Culture update: how to walk the café talk

July 23, 2023 - 08:04
Café culture has evolved so dramatically over the last decade that having a cup of coffee or other beverage has become an incidental activity, virtually.
Illustration by Trịnh Lập

By An Phương

Café culture has evolved so dramatically over the last decade that having a cup of coffee or other beverage has become an incidental activity, virtually.

This is not to say that the quality of beverages and snacks or meals served is not important. The proliferation of cafés in major cities has mostly taken care of the quality aspect. And so it is with ambience, location, etc. We even have many retro cafés that cater to nostalgia for bygone days with very authentic recreations of yesteryear décor.

The cultural shift has happened in why we go to a café now.

As recently as five years ago, we went to cafés or coffee shops to sit, relax and have some coffee, tea or small eats.

Friends arranged to meet at coffee shops basically to catch up on what was happening in each other’s lives, exchange gossip and so on. Lovers used coffee shops as a rendezvous too.

This continues, but today, the café is also a workplace, a place to meet with office colleagues and hold both informal and formal meetings in an informal setting, maybe. Even job interviews take place in cafés these days.

With this change emerges the question of etiquette and this piece looks at one aspect of this that seems to have attracted some controversy of late – the decibel levels used in conversations. Does everyone have to speak softly or in whispers, like in a library, or is it okay that as a place where friends meet to have fun, some raucousness is to be smiled at, not frowned upon?

The question gains some pertinence, given the fact that many youngsters choose to work or study in cafés these days.

“My sister studies with her university friends at least two times per week at the Là Việt coffee shop in District 3 [Hồ Chí Minh City]. A typical group study session usually lasts for three hours,” Thanh Tuyền, 28, told Việt Nam News.

“The distinctive atmosphere and how everyone is doing the same thing, either work or study, motivates my sister to be in her studying zone,” she added.

Huy Anh, 19, said that he enjoyed studying at a District 1 outlet of Phúc Long, a popular tea and coffee chain.

“A cup of oolong milk tea costs less than VNĐ60,000 [US$2.5] and I can easily spend four to five hours there. Though the branch which I choose is not exactly quiet, I am inspired by the sight of fellows of my age studying hard nearby.”

Tuấn Tú agreed with his friend Anh, telling Việt Nam News that coffee shops are catering to the workspace demand now and this function is generally welcomed by everyone.

As a response to this trend, it has become increasingly common to see cafés in downtown HCM City that are more quiet than normal coffee shops where people chat with each other without any inhibition or caution.

Productivity booster

For centuries, coffee or tea has been a stimulant to kickstart a day and to sustain body and mind later. Today, they seem to function as a productivity booster.

While the beverages had penetrated the workplace a long time ago, the establishments that serve them have become workplaces now, not just for eccentric writers, artists and freelancers, but for everyone who typically plugged into headphones that are plugged into laptops.

In their new incarnation as office spaces, are customers bound to conduct themselves quietly?

Netizens have different perspectives and opinions. Some argue that the new trend has “killed” the essence of going to a coffee shop for a cup of stimulating beverage and a well-deserved break. Others quite enjoy the new quietude.

“I once sat next to a loud man at a coffee shop that was workspace-oriented. The way he went about his day and the way he bragged loudly about the influential people he knew made me pack up and leave. I wasn’t doing any work or having to focus on any important task, but it was jarring how inconsiderate he was, especially when most of the other customers were silent,” said Thanh Hiền, 28.

Hiền said she did understand that when she chose to be in a public space she could not control the environment to her liking.

“I think most of the time people who talk loudly in public spaces do so unintentionally. They get excited or otherwise carried away and do not realise that their voices have risen,” she said.

“The coffee shop, workspace-oriented or not, is not a library but a business place in the service industry. Customers are provided the service so that the business owner can earn revenue and profit,” she added.

I don’t think anyone would belabour that point. But some friends with whom I broached the topic, sitting in a coffee shop, of course, wondered why such establishments are hesitant to put up a “please maintain silence” so that other customers can be considerate towards those who are working or studying.

Anh countered, “Most coffee shops might not want to frame themselves as ‘work cafés,’ but rather a flexible place for people with different needs to hang out.”

He said a different floor or a particular corner can be suitable for certain types of visitors. “If people wanted to work or study in private, the higher floors might be better for them.”

Tú pitched in with an observation: “Sometimes I deliberately film pieces of ‘irritating but clickable’ content; and post them on the Internet at an appropriate time.

“With the rise of TikTok and how easily a single piece of information can go viral in a second, many of us have become ‘moral police’ in a sense.”

I ventured that such things cannot be rigidly judged or enforced, but a general attitude of respecting others can prevent unnecessary discomfort for all concerned.

My comment was greeted with nods… some in agreement, others reserving judgement.

But all of us agreed that updated café etiquette would continue to be an interesting topic of discussion that could churn out some interesting insights in the days to come. VNS