The Lost Art Of Coffee House Etiquette

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As a writer, I spend a lot of time in coffee houses. Tall Café Mochas serve as my muse juice, free internet keeps me connected, and the cozy atmosphere is free of irritating distractions. Although, I’m starting to question the integrity of that last part. My usual writing spot has increasingly become more a like a zoo than a civilized place for people to read, drink coffee, or engage in conversation.

Of late, I’m starting to think there is a shortage of people who truly know how to behave in a coffee house. I’ve been an avid coffee house dweller for many years and I’ve covered a lot of ground both in the States and abroad. Either I’m getting old and less tolerant or there has been a steady degradation in acceptable behavior for what used to be a relaxing public space.

Ranting usually isn’t my style, but sometimes I hit my limit and can no longer remain silent. At the same time, I’m an organized and civilized ranter that decided to create a list of rules that I believe are essential to coffee house etiquette.

Five Simple Rules of Coffee House Etiquette

The Globe (bookshop and coffee house), Prague Czech Republic
Photo by: c.b.w. 2008

1) Wait in line patiently.

A coffee house is not the place to go if you are in a hurry. Hit the Starbucks drive-thru or a fast food joint if you want your coffee in one minute flat. Standing a millimeter away from the person in front of you and guffawing about how long it’s taking for the lone barista to make a latte does not create a comfortable atmosphere, nor does it make your coffee appear any faster. Good coffee is worth the wait, anyway.

2) Keep conversations personal.

A quiet coffee shop is always nice, but the energy of socializing is acceptable as well. However, there is a difference between intimate conversations that stay within the confines of personal space and those that spread out to everyone within earshot and beyond. Obnoxious drabble and attention-seeking hollers have no place in a coffee house. It’s about showing a little respect for yourself and those around you who did not ask for a shot of your personal life with their espresso.

3) Keep electronic devices silent.

In the age of technology, we are increasingly dependent on cell phones, laptops, tablets, and music players. I fully admit that I am a gadget junkie, but I’m also aware of the fact that it’s polite to make sure they don’t disrupt others. In a coffee house, there is no reason to listen to music or watch a movie with the speakers blaring for everyone to hear. Earbuds were created so you and only you can listen to whatever you want anywhere you want without disrupting other people. Use them.

The same goes for cell phones. Take the time to put your phone on silent or vibrate. Most coffee house goers are not amused that your ringtone sounds like the latest dance club mix. Furthermore, if you have to answer the call, do so following Rule #2 or take the call outside. For some reason, people talk on the phone with a voice that is considerably louder than when speaking face to face to another person.  Nobody wants to hear half of a conversation that breaks the sound barrier while trying to enjoy a cup of coffee.

4) Don’t leave children unattended.

I tread lightly with this rule because I know kids have a right to be out in public. All I’m saying is a little on-site training in proper behavior wouldn’t hurt. Perhaps I’m a prude who is way out of line, but I personally don’t go to a coffee house to listen to children scream or teenagers test how many times they can use the F-word before their Venti Chai Tea is gone. Too many times I’ve watched a gaggle of twelve-year-olds commandeer a table with their “grown up” drinks without having the slightest idea on how to conduct themselves.  So, instead of a coffee house they decide they’re on the playground. Maybe it would help to have someone show them some etiquette instead of dumping them off at a café like it’s a sort of babysitting service.

(Sorry, I might be ranting a little too much here. Parents can’t totally be blamed for this as children are going to do things beyond Mom and Dad’s control. However, Society as a whole can help by refusing to accept inappropriate behavior.)

 5) Clean up after yourself.

Coffee houses are not the same as restaurants. They don’t have waiters assigned to certain tables to come and take your order and clean up your dirty dishes. Granted in some coffee houses, there is someone who swoops by to clear the table, but more often than not the dishes sit there until the barista has a second to step away from the coffee bar. Is it part of their job? Yes. But consider the fact that someone who has just walked in needs a place to sit. Would you ask them to sit with your dirty dishes? I hope not. It only takes a few seconds to throw away your paper cup or set a plate on the counter.

– – –

I may be perched on a soapbox at the moment, but I’m not above apologizing for having broken at least three of these rules at one time or another in my early years.  After more than a few cups of coffee, I’ve learned how important it is to respect the space of others and be mindful of the reality that I am not the center of the universe and neither is anyone else. Especially, in a coffee house.

– – –

c.b.w. 2013

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36 thoughts on “The Lost Art Of Coffee House Etiquette

  1. Amen. You would think it wouldn’t be necessary to remind people of these simple courtesies, but evidently you do. Somewhere along the way good manners got lost in the shuffle. It’s high time we remembered them.

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      • I don’t know. Maybe it’s the fact that finances force so many families to have both parents working and no one home full time to do the childrearing. Less time and energy to discipline kids and really pay attention to what they’re doing. The kids wind up learning about what’s appropriate by watching TV, and God help us if that’s the case.

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      • Indeed. I spend a lot of time every day with teenagers who are very much alone, (I’m a high school teacher). I feel bad for them because all they want is for an adult to care – I think that’s why so many of them act out as they do.

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      • I have to agree. When my daughter was a teenager I would have a houseful of them. Many had parents who were uninvolved and set no limits. But my house, my rules and I would give them ALL a hard time about what they did, wore, was homework done? Etc. They loved it. You’d be amazed at the hugs I got from kids who were happy that I cared enough to give them hell. It’s truly sad.

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  2. The problem is those people will never read this and if they did probably wouldn’t believe they act like THAT. Could you quietly leave a few copies of your rules around the coffee shop next time you go? Thank you.

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    • Good point. Lack of self-awareness is a big reason why certain bad behaviors continue. Hmmm . . . that makes me wonder if lack of self-knowledge is more commonplace or if it people are purposely ignoring the hard work of knowing themselves.

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  3. I dont know… I hate to be the only one to disagree, because normally I don’t, but a coffee shop isn’t a library. People aren’t going to assume they can’t talk, and certainly won’t remember to turn their phones off.

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    • Talking is totally okay – its just obnoxious conversations that need to be reigned in a bit. 🙂 Why do so many people yell??

      As for the phone, I don’t think it would kill us to put it on silent or vibrate. I don’t understand why people think phone conversations and ringtones need to be so public.

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  4. I don’t go all that often, but when I do, it’s usually the same Starbucks. In there, it’s so quiet, so it’s almost eerie. The people there all have ear buds, and are deeply engrossed in … something. The majority of them have Mac computers … isn’t that odd?! LOL

    If people were behaving like you describe it, it would certainly be highly frowned upon. I agree with what you say.

    Went to the dentist today, and in the waiting area they had put up a sign: «Unattenden children will be given an espresso and a free puppy» 🙂

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    • These could easily go in libraries, stores, restaurants, and movie theaters (I can’t believe some of things people do in movie theaters!). It’s astounding how manners have broken down over the last decade or so.

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  5. 1) … and try not to get irritated when the person in front of you says “Can I get…” instead of “Please may I have…”

    2) … but please don’t converse in that just-above-whisper volume which signals that you are talking openly about someone and want people to KNOW that you’re talking openly about someone but don’t want to let them know WHAT you are saying. It is actually much easier for other people to blot out or ignore a conversation at normal volume.

    3) … but be aware of the fact that all makers of mobile phones, tablets, and laptops hard-wire a factory default which ensures that there is always ONE damn function that you can’t silence. It simply WILL go off in a coffee shop. I think the manufacturers have this crazy idea that everyone should exercise a frown muscle at least once a day.

    4) … better still, be kind to the planet and don’t have children. Starbucks does not want you to breed.

    5) … but let someone else clear up after your children. Alternatively you could put all your dirty cups, used serviettes, etc onto the tray on which you brought them to the table in the first place, carry it back to the counter, and hand it over to the Barista with a cheerful, “There you go, pal.” It’s cheaper than leaving a tip.

    M

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  6. I agree that these are just common sense rules that should apply to many social situations. I may have to borrow a few to write out a list for “public transit etiquette”! I seem to be way more tolerant in a coffee house than I am on my commute as of late!

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    • When I was in London two summers ago, I was amazed at how polite everyone is on public transportation. I saw more manners on a bus or a train than I do in a coffee house at home. And I won’t even begin to state what I’ve experienced on public transportation at home – Yikes. Let’s just say there are Americans who could learn a thing or two from Europeans. 😉

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  7. In Canada it’s Tim Horton’s, particularly in remote communities … unless you want a full breakfast and then GET OUT to make room for someone else. I’ve given up on trying to write there unless I’m in the mood to eavesdrop for juicy tidbits of conversation that might spark my imagination. Would LOVE to have more traditional coffee houses around in my neighbourhood. These rules are all broken at a Tim’s.

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    • My nerves twisted in a knot just reading your description! Lol! Yikes – there’s no way I could write at a Time Horton’s.

      I’m in the process of finding a Plan B writing spot. There’s a few little coffee shops around and I’m hoping to find one where people are polite and respectful. It may be a long journey. 😉

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  8. I completely agree with each and every point. I sincerely hope – no, I KNOW – I have taught my children better behavior than I have seen in the past couple of decades, and it’s becoming steadily worse with each new generation.

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    • I gotta agree with this. The longer I teacher, the more I notice the breakdown of manners and respect. I almost wonder if we have to hit rock bottom on this before society wakes up and decides to take a stand.

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