Coffee Shop Etiquette

I’m at the coffee shop working on something writing-related – whether it’s writing longhand in my notebook, marking up printouts, or typing on my laptop – at least once a week, sometimes even more frequently depending on my schedule.

And I’ve learned a thing or two when it comes to working in a public space and staying productive:

Rule One – Buy Something. I know this should seem like a no-brainer, but order something so you can justify camping out at a table for hours. It doesn’t have to be expensive either – a small coffee, cuppa tea, a cookie, will do just fine. You’d be surprised how many people don’t buy something and just use the tables, snatch up discarded newspapers, or freeload WIFI. But the baristas know. And they may bug you if you don’t pony up at some point.

Rule Two – Tip. All baristas are not created equal. This I know. But it’s a good policy to tip if you haunt the same place over and over again. If you are paying cash or leaving a cash tip, be sure to place the money in the tip jar when the barista has an opportunity to see you. You don’t have to be too obvious or overly generous, but a little goodwill can go a long way.

Rule Three – Bus your Stuff. When your muse calls it quits and you’re getting ready to leave, throw out your coffee cup or put your plate in the bus tub. I find this helpful at the places I frequent often. The baristas know I pick up after myself and are less likely to interrupt me to clear away my cups and plates over the course of my stay, which can be crucial when I’m in the creative groove.

Rule Four – Know Where the Power Outlets Are.
Peak times aside when real estate is scarce, if you’re an old-fashioned scribe like me, get a seat away from the plugs. You won’t be taking a seat away from someone who needs the electricity, nor will you have to deal with the people who interrupt you in order to plug in their wiz-bang iPad or trusty laptop. On the other hand, if you need the computing power, always be polite in asking for access to the plugs and be mindful of plumber’s crack.

Now, there are many reasons for choosing a coffee shop to get some writing done. Because writing is a solitary endeavor, it can be good for the soul to be around others as you work. I like the white noise of the espresso machines, the tinkle of laughter, and murmur of voices as the background music to my latest WIP. And some come for the spectacle, to people-watch, to borrow snatches of dialogue and physical characteristics from the other patrons.

But if you are serious about getting work done during your coffee shop visits, here are a few more things to keep in mind:

Coffee shops are public spaces – Don’t let the intimate seating fool you. Coffee shops cater to a number of different demographics. Loud cell phone talkers, crying children, study groups, and that one homeless person who always comes in and asks everyone for spare change. And then there’s you – that quiet, squirrelly-looking person in the corner with a notebook and delusions of grandeur. Remember that the variety is what makes a coffee shop interesting. Most annoyances will be fleeting. 

Avoid eye contact with your neighbor if you’re not up for conversation – Sometimes it can’t be avoided. People will talk to you. One afternoon I was heavily involved in a draft – my pen scribbling to keep up with my thoughts – when the man sitting next to me, sighing and muttering to himself, launched into a huge discussion about his new startup as soon as I looked up from my page to give him my patented quelling look. Sadly, he was unaffected and rattled on for a good twenty minutes before I realized he wasn’t going to leave off. I wasn’t going to get anymore work done sitting next to him, so I made my excuses. I still wonder what would have happened if I never looked up from my notebook.

Beware the handsfree headset types – These are the people with flexible work schedules, who work from home but come to the coffee shop for a change of scenery, or  who don’t have a dedicated workspace and capitalize on the free internet. You don’t want to be stuck near someone who is fielding non-stop calls, consulting with clients, or trouble-shooting their laptop with someone from India for two hours.

Hopefully these observations will help you stay productive in your coffee shop environment of choice. Just remember, like most things, caffeine is best enjoyed in moderation.

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11 thoughts on “Coffee Shop Etiquette

  1. Laura Marcella says:

    Great tips! I don't write in public places, except maybe the library, because I don't like when people ask what I'm writing or try reading what I'm writing over my shoulder. It makes me self-conscious and uncomfortable. How do you deal with nosy people like that?

  2. Bluestocking says:

    Hi Laura,

    I usually get a seat with my back to the wall, so people can't look over my shoulder. And at the particular place I go, the tables are reasonably set apart so I don't feel too self-conscious if there's someone sitting next to me. My handwriting also has much to be desired so even if they can see my writing, they can't read it.

    And for the really obnoxious people, I practice my death stare of doom. Usually makes people move on 🙂

  3. Adventures in Children's Publishing says:

    This is such practical advice and was a great read. I learned your lesson the hard way- coffee shops are indeed public places. The last time I went to write and edit in a coffee shop, I realized the noise and activity was not conducive for me to be productive. Love your advice for making a purchase and treating the baristas with care 🙂


  4. Darryl says:

    Excellent thoughts. I am one of those who write and do business away from my “home” office (for at least three hours a day in the morning). Fortunately the coffee shop I frequent is large with two dining areas (also a lunch/sandwich shop). These tips remind me to be polite and sensitive to those sharing the shop! Thanks!

  5. Sharon K. Mayhew says:

    Good post. One of my successful writing friends writes at a coffee shop most of the time. She says it takes her away from the distractions at home. I've done it a few times, but I tend to end up chatting with anyone who will listen…

  6. Nancy Shohet West says:

    I am sure this is the first time I've seen the words “be mindful of plumber's crack” in an article about writing. And yet in this context, it makes perfect sense!

  7. Mark Anthony says:

    Great post! I love writing in coffee shops. The din, the smells, the traffic…it all makes for great writing. Have you tried standing while you write (at the bar, for instance?). I find it helps me keep my focus on especially long writing sessions, its great for my posture, and good for the circulation 🙂

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