Fully Known: Why 'grabbing coffee' is so complicated


A cup of coffee is smooth and satisfying and leaves behind the sweet tingle of caffeine, but just as importantly, a cup of coffee is a pretext. Who better to illustrate the social ritual of drinking coffee than “WCityMike,” a member of the MetaFilter forum (a nerdier version of Yahoo Answers). If he’s not a coffee drinker, WCityMike wanted to know, how in the world is he supposed to arrange that “getting to know you pre-date” with someone he’s interested in? He worried that suggesting an alternative to a coffee date might approach “sounds complicated-neurotic territory.” He categorized his inquiry as “Human Relations.”

WCityMike got some bro-ey advice back from a user named wfrgms: “Hell, order a smoothie, or a hot coco…make it a conversation piece.” But the really solid advice came from one Brandon Blatcher, a user who sounded like a mature adult.

“The liquids are just [a] reason to sit and chat and do something with your hands to hide your nervousness. Go wherever and get to the talking part," Blatcher said.

Precisely, Brandon: an invitation to drink coffee together is a pretext for something more. Though ascertaining exactly what can be difficult. In the (perhaps recent) past, I’m sure you’ve found yourself speculating on what another King’s student meant when they said you should grab coffee. Is this a date? Am I in trouble with my House president? Does this person want to make real plans, or are they just making conversation?

This last worry might be the most common. An (admittedly cynical) article from Gawker, translated “let’s coffee” as “I am exiting this conversation, but politely, in a way that makes you feel worse, because let's be honest, there will be no drink or coffee, ‘soon’ or otherwise.”But I suspect most King’s students are above making this sort of calculated lie.

Why the imbalance of coffee plans to coffee dates? Because it’s so easy to reach for that fleeting sense of closeness you share with someone when you agree to “get coffee soon!” Like many overused expressions, the invitation to “grab coffee” has lost some of its potency. Oh, your blood ran cold, did it?

The best way to make superficial coffee plans evaporate is by using one simple line: “Text me a time and place, will you?”

Ah yes, the date. This brings me back to the idea of getting coffee as a pretext for a different goal. It’s a brilliant plan from a strategist’s point of view: if you have ulterior motives, you’re playing your hands close to your chest. Asking someone out to coffee is “nothing if not safe,” said the communication strategist, Sarah Britten. Britten explains that “whether you’re meeting with a colleague, a friend or somebody who might potentially be a more special sort of friend, coffee implies both conviviality and neutral ground. It is difficult to construe it as an obvious come-on.”

It's interesting how Britten mentioned completely platonic meetings, and how she implied that they, too, can potentially be awkward. It’s true. But asking someone to join you in an activity—drinking lattes together—seems less awkward than asking them to, say, sit and make conversation on a park bench for an hour. In other words, getting coffee is a strategic framing device for a social encounter. Social rituals place you in familiar territory, even when you’re getting to know someone on a personal level for the first time.

If “let’s get coffee” gets bandied about at King’s, it’s used just as heavily in the professional world—so much so that Business Insider published an article titled “10 Ways To Say No When Someone Asks You To 'Grab Coffee Sometime.’" The concern for, say, a top-ranked Wall Street analyst, is whether meeting someone for coffee will be a productive use of time. What’s the opportunity cost of giving up 30 minutes over lunch? Will I forge a professionally useful relationship? Which of us has the most to gain from this meeting, anyway?

We at King’s are lucky. Most of us don’t have to worry about the opportunity cost of 30 minutes, which makes “getting coffee” a very simple thing, in a way. There’s nothing to lose. In fact, a recent study published in Symbolic Interaction found that public workers in Denmark significantly lowered stress and increased productivity after regular coffee breaks were scheduled. One researcher observed that “communities of coping” developed over coffee conversations.

Back to that MetaFilter thread I mentioned earlier. A quote from the coffee thread reads:

“Incidentally, in Japan, a stereotypical pick-up line is ‘hey girl, wanna go have some tea?’ Tea isn’t really what the invitation offers, of course. It’s the same with 'get a coffee' in the US ... though the phrase has (not yet) developed sleazy connotations.”

The parenthetical “not yet” is as ominous as it is humorous.

Is there a way to remedy the ambiguity that often surrounds coffee invitations? Are we destined to dwell in the uncertainty of our communication-deficient culture? Does anyone familiar with Japanese culture want to weigh in on this?