Cultural differences

Café Culture

1:00 PM

green tea in a green cup


Let's go for a coffee...one simple sentence, and many cultural interpretations and variant. While the drink is universal, how people have it and where is not.
In Switzerland, the right to a morning coffee break is a labour union right. Every employee is entitled to a 20-30 minutes break in their morning if they work at least 8 hours a day. As a result, most workplace have a coffee machine in a corner, or a mini-kitchen where employees can get their fix. However, many still do go to the nearby café. Most of these establishments are family owned, brand less and will serve you a basic espresso with coffee cream on the side. They are no frill places that then double as a lunch place and an after work pub. Don't expect a fancy signature coffee or something more elaborate than a croissant to eat at coffee break time, that is not what most of these café will be into.

The café culture is big in most of Europe, and in Switzerland it is not just limited to office goers. Come 10am and you are likely to see housewives and senior citizen flock to the nearby place to have their morning cup as well. In highschools, students will head to their establishment canteen around the same time for theirown caffeine fix, as there is a 20 minutes break specially provided for that purpose in the morning. I kid you not, we take the morning break very seriously, it borders on sacred!
I grew up being used to head to the café with my mom or grand mothers (when I wasn't in school). They would wrap up their household chores and grocery shopping early in the day and then meet their friends over a cup of something (it can be tea...no discrimination) while I would be given a glass of pomegranate syrup. Syrup, which in my youth still came free in many places. They would chit chat, gossip, catch up with each other for about half an hour and then proceed with the rest of their day worth of household duties knowing they would likely meet again the next day. Most coffee places have their regulars, and the owners know them well.

It is said that cafés were the social network sites of that time before Facebook. They in fact still are and still serve that exact same purpose. People don't go to a café because the coffee is good, at the exception of Starbucks (which has little appeal to older people in my homeland), no café will serve you anything but a generic brew, served black with the cream and sugar on the side. People go to such places to reconnect with people, forget work for 20 minutes and focus on human interaction. Coffee time is that bracket in the day where everything else important can wait. You won't find a lot of people dragging their work to the café or even discussing it with colleagues there. Because the moment you step on that "sacred ground", status and labels cease to exist, there is no boss and subordinates, no apprentice...nothing, just human being on a break.
Working in the outskirts of Geneva, I didn't have a café to go to. But, my boss installed an espresso machine in a tiny corner or our workshop. During that time of the day, he was no longer my boss, and I was no longer the apprentice and we would rarely, very rarely talk about anything work related. That too despite setting our cups down on the corner of our workbench with whatever sofa we were reupholstering pretty much inches away from us.

It could wait, anything can wait during that breather.

In India, going for coffee seems to fall into two categories, with very few exceptions. The first being the hasty filter coffee or chai being drank at a road side stall in a hurry. Which still remain a widely male dominated activity. The second being the Status symbol coffee. The one that is fancy and drank in plush franchise establishements. People visiting these joints usually linger much longer and it is now common to see informal business meeting taking place over coffee, as most of these places offer free wifi. Coffee shops around here, do not really serve the purpose of disconnecting from work unless you are college going student or a housewife it seems.

There are a few exceptions though, South Mumbai has many small cafés held by Iranians and Parsi where people will go for an unpretentious cup of something and a quick bite. And I've hear there is some of that culture in Kolkata as well, where the evening tea or coffee is a social event during which people just catch up and value human contact.

How is the café culture in your corner of the world?

14 comments

  1. Anonymous7:37 PM

    Am not a coffee person. But I simply can't do without tea. I don' know much about coffee but I like going to the cafe just because I love the environment. Except for the cold coffee, those names frappes macchiatto, make no sense to me. :) I am amazed the way ppl come and place their order .They know exactly what they want.
    Forget Starbucks, I feel even cafes like CCD are ridiculously expensive. Oh but how I wish I could go there often.

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    1. I am not much of a coffee person myself, I am a tea fanatic. In Switzerland I would stick to coffee in cafes because both the price of coffee and tea was the same, and while generic coffee still makes you feel the price is justified, paying the same for a 10 cent worth tea bag of Lipton Yellow feels like a rip off :-) but seriously never really liked the coffee how it is done there, it was too bitter, and the cream just added to the sour taste. As I said it was the social experience that mattered anyway.
      Here in India, if I already go out to a coffee shop, I go as an indulgence, and I am glad not to have to be stuck with the bitter/sour espresso cup.
      I usually end up once a week at Starbucks because I like their coffee's taste. I do it while Ishita is having her Gymnastic class, and often I am alone as DH prefers sleeping in at home. This is my little weekly treat: good coffee and alone time. I often grab a notebook and write while I am there, many posts on this blog are the result of initial drafts written in Starbucks...including this one.

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    2. Anonymous8:54 PM

      There is a beatiful bengali song lameting the loss of coffee house culture in kolkata. it is basically about loss of old friend.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfRAXIsFJcg

      I met my wife and her family in a government coffee house which has now been turned into a private banquet hall. Government coffee house have been shut down in delhi. They sold wonderful filter coffee and south indian delicacies especially the aromatic Kesar Halwa.

      There was a time when these places were rare in post liberalized India and looked at as places frequented by the rich. Now they are more common. Do you know what is the single most contribution of malls and delhi metro. Cleaniliness and clean toilets. Whenever I go into the toilet of a mall I wish such facilites are accessible to the common public in public places. Sulabh International has done a great job but still more toilets and dustbins are required. If you accumulate garbage you have to carry it to you home because there are no dustbins. They are either absent or poorly maintaned. If you provide more toilets and dustbins then people are less inclined to deface public property. It is as much a case of accessibility as changing people's mindset. That is why people are less prone to lettering in delhi metro. Some jerks do but most people are well behaved. Clean and safe public toilets are also a must for women who are greatly inconveniced due to their absence.

      Apple

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    3. There is a movement in Bangalore called the "Ugly Indian", people from the group take upon themselves to beautify otherwise ugly public spots. Their reasoning is that people are far less likely to litter and disresepect a spot that is already looking good. They clean the rubish, paint the walls, put potted plants and in some cases dustbins...the verdict? All the spots they impreved stayed clean, and nobody wants to litter them again. All it took is a group of dedicated volunteer, and a little paint in most cases.

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  2. Anonymous7:42 AM

    Drive-thrus are big here in Florida (US). Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, and even McDonalds. The US loves to eat/drink on the run. You'll see meetings and business conducted in Starbucks. I personally have a Keurig and make my coffee at home to save money. Sometimes I meet a friend for coffee, though. My DH is from Europe and says people rarely walk around there with coffee cups in their hands, the way they do in the US.

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    1. Yep your husband is right, it is extremely rare to see people walk and carry a coffee cup. I think the reasoning is that if you already feel like having a coffee, you might as well take the 20 minutes it take to enjoy it. I haven't seen a lot of to-go coffee in India either, when Starbucks was new, they hade a big range of thermos cups and flasks, but they downsized their collection because there is very little market for them, those who order a Starbucks to go are happy with the paper cup, but most will actually sit down in the café to enjoy it, even in a city like Mumbai were people are far more likely to grab something to go.

      I heard this thing about getting coffee to go in the US, I love how interesting it is to compare something as simple as having a cup of coffee translates across different cultures.

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  3. Anonymous9:48 PM

    We indians are poor people ,can't afford starbucks and ccds .so we are basically tea drinking people sipping in broken cups in road side. Europeans are rich people .so they may drink coffee.

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    1. You missed the point dear. we don't go to Starbucks in Switzerland, the Cafe Serve cheap generic coffee, people go there to CONNECT with other human beings, not to drink gourmet coffee. So stop the bullcrap about we Indian are poor you European are rich, first because it is a blatant stereotype, and it doesn't apply to the topic at hand. South India grows coffee and drink coffee at the road side stalls by the way. And Interesting fact Italians prefer their coffees on the go too, the term espresso comes from their habit of gulping down a cup in a few minutes before rushing to whatever comes next in their day, espresso meaning "express" as in a fast coffee...

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  4. Anonymous5:53 AM

    i am sorry and please pardon me if i hurted you any way .please dont be offended as my intention was not to offend you anyway. what i had said was indeed related to the topic as imbibing coffee is mostly a rich peoples culture in india and 90% of all the peoples of india are not rich so it is really hard to see people hangout on coffee unlike tea. And related to the term espresso or express it is not a indian term. and it does not necessarily conveys the same meaning for india and western countries.what is express speed for us is cattle speed for western countries.

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  5. My friend recently opened up a cafe and it is my new favorite spot! To get a light lunch or sit and have a pot of tea....divine!

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  6. What makes me laugh is that when you go to coffee cafes in the US or India (or even Nepal) nearly everyone in there is staring at a laptop or phone while sipping their drink. Why go to a cafe to do that?

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    1. Exactly! I have been wondering about that too, if you are going to pay big bucks for a Starbucks in India, why sip it absentmindedly staring at a laptop? You won't find a lot of people taking laptops out of their bag at any family cafe or even a franchise in Switzerland because coffee, or tea equal being on a break from work and life, people go have a 30 minutes coffee to unwind, and feel human again. Then there are the coffee shop writers, but they don't usually carry a computer around, just a notepad, and linger for hours at a cafe mulling over their thoughts and ideas.

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  7. Hey Cynthia, I agree with what you have said about India. Either a quick roadside coffee or in plush Barista/ coffee days. But, we also enjoy home-made filter coffee, which is the best :-)
    It's good that having a coffee break for 20 mins is considered as a right of employee in Switzerland. We too enjoy 20 mins coffee breaks in office.

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    1. True but homemade coffee or even tea is not the same as dedicating 20 minutes of your day to leave everything aside and connect with people. I know that when I drink tea at home I usually carry on with my daily grind carrying my cup around the flat as I go.

      Interestingly the concept of taking some time off for coffee is found in many European countries and culture. In Switzerland and in France "let's have coffee" usually means "Let's get a break and catch up". The Germans have the "Kaffee and Kuchen" in the mid afternoon which is "Coffee and cake", the Swedish have "Fika" whcih is coffee and cake in the afternoon as well, a thing I am sure we find in every Scandinavian country under one form or another. The British have the "Afternoon tea". Heck even in Switzerland we have a "Gouter" or "4 o clock" which is mostly done for kids, but also by some adults where we have a warm beverage and a cookie or cake.

      In India Chai time at home at around 5pm seem to be the equivalent of the afternoon break in Europe. But I haven't seen people say "Come over for coffee" mid morning in India the way we say it in Europe. I mean in the purely social sense of the word.

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