"If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude." – Maya Angelou

What Coffee Shop Patrons Can Teach Us About Life and Ourselves PART I

A tongue-in-the-cheek observational study – Part I

Paying attention comes with many perks. It can save one’s life. In all other circumstances, it serves to color and flavor and enriches life. Who wouldn’t want to escape a drab and pallid existence? “All you have to do” is pay a little attention!

Performing observational studies in a coffee shop is an art. It has to be done properly, on par with the likes of a private investigator. Clandestine is the word of the day. You don’t want to come across as an amateur. You can look, but don’t stare. And whatever you do, never gawk! (Similar to what you do at the gym.) Be discreet. Learn how to listen, without blatantly eavesdropping.

Such observations are easier when you go solo, go early, and spend a couple hours reading and writing. Before you lose heart, it’s a craft that can be mastered, it can be learned. Patience and a handful of ingenuity will take you a long way.

Results and rewards may vary, keeping in mind, it can be overwhelmingly boring, only to the next moment, present you with fresh material for a fascinating new character for your novel or short story or serve as inspiration for a poem or spark ideas for nonfiction. Each snippet of non-intended overheard dialogue can be of value. Always be ready. Never be found without a notebook or even a sketch pad. Do your thing, remain vigilant, but do so in a covert fashion.

If you’re one who collects fanciful phrases, use this: develop your situational awareness prowess.

Coffee shop clients can be classified into three categories:
    • The Dashers—the mobile order people
    • The Walkers—they walk in, get their order and leave (Often the default if they can’t find a seat)
    • The Sitters—they are there for the short or long haul

Okay, there are four categories: The Drive-Thruers as well. Drive-thru clients were excluded from the present study, due to the risk of hit-and-run incidents.

There is a science to coffee shops:
    • Coffee shops are not created equal. They each have their own ambiance and mini-culture.
    • It matters where you sit. Trust me. (If you’re happy enough to find a seat.)
    • And if you find a seat—how high is it, how hard is it, and is there a power outlet?
    • And if you find a power outlet—does it work and which way does the plug faces? Will your charger plug-in sit tight enough?
    • It matters which way you face—the door, the wall, the interior, the window, the counter, or the washrooms. (For the sake of our study—please don’t sit facing the toilets!)
    • It matters what you order. Eats included. (Disclaimer: we’re not talking money, neither is the purpose of this article to discuss menus or preferential methods of coffee bean roasting.)
    • When to order. It matters. Ask any of the baristas. Don’t be a cheapskate and only “order” water with ice!

One of the fundamental aspects of any sound research is whether the results were reproducible. Over the course of twenty-four months, at different locations, at different times of the day, different days of the week, similar observations were noted. This has lead the author to believe that observational bias was somewhat reduced.

Let’s take a closer look at the “Dashers”:
    • Dashers seem to always be in a hurry
    • The moment they walk in their order is ready (85% of the time it’s only a drink)
    • Thanks to modern technology, picking up their morning fix, no longer make them lose more than thirty seconds of the remaining 17 hours of their day
    • Dashers hate waiting. It equals wasting time—they are driven individuals
    • Dashers were good at cross country at school
    • Or at least at track events
    • Dashers are early risers (except for the one day they sleep in!)
    • Dashers are often high performers.
    • They may also suffer from constipation.
    • They probably skip breakfast—relying on the caffeine fix to carry them to 10 a.m.
    • Dashers tend to be slim and trim (Must be all the coffee and going to the gym!)
    • Dashers like dressing up—meaning: they wear nice clothes (Mondays – Fridays)
    • Dashers are more often in professional occupations
    • Dashers tend to be women (okay: personal & location bias!)
    • Compared to “Walkers” and “Sitters,” Dashers tend to smile less and appear to be more determined. (Perhaps they are only preoccupied with their overstretched schedule.)
    • Dashers, due to their habit of moving fast, always use a plastic lid and plug the drinking hole with a green stopper.
    • The Disheveled Dashers—a small minority who waltz in with attire suspiciously akin to PJs, hoping the observant Sitter will overlook the fact they had just rolled out of bed and intend to return to bed with their fix
    • Dashers often are ideal study subjects for postgraduate students in sociology, psychology, and cosmetology—the latter will have a field day.

And yet, many of the dashers make for some captivating moments, making their presence linger, even after the glass door had whooshed shut following their departure. It wasn’t the attire, but the way they carried themselves that stirred the air.

    • The thirty-something woman in designer white-and-black mid-thigh skirt, trim bosom with radiant pink pumps. Her as radiant smile enveloped each one she made eye contact with, making them all bask in the benevolence of the day.
    • The man with silver streaks on his temples, midnight-black suit, shiny pointy shoes, tie, white-striped shirt, patiently waits at the counter; then, in a deep baritone, compliments and thanks the newly employed barista, making her turn a lovely rose.

Having said all this, please don’t stop frequenting your local coffee shop fearing you’ll become part of some clandestine study—you won’t. They need your business. It’s unlikely I’d be there, observing you. But if I am, I’ll be sitting in a corner (away from the washrooms), writing most unobtrusively, perhaps, even drawing you.

And coffee shops will be mere sterile spaces if not for the lovely (and ever so patient) baristas setting the tone, mixed with the heady aroma of the brews and elixirs they prepare and the soulful input from the never-ending surge of people, coming and going.

Wherever you go for you hot or cold fix, try to pay a little more attention to what happens around you. You may be surprised by what you learn!


Next: Part II. Taking a closer look at the “Walkers” in coffee shops.

PS 1 Weaknesses of this study: the observer was (intermittently) biased and was not at all blinded.

PS 2 Don’t forget to smile. Please don’t take the last of the milk or napkins. And, don’t forget to tip the baristas!

PS 3 No, I’m not a barista.

PS 4 Thank you to my friend Roger, a true Sitter, who suggested adding the alliterating Dashers and Walkers.

Thank you for reading and sharing!

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