The Psychology of Coffee

by George Hatjoullis

The public coffee drinker is fast becoming ubiquitous in the UK, and approaching US proportions. By ‘public’ I mean people drinking outside of the home or office. Good quality coffee can now be had in the home or office at a fraction of the cost of a coffee shop, yet many choose to go to coffee shops and purchase a coffee in a paper cup with a plastic top and wander the streets drinking it from the little hole in the top. Others sit in coffee shops, alone. The public coffee is fast becoming a psychological crutch to rival the declining cigarette.

The cigarette used to be the best protection against being alone. Standing on a street corner can attract attention. Light up a cigarette and no one gives you a second look. Indeed there is a good chance someone will come up to you, ask for a light, and strike up a conversation. Such is the power of the cigarette, or at least it was. These days a public smoker is likely to attract adverse comment. I have never smoked but I used to envy the power of cigarettes. You were never alone and they evidently had great insulation properties. Smokers used to stand outside in the middle of winter, with little on, and apparently not feel the cold. Today cigarette smokers have been banished from public spaces. Smoking no longer serves as an effective antidote to being alone.

If you go into a restaurant and have meal alone it can attract nervous looks from other diners. It can be an uncomfortable experience for the lone diner. Not so in a coffee shop. Having a coffee alone does not attract a second look. If you attend a public event and stand about with your hands in your pockets you may get querying looks. No so if you have a carton of coffee in hand. Indeed if you just stand in the street drinking coffee it looks and feels fine, in contrast to just standing in the street. It serves the function of giving you ‘purpose’.You stopped to drink your coffee. It also makes the idea that you might be waiting for someone more plausible (though I cannot fathom why). If you feel uncomfortable in public grab a coffee. It will ease your discomfort though it is not yet a cue for striking up a conversation with a perfect stranger.

The modern coffee from a coffee shop has also become a personality statement. The complexity of the available coffee based beverages is astounding. A signature preference now says something about you. Research into what it says would probably make a good Phd topic in psychology. To me it says you probably don’t like coffee and are trying to mask the taste but I suspect the owner of the signature is fulfilling some unconscious identity need. This is who I am.

It is not a new phenomenon but has become a richer activity. Greek (Turkish, Arabic etc) drinkers have three choices; sweet, medium, and plain and the choice sort of reflects your machismo. A plain Greek coffee is an acquired taste and popular after hangovers (though I am sure sugar helps hangovers). I drink it plain but then I like coffee.

The signature coffee can be a bit tricky in social situations. If someone in the office brings you coffee without you asking and knows your precise preference, what does this say? It is a very intrusive gesture. Fine if you welcome the intrusion but what if you do not? The humble (but not cheap) coffee has complex potential social significance. If you have a signature coffee you are putting yourself out there. Be aware.

For the purist coffee drinker, like myself, it is the coffee not the social significance that is important. Black, strong, and no sugar is the preference. There is a physiological effect from the caffeine and it is mildly addictive. There is also a comfort effect from the routine of coffee making and drinking. As the Garfield cartoon expresses so eloquently ” Give me coffee and no one gets hurt”. I prefer to drink at home and only use coffee shops to meet people or when I am out and about and have no other choice. If you rarely drink coffee at home and are always holding a signature coffee from Starbucks you might want to engage in some introspection. Make sure you are saying what you want to say and to whom you wish to say it.