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….