Here’s something to think about over your next cup of coffee. There’s a new book about one of America’s most familiar modern icons. It’s called “Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks.”
As part of his research for the book, Professor Bryant Simon of Temple University visited hundreds of Starbucks coffee houses, presumably drinking a lot of coffee but also watching his fellow customers, and here’s something he discovered: very few of them talk to each other.
We drink our coffee, we type on our laptop computers, we may read our books. If we came in with friends or business associates, we talk to them, of course. But Professor Simon writes that he saw very few spontaneous discussions among strangers.
He’s disappointed about that because, “Talk and ideas are crucial to the making of community.”
In some ways, Professor Simon’s new book reads like a sequel to a best-seller from 2000, “Bowling Alone.” Harvard University sociologist Robert Putnam wrote about membership declines in everything from bowling leagues to churches to the PTA, and linked those declines to a breakdown in civic participation.
Once upon a time, big ideas were discussed in coffee houses. In 17th Century Britain, people sometimes called them “penny universities.” Coffee house discussions in colonial America helped set the stage for the American Revolution, and the New York Stock Exchange started at a coffee house in 1792.
These days, we have other places to share our ideas: we can blog, we can tweet, we can call radio talk shows. But based on Professor Simon’s observations at Starbucks, we may need a little more help communicating face-to face. Perhaps we’re all just too busy with our laptops, but maybe the solution could be something as simple as changing the furniture: I was in an independent coffee house outside Pittsburgh recently. Customers there sat around a semi-circular counter, and the conversation flowed as freely as the coffee.