[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.