writer, speaker, content creator

Advice to People Who Own Cafes: Do Not Be Creepy

In Crazy People, Food, Social Conventions on February 28, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Earlier today I had a bad cafe experience. Bad to the point that I will almost certainly never walk into the given establishment again. I had an appointment in SE Portland this afternoon and was biking down SE 52nd, an area that I am unfamiliar with. I noticed that I had some time to kill, and thought that I would spend perhaps half an hour in a coffee shop, doing coffee shop things. Namely, sipping coffee and reading news. That was all I wanted. A nice place with coffee and wi-fi. This, I thought, was a simple and straightforward thing to ask for. I walked into the first place I saw, an establishment that shall remain unnamed but did advertise as a cafe on its exterior signage.

A man who was certainly past middle age but definitely not elderly greeted me. “Hello!” he said. I looked around for something like a point of sale, bar, counter, or other place where orders could be transacted. There was none. Various refrigerated display cases abounded, but most things weren’t labeled.

“Hungry?” said the man. I wasn’t really.

“Can I get a cup of coffee?”

“Sure! You want something else? We got lots of food.”

“Um…”

“We got meatloaf!”

At this point I really should have held my ground and just stuck with the coffee. However, perhaps because it was sort of close to lunch, my resolution broke and I asked if they had any sandwiches. “Sure,” said the guy, “I can make you a sandwich.” He went on to extol the virtues of their offerings, declaring it to be the “best food in Portland.” I know he did not mean it literally. He merely meant to say “our food is good.” However, I found the remark to be rather naive and kind of arrogant.

The man eventually gave me a ham sandwich the size of my head. I stared at it, and wondered how the hell I’d been so irresolute to order something I didn’t actually want. I began to eat the sandwich. I cursed my lack of steadfastness, and resigned myself to lunch consumption. (To be fair, it was a very good sandwich, though by no means among the best in Portland.)

Then, things got weird. The sandwich guy, instead of walking away and letting me eat the sandwich, sip coffee, and read news in peace, sat down at my table.

“So,” said the man, “what’s your name?”

I was kind of stunned. Suddenly, I was eating a lunch I didn’t really want and had a completely unsolicited dining partner. Over the course of my sandwich-consumption, the man asked me what my job was, what part of town I lived in, what it was like being a bicyclist, and sundry follow-up questions. He also asked me if I wanted to play chess. At the end of it he said “You come back now!” and I left. It was like he’d tried to adopt me as his new BFF, just because I’d walked into his place

I know that he was trying to be friendly. However, it was still very disconcerting. I don’t think that things like my name and profession are particularly private, (this website, after all, has my name on it) but the man earlier today violated a few unspoken rules about what happens in a place like a cafe, bar, or restaurant. To wit:

Don’t aggressively upsell customers. Upselling (“would you like fries with that?”) is fine.  Aggressively upselling, though, is alienating. While it did work in this instance (I bought a sandwich) can harm you overall with repeat business. For instance, I don’t want to go back- I didn’t like being strongarmed into sandwich-acquisition.

Respect the personal bubble. Given that I work as a tour guide, I’m pretty much extroverted and friendly on a professional basis. I enjoy it, but it means that I get socially drained on a fairly frequently, and often need to recharge with a bit of solitude and noninteraction. I was on my way to an activity that was going to be somewhat socially taxing, so I wanted to take some time to collect myself before having to activate the social subroutines. Coffee shops are usually a great place to do this- you can chill out in a nifty space while sipping a tasty beverage. The man in question, though, did not respect my social cues- I was hunched over my phone, reading news, and not interacting with my environment. Most people can detect when a person is in their own headspace, and respect it. This guy didn’t, and it felt highly weird and kind of inappropriately squicky.

Personal questions, out of the proper context, are weird. This is the big one. In the context of ordering food and drink small-talk, banter, and the like is all fine. While tour-guiding, I banter incessantly with people (“Where are you from” works as fantastic conversation fuel, as the vast majority of people I see are tourists) and if a barista, bartender or other service person is completely silent, then that comes across as cold. However, buying something does not mean that a given service person should suddenly quiz you about who you are, your occupation, your proclivities, or what your deal is. (This goes both ways, too. Never hit on your barista. It’s weird.)

If a customer is a regular, that’s probably another matter. I don’t mind having actual conversations with my local bartender because I actually know who he is, see him all the time, and have an established thing going. Chatting with regulars is a pretty organic and nice thing to do, because in that instance the relationship is something that has a fair amount of bedrock and social interaction is actually earned. What happened to me this afternoon, though, was just kind of creepy and space-violating.

So, yeah. Service people: don’t interrogate your customers. I’m not your new special friend. Sometimes, all I want is coffee. Go away and let me read the news.

  1. Conversely, and I was just talking about this last night with a friend after we had gone there, there is a neighborhood bar that I’ve frequented off-and-on for years. The same girl has worked there for most of that time and has never once been much more than “cold professional” with me and, as far as I can tell, everyone else.

    Lately it’s begun to rub me the wrong way: we’ve had this same interaction for literally four or five years and she’s not unfriendly but at some point it’s strange that I don’t even know her name after all this time. But maybe she just likes to be a bartender ninja, do the job quickly, quietly, and get the fuck out, and I can understand that.

    Ultimately the percentage of people who grok the concept of the personal bubble is far lower than it ought to be and there’s a lot of cultural aspects to that as well, but that’s a long story for another comment.

  2. I can’t help but look at this interaction from the “cafe” owner’s perspective. It does indeed sound like he suffers from social cue deafness and insufficient business acumen. But the picture you’ve drawn for me makes me sad for him, not annoyed on your behalf. The whole interaction smells faintly desperate. Perhaps he’s broke. Perhaps he has a family depending on him. It sounds like he needs customers quite badly and he thought chatting you up would make for a memorable dining experience. I applaud you for being kind to him.

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