Monday, January 15, 2007

Coffee House Talk Favors Masculine Acquaintances

[I am in the middle of my Cafés and Public Life class, so I thought I would share some thoughts on cafés and coffee houses this week.]

Coffee houses as classic third places – neither home, nor work – where strangers can become acquaintances. Coffee houses promote a kind of sociability through which people from different walks of life can talk about public issues. The regulars in a coffee house may talk often about all manner of things. But the norm for that kind of sociability is that it stays in the coffee house, unless two people make an unusual effort to develop the relationship deeper.

In other words, coffee house comrades can remain at the same friendly acquaintance level for a long time – years, even. I have had a number of coffee house buddies over the years whose last names I never learned, or could recall. This did not diminish the quality of the relationship.

I think this kind of stable friendly acquaintanceship is more typical of men's than women's conversation partners. Ray Oldenburg, the sociologist who coined the term "third place," writes fondly of the group of retired men with whom he regularly gets together to "settle all the problems of the world." I have known many a men's coffee talk group, especially "old goats clubs" of retired men, that did just that sort of thing. They knew one another's opinions on public issues, but they did not know the details of one another's lives very well. The women's kaffeeklatch, in my experience, is quite different. There, the main subject of conversation is one another's lives and families. If a group of women talked regularly over coffee, but never got personal, I expect that most of them would think there was something wrong with the group.

The golden age coffee houses of the 17th and 18th centuries were overwhelmingly male environments. Today's coffee house is much more mixed. Still, I think the distinctive form of sociability of the coffee house as third places favors a more masculine than feminine conversational style.


José Solano said...

Of course, English speaking countries have coffeehouses (coffee houses), and Germans have kaffeehäuser but most of the rest of the world has cafés. It would seem that we go for coffee rather than to the coffee house. In Spanish we would say "Vamos al café." But to go to the café evokes all sorts of wonderful social experiences.

In Spain or Argentina or many other Spanish speaking countries the cafés are filled with women socializing. It's also where the youth (teenagers) go to meet friends of either sex to chat and laugh.

No doubt hundreds of years ago these were men's hangouts. Certainly in Middle Eastern countries women would not be found there. Women were too busy at home taking care of kids and everything else to be playing games, reading the paper or chatting in cafés.

With the actual increase of leisure time, or so it seems, everyone can enjoy to spend some time in the cafés. The phenomenon of internet cafés has also spread everywhere. This may reduce the socialization aspect but I haven't been frequenting such places much to see what is really happening. Among the players of chess, Go or backgammon there was more socialization, especially when there were onlookers or kibitzers present, but it was primarily a men's socialization.

Poetry recitations or book readings brought in a more mixed crowd. Musical ensembles added to the overall cultural enrichment of everyone.

Sounds like a most enjoyable class where such topics as coffeehouse activities and socialization can be covered. Probably a good idea to do some field studies also. You might want to do some comparing and contrasting of coffeehouse interactions with the pub life. I don't know how your school will take to doing field studies there.

Brett said...

When I was the co-pastor of the Presbyterian church in Lebanon, I would sometimes drive the 30 miles through the knobs to visit the coffee place above the Centre College bookstore in Danville--nothing like it in Lebanon.

Gannet Girl said...

I'm still trying to figure this post out. You're right, my experience tells me, about the differences between men's and women's conversations. But I'm not sure what locale has to do with it.

I read this post last night after returning from dinner and a deeply personal conversation with a woman friend at the local coffee house/cafe'. My main group of women friends meets there for breakfast (which sometimes flows into lunch) almost every Saturday, as do several other groups of women. I do work and church related meetings there all the time.

We talk about how many days are left until the next presidential election and we talk about matters of rather delicate intimacy. Everything goes.

What I really want to know, though, is what was the first coffeehouse in Boston and is it still in operation?

Gruntled said...

I have noticed that groups of women tend to come to the cafe together. Men are more likely to come alone and stop to talk to other men. That is the different.

hydropsyche said...

Don't you think there's probably some observational bias there? Maybe you just don't notice women who come in alone and only see them after they've started talking to a group? And do people at your coffeehouses really stay in gender-segregated groups? How boring.

Gruntled said...

Yes, there could be some observational bias -- I haven't really done a count. I see many women who come alone. They seem less likely to join people there who they had not previously arranged to meet. Men seem more likely to come in, size up the regulars, and at least touch base with them, if not sit down for a spell.

I would welcome real data here, though.