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II: Barbarism at the Starbucks

Yuma. On the group's bicycle rides we frequently stop in at a Starbucks for a rest. I look forward to it.

I don't mean the coffee. How do you explain why these places are so popular? Is it just "affinity marketing?" They offer a pseudo-sophisticated and PC image to people who need it, and who feel good about being surrounded by strangers who presumably think the same way. Hence the shade-grown, bird-friendly, fair-trade coffee; the New York Times available inside (does anybody still read that?); and the smooth jazz (elevator jazz actually) drowning out the conversation.

Except that there isn't much conversation. Everybody is trying to look sophisticated and important by burying their nose in the Latest-and-Greatest electronic gadget. Look over by the couch -- a man is trying to look alpha-professional while staring at his little screen -- the latest sports scores, probably. He is thinking, "I wonder if that hot babe (a minivan-driving matron, actually) at the next table has noticed that my iRectangle17 has the roundest corners of any gadget on the market." My goodness, what if we had time machines, and we could transport the customers of coffee houses of London or Paris in the 1700s to one of today's Starbucks? How disappointed they would be!

Maybe not. They weren't all Boswells and Johnsons back then, you know. There were plenty of people who were conversational oafs, as is obvious from reading Swift's essay. (Which the reader has already done, of course.)
My spin on Swift's essay is that we should first eliminate the most common mistakes in conversation, because it is do-able, and makes for quick and noticeable improvement.  No matter how worthy a positive agenda might be, it would blur out into a long-term project. (Thus, let that be Step Two.)

I'll bet the reader recognizes every one of the mistakes that Swift cataloged. Perhaps because it was less obtrusive in his day, he overlooked a mistake that I frequently notice: fracturing into couples. 

The typical table has room for 4 customers. Most foursomes are lucky if they can pass the conversational volleyball around for more than 2 minutes before the conversation splits into two couples. And that's even true if the table has 4 men sitting at it! I grimace every time this happens.

Do we at least agree that this cupply-dupply fracturing is anti-social and uncivilized? Unless we agree on that, it would be a waste of time to try to explain the phenomenon.

In watching "costume" movies (about past eras) you see social behavior that seems highly formal and rigid to our own times. For instance, there were certain expectations about visiting and receiving people -- 15 minutes was typical. No doubt it was to occur only at certain times of the day, on certain days, and might involve tea or some other refreshment? At dinner parties, you could not sit next to your own wife. There were many topics that were not allowed in "mixed" company. 

Yes, such rules are a bit arbritrary -- but not entirely so. There was some common sense and practicality behind them too. I think that rules make social interaction easier and more beneficial, at least potentially. The cupply-dupply conversational barbarism of modern times is just one more manifestation of the social anarchy brought on by modern trends. 

There are more ways to improve conversation, and the reader is probably better than me at thinking them up. What really counts is that we stop believing the anarchistic mantra of the 1960s that you can just 'like, do your own thing, man.'


Bon vivant said…
I agree. While the "rules" that GWashington was taught and lived by were a bit strict it seems they had their practicality and reveal how barbaric our culture is now.
Gran said…
I too agree. On occasion I do pop into a Starbucks, usually to get a cup to go. However, while I wait in line, I do look around at that "pseudo-sophisticated" crowd, as you call them. I always think, "I am sooo not impressed." Keep up the good work sir, I enjoy your take on life!
XXXXX said…
Sometimes it's helpful to take a few more steps back to get a wider view.
When I travel, I look for Starbucks for the reliable wifi connection and the coffee of known quality. At home here, I avoid Starbucks and instead prefer the local coffee shops. I do believe other locals do the same thing for after awhile I recognize them and conversation tends to occur amongst various tables and includes the friends I have come to meet. Speaking to strangers often is encouraged by the fact that one has noticed them being there on several previous occasions.
Starbucks has taken off like wildfire. Instead of such criticism, you might wonder about somebody's apparent talent for predicting what would appeal to so many people. After all, their greater purpose for existing is to make money, not to provide a social service to the public. As for you, nobody makes you go there. It seems to me that your fellow cyclists could pick a better spot if conversation is what they are after. I would suggest a local coffee shop.
As far as conversations are concerned, I don't personally experience a decline in quality. In fact, just the opposite. I'm rather amazed at all the rules that this essay puts forth. There is a difference between art and science. Science seeks to document, itemize, test, judge, analyze results, make predictions. And make rules. I surely could not enjoy having a conversation with someone who treated the conversation as a science.
I believe conversation is an art. It's a roughly equal meeting of what each has to give. If any one person seeks to dominate with "rules" or any other fashion, conversation over. If anything is barbaric, that is certainly getting close.
It's pretty important to care about what they other person thinks and feels. That takes some questioning, etc. curiosity, and open-mindedness on the part of the listener. Sometimes it's good just to listen. It's an art. Like any art, it is a creative process.
Rules seem constipating. Life has a flow.
OK, use the word 'custom' instead of 'rule.' How could we converse unless the word 'cat' means about the same thing to you as it does me. We don't have to have the same experiences or opinions about the critters, but we do have to agree on basic customs -- which is all language is -- in order to have a conversation about cats.

Similarly with sports. How would you enjoy sports without rules?

Why should useful and facilitating customs end at language? Other customs could be helpful, such as a "3 sentence" rule. (oops, there's that word again.) Nobody should talk for more than 3 sentences without pausing; nor should anyone interrupt before then.
XXXXX said…
I'm going to presume that you don't mean the 3-sentence rule literally. After all, you needed more than 3 sentences to make your own point above.
I think we would agree that we all need to be fine-tuned to each other in conversations and not take advantage of a captive audience to dump our frustrations on.

(Now THAT was 3 sentences. Oops, I just blew it. Now it's 5. No, six. Oh whatever. :)

Happy New Year to you, Boonie. I wish you the best in 2014.