Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Where have all the manners gone . . .

One of the things I love about coffee shops is the cafe culture. Actually, this is one reason why our family has no problem with Starbucks--it created cafe culture in America. If it weren't for Starbucks, the little, local coffee shops would not be pulling in business--especially the ones in rundown urban neighborhoods like ours. We are total suckers for new coffee shops. A couple weeks ago we were on our way to the hospital and noticed a new one en route. We stopped for lunch on our way back and were pleased to see that the next neighborhood over from us is enjoying a nice revival--complete with its own coffee shop. One of the "locals" noticed our cute daughter and engaged us in conversation for half an hour. It was great. The laid-back cafe atmosphere invites opportunities like this because, really, if you were too busy to chat you probably wouldn't be at the coffee shop in the first place.

Our own local place is really, really fantastic. It has the best coffee I have ever tasted. It's almost worth drinking other coffee the rest of the week so that on our regular Tuesday afternoon "date" to the coffee shop we can enjoy our drinks all the more. Almost worth it--we've started buying our beans there. The owner can't afford to live in our neighborhood (it's gentrifying so fast) but he is committed to engaging the people who live here. His coffee is less-expensive than almost any other place I know and he often provides meeting space to civic leaders. He knows our family well and always gives us an iced fruit tea on the house for Joseph.

While we were there last week our little boy wheeled up to a customer and said, "Hey! What's your name?" The guy's name was Bryant and we chatted for awhile with him about our mutual neighborhood enthusiasm. Since there is otherwise nothing to draw outsiders to the street where this cafe sits, the customers are almost always neighborhood folks. We saw that same guy today and we might almost call him a casual friend, now. That's the best of cafe culture--forming relationships, slowing down your day, engaging people.

There was another customer at the table behind us who didn't quite get it. She sat there with her laptop (not, in itself, such a bad thing) and her cell phone. The phone rang--loudly--several times during the hour we were there. One of those times she proceeded to have a long, detailed conversation about a recent Tarot reading she'd had during which she was advised to proceed with an adoption as a single mother. I'm sorry, ma'am, but we really don't care to know about it. But we couldn't help but know about it. Everyone in the cafe now knows about it. I now know more about that woman than about Bryant whom we've talked to twice. But there isn't any relationship and she never engaged us.

This is why I agonize over the role of technology in my life. I was waiting in line at the store recently behind a woman who seemed perfectly sensible but who spent her entire time in line and the whole of her transaction yammering into her phone. The woman at the Customer Service desk might have been an ATM machine for all the consideration she got. No wonder store clerks get snippy and rude. They have non-interactions with people all day long.

Our family attended a wedding earlier this summer in Montauk, NY, which is the south fork of Long Island. The traffic out there made us decide that nothing in Montauk could justify the hours of crawling through the Hamptons. Montauk, and the towns leading up to it, are big weekend spots for New Yorkers trying to "get away from it all." It seems, though, that they aren't able to get away from it all. Every establishment in Montauk bore a large sign announcing that customers on cell phones would not be served. Bravo, Montauk!

I suppose it's just a cultural lag. I don't think the woman in front of me in the store or the woman at the cafe were trying to be rude. They looked like lovely people otherwise. There was yet another woman at the coffee shop today who stepped out to the sidewalk to take a call. Apparently, cell phone use does not automatically equate with rude behavior.

Manners must be taught. Sadly, our culture no longer seems to teach polite behavior through natural selection. Perhaps more places will have a problem as extreme as Montauk's and be inspired to drastic measures in the same way. And perhaps the message will trickle down a little. For now, at least Joseph knows to put his napkin on his lap as soon as he sits down at the table.

1 comment:

Robyn said...

Cell phone story:

A few years ago Dave and I were in a movie theatre before the show started. We were hanging out in the lobby which was mobbed with people buying popcorn and such. There was one man on his phone. He was next in line and when it was his turn he wouldn't go. The people around him started yelling at him to go and order, but he kept saying, 'I'm on the phone!" Finally the movie theatre cops came and dragged him from the lobby as he screamed, "It rude to interrupt people when they are on the phone!"

I love that story.