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October 1st, 2009
09:46 AM ET

Drinking Alone

From CNN Writer Jim Dexter     

      Here's something to think about over your next cup of coffee. There's a new book about one of America's most familiar modern icons. It's called "Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks."

      As part of his research for the book, Professor Bryant Simon of Temple University visited hundreds of Starbucks coffee houses, presumably drinking a lot of coffee but also watching his fellow customers, and here's something he discovered: very few of them talk to each other.

      We drink our coffee, we type on our laptop computers, we may read our books. If we came in with friends or business associates, we talk to them, of course. But Professor Simon writes that he saw very few spontaneous discussions among strangers.

      He's disappointed about that because, "Talk and ideas are crucial to the making of community."

      In some ways, Professor Simon's new book reads like a sequel to a best-seller from 2000, "Bowling Alone." Harvard University sociologist Robert Putnam wrote about membership declines in everything from bowling leagues to churches to the PTA, and linked those declines to a breakdown in civic participation.

      Once upon a time, big ideas were discussed in coffee houses. In 17th Century Britain, people sometimes called them "penny universities." Coffee house discussions in colonial America helped set the stage for the American Revolution, and the New York Stock Exchange started at a coffee house in 1792.

      These days, we have other places to share our ideas: we can blog, we can tweet, we can call radio talk shows. But based on Professor Simon's observations at Starbucks, we may need a little more help communicating face-to face. Perhaps  we're all just too busy with our laptops, but maybe the solution could be something as simple as changing the furniture: I was in an independent coffee house outside Pittsburgh recently. Customers there sat around a semi-circular counter, and the conversation flowed as freely as the coffee.


Be sure to catch “Everything but the Coffee” author Bryant Simons on CNN Newsroom with Fredricka Whitfield this Saturday, October 3, at 3 p.m. ET.

Filed under: Anchors • Fredricka Whitfield
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Mike Armstrong TX.

    I dont mind drinking coffie alone you just add some burbon and then everything is OK.

    October 1, 2009 at 9:52 am |
  2. Steve Rader

    I think that this may explain our inability as a country to effectively debate issues (like healthcare).
    We've lost our dialogue and conversation skills.
    Blogs and call in shows tend to be either everyone agreeing with like minded people or 1-way tyrates.
    Real dialogue and debate is crucial to real, functioning democracy.
    I hope we find a way to get us talking again!

    October 1, 2009 at 12:38 pm |
  3. Victor Velez – NYC

    Not surprising; the only things that seem to become popular are those things that divide, including technology. People have become more more socially inept too disregarding manners and the like, not to mention spelling.

    Perhaps we all need to put down the ipods, iphones and close the lids and give Facebook a break and get back to the REAL social network called humans.

    October 1, 2009 at 1:51 pm |
  4. Amber Smith

    Everyone seems caught up in their own world at Starbucks. Personally, I get the same sort of feeling as being in a library as I do when I'm at Starbucks, so I do my best not to disturb anyone. I don't want anyone to give me the typical, "Shh. 'This is a library!' face."

    October 1, 2009 at 3:28 pm |
  5. Sami

    I'm guilty of that–sitting in a coffee house and not talking to anybody. But I think there's also a lack of defined etiquette in the subject. I don't want to bother someone who came to the shop in order to do work or read.

    October 1, 2009 at 3:43 pm |
  6. Natalie

    Usually when i drink coffee im tired and im tryin to wake up. you dont want to talk to me when im not awake, so drinking alone is best for me.

    October 1, 2009 at 4:54 pm |
  7. Joshua Howard

    I would like to see if he got the same results at privately owned coffee houses. Starbucks is a sterile, lifeless chain. People want to come in, go out and not be bothered. Customers aren't there to visit, converse, or otherwise interact.

    October 1, 2009 at 6:07 pm |
  8. Sabrina Wolfgang

    Yes, it may be somewhat of a bad thing that people don't talk as much as they used too, but in a way I find it relaxing. Whenever I go for coffee, I specifically go just to be alone.

    October 1, 2009 at 6:22 pm |
  9. Richard Stewart

    caught the thing on Starbucks on CNN; methinks Bryant Simon went to the wrong place to find conversation and "community. go to McDonald's Bryant, you will find people sitting, drinking coffee, eating and talking. i visit a Mcdonalds in Ridgecrest California on occasion and found a small "community" of older people gathered there for breakfast. I've seen the same people most every time I stop in. yeh I know Starbucks is where the literati and cognescenti gather but what do they know about community – most are a community of one.

    October 4, 2009 at 12:34 am |
  10. claire mcrae

    We're going to be adding the interview with the professor soon, so if you missed it , watch this spot.

    October 4, 2009 at 9:40 am |