Culture Over Coffee

Apr 06, 2021 4 Min Read

Ceremoniously standing in line at the local coffee shop amidst the aroma of freshly roasted coffee and the morning bustle is a familiar ritual to most of us caffeine lovers. 

But have you ever taken a moment to think about how you’re notified your order is ready? Beyond the beverage itself, the scribbled name on your coffee cup tells a story of social norms and societal culture. 

As a coffee aficionado always in pursuit of the perfect brew, I find my morning coffee ritual quite enlightening. Having lived and worked in several culturally diverse cities, I can share some first-hand insights across 3 distinct cultures: from Sydney to Dubai and onto Shanghai. 

Upon moving to Sydney in 2010, I quickly learned that it was trendy to be seen with a cup of coffee in hand as you walked into the office each morning. It was apparent that Sydneysiders loved their coffee! So much so that they’re willing to wait as professionally trained baristas work their magic to serve up a perfect brew with competition worthy latte art. Eager to fit in with the locals, I joined the morning queue. 

‘Name?’, asks the cashier behind the counter. Now coming from Dubai, I found the concept of giving my name to a complete stranger, rather... well, uncomfortable. My name is difficult to pronounce for most and even more difficult to explain in the hubbub of a city coffee shop. So, I had tried to simplify my name by suggesting ‘just put G’. Was I avoiding confusion or awkwardness or both? 

‘Coffee for ‘Gee’. Coffee for ‘Jee’. Coffee for ‘Jean’ – I’ve had all kinds of variants of ‘G’ as the staff grappled to accept a single letter for a name. Can’t we just go with a ‘skimmed piccolo with half’? 
Known for its laid back and familiar style, I quickly learned that Australia’s coffee culture is representative of its strongly egalitarian society and I needed to get comfortable with an overly familiar approach, even from my barista. 

Despite its fast-paced lifestyle where everyone is on the go at break-neck speed, it was more commonplace to savor a coffee comfortably seated in a café. Over my 18 years in the Emirates, I saw the advent of specialty roasters and a proliferation of chains such as Starbucks. With this trend, the concept of coffee-to-go became more common over time. 

‘Coffee’s up’ as a ‘tall, skinny, dry latte with half’ is called and thrust across the counter into my hands. The scrawl on my cup abbreviated in code for the baristas. 

In the hierarchical society of the Arab world there’s a greater emphasis on status. The culture calls for compliance rather than familiarity. It’s highly unusual to be on a first name basis in a service environment. I may have frequented the same coffee shop for many years, but no one knew my name. 

China is not typically a coffee drinking nation, though following Western trends the coffee shops have become the place to be seen. Along with the expected chains, the Chinese have followed suit to create their own brands from ‘hole in the wall’ concepts to larger establishments boasting specialty coffee as a mainstay of their offering. 

During my frequent visits to Shanghai, I was in constant search for the perfectly roasted brew to kickstart my day. Amidst a population of 24 million with the intricacies of the Chinese characters, the naming system would be potentially confusing. More importantly, in a high power and importance driven society such as China, it would be unthinkable to ask for a first name in a retail setting. In keeping with the social norms, a number is attached to your order. I’m happy with that! Keeping a level of anonymity feels appropriate in the populous city. 

The extent to which societies follow a more flat, egalitarian system (referred to as low power distance) versus a more top-down, hierarchical style (referred to as high power distance) can be identified through the simple act of ordering your morning coffee. This example speaks to the cultural value of authority which can have more complex implications when interacting with people of other cultures, both professionally and socially.

Authority is rooted in deeply held cultural values that permeate all segments of society, from family to business to government. It refers to power structures and societal expectations and acceptance of the distance between leaders and followers. Your understanding of people’s orientation on this cultural dimension will dictate the ease with which you cultivate a relationship. 

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Gaiti Rabbani is the author of Curious about Culture, a book about cultivating cross cultural understanding. She is a Cultural Intelligence Specialist, an Executive Advisor People and Culture and founder of Rabbani Collective, a company that enables businesses to harness the potential of their people.

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