse Culture: The coffeehouse as office

  1. Very interesting, Sandy.

    I used to write my papers in the reading room of the NYU Law Library. It was my coffeehouse equivalent. I didn’t know anyone there so there were no distractions of meeting friends. Yet there were people around which, strangely, prevented me from getting lonely while engaged in solitary work. I would go across the street from time to time to get some tea in order to keep alert. I don’t do this anymore because it required me to bring too many books and papers to the library. I now just keep them at home or in the office with my computer.

  2. CoC? Culture of Congestion?

    Speaking of which, I was very sad to hear that the Sun shut down, and even more sad that your blog ended. Has it moved or is it finished?

  3. Interesting article! I’ve been working in various local coffeshops nearly every day for almost 2 years now. I definitely agree that for me productivity is a lot higher there. For me, though, even though I do not socialize with others — being in the midst of other people is a nice and important part of the experience.

  4. Mario,

    Ever since you installed that espresso machine in your office and started inviting us up now and then to enjoy a demi tasse, I think you’ve been on the cutting edge of a new phenomenon: “the office as coffeehouse.” We’ll have to pay close attention to this.

  5. Yes, Patrick, Culture of Congestion, Rem Koolhaas’s apt description of “delirious New York” and the name I chose for my blog at the New York Sun. When the paper folded earlier this year it not only left me without a blog devoted to the economy of cities and urban design, it also consigned all the posts I wrote for it to oblivion. There were a few that I especially liked and so decided to revise them and post them here on ThinkMarkets, designating them with “CoC” at the end.

    Thank you for your kind words. I do plan to start CoC back up sometime because I really miss it.

  6. I don’t know New York coffeehouses so I can’t say anything about what’s the atmosphere in the coffeehouses nor if there is a coffeehouse culture distinct from the sort of historical coffeehouse cultures mentioned before but I think you’re right when it comes to the basic question of your post : people go there to read, write and work because they’re in a way more productive, either because they the find the relaxed atmosphere more stimulating, or the presence of other people more comforting, or the quick access to coffee and drinks more convenient and so on. I know I used to go to the Central University Library (in Bucharest), but – for a combination of these reasons – chose to take the books and go stay in the library café instead of the reading rooms. (At least until they’ve completely banned smoking there). But I think there is also a sort of need, at one point, to “change the scenery”, as it were, and a café, a place where people go in, go out and so on, has partly the effect of a serving as “moving decor”.

  7. Bushwick, while a very large and dense city within a city here in New York, has a smallish pool of people who participate in the cafe culture. So when I go to a local cafe, I consistently see many of the same faces — at least 2-3 people with whom I am a very good acquaintance. Yet after the “hey how you doing, good, good” part is over, I find myself concentrating harder on my work even with all the distractions of seeing neighbors, coffee 10 feet from my table, and music playing in the background.

    At home, not only do I have friends IMing me, people calling, and the dog casting his “take a nap with me” spell, I do all my work in the kitchen! The fridge is right here, the pantry behind me, the coffee machine on the counter… But I don’t want to make the case that I am always more productive in a cafe. Sometimes it’s worth a productivity cut in order to feel like you live in a city with people — even if you never talk to them.

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