coffeeThe other day, I happened to notice a book on a library shelf that was about Starbucks and what it says about our culture. I didn’t have time to look at the book much, but I got the impression that the book was mostly concerned with the topics of economics and business. It looked like it discussed aspects of consumerism and marketing from the perspective of one ubiquitous company and then explained that the experiences of that business are representative of the way our economy works, on the level of individual consumers and individual products. If my impression of the book’s subject matter and tone was correct, it probably discussed the value of coffee only in terms of supply and demand, and not in terms of what coffee means to people in a more abstract and personal way. It got me thinking about what the coffee industry says about our culture if you leave the economic and commercial details out of the equation.

When I was little, I mostly associated coffee with my father, because he was the only one in the household who drank it. I remember a few occasions when he let me take a sip, and I thought it tasted pretty disgusting. My mother drank a hot beverage made from a mix that was something like hot chocolate and something like instant coffee. She called it coffee, but it was clearly a very different type of concoction from the bitter-smelling black coffee that my father made in his coffeepot. Although I don’t specifically remember it, I’m sure I also saw people drinking coffee before church on Sundays and at other church events. I do remember one time when I had a rather disturbing dream in which a member of the congregation randomly turned into a giant mug of coffee.

Before I drank coffee myself, my connotations were very different from prevalent cultural images of coffee. My father would drink coffee while sitting at the dining room table, or he would have it in his hand as he left the house in the morning. I’m not sure if I was aware that there were such things as coffee shops, that some people liked to go drink coffee from paper cups in public places that had a specific ambiance revolving around the personality and attributes of coffee. That idea would have puzzled me. I also don’t think I knew when I was little that coffee is characteristically high in caffeine and that the acquisition of the caffeine is the primary reason for drinking coffee. All of the things that people say half-jokingly about the necessity of coffee were lost on me when I was little.

Remember that time when a flying squirrel got in my dorm room and I got a picture of it on the coffee machine? Ah, good times.

Remember that time when a flying squirrel got in my dorm room and I got a picture of it on the coffee machine? Ah, good times.

I myself started drinking coffee in my sophomore of college. At first, it was a strategy for coping with a busy schedule on Wednesdays, but as it turned out, I really loved coffee. Back when I only drank one cup of coffee a week, that was one of the highlights of my week, and it didn’t take long before I increased my coffee consumption, first to twice a week, then to three times, and then to every day. Now, I drink a cup of coffee every morning and often will have a second cup later in the day, especially on evenings when I have class. I’m actually starting to get to the point where I don’t like it anymore; I just keep on drinking it for the caffeine. My brain runs on caffeine. You could say that I’m addicted to coffee, but you could say that about a significant portion of the population of this culture. Our culture puts a lot of emphasis on coffee.

As far as I can tell, there are three prevalent reputations that coffee has. One is that it is helpful in getting people going, especially in the morning, and that it is therefore an essential element of the lifestyle and daily routine of busy people, lazy people, and people who are really not morning people. A second reputation associates coffee with relaxation, peacefulness, and intellectualism, as can be seen in the coffee shop trend associated with people who are both nerds and hipsters. Thirdly, coffee has a reputation as being a dangerous habit; it’s just one more unhealthy chemical that we dumb stereotypical Americans put in our bodies without putting any thought into the impact it can have on us. (Alternatively, many studies, including some reliable ones, show that coffee does in fact have significant health benefits, which can be used to back up both of the first two reputations.)

The first of those three reputations is the one that I relate to most, and the one that I hear people talk about most. Very few people drink coffee because of the flavor; we drink it because it makes us alert. Twenty-first century Americans need help being alert because we live an exhausting lifestyle. For one thing, hardly anyone actually gets eight hours of sleep every night. Why go to bed when we can just turn on the conveniently electrical light, and there are so many things that we can do with that extra time? But besides that, we spend a lot of time staring at computer screens, which actually tires people out just as quickly (although for the opposite reason) as physical labor. Our not-so-distant ancestors who worked in the fields or built railroads had a better excuse to be tired than we do, but we are subject to fatigue anyway. Our culture also has an obsession with speed and instant gratification, which means that most jobs (as well as non-job-related tasks) are fast-paced, and that makes us collectively stressed. I think that some people exaggerate the effects of this, but it’s definitely true to some extent. (Just don’t go complaining to those aforementioned ancestors, because we sure have things easier than they did in most respects.) Even without taking into consideration the fact that caffeine is addictive, we need caffeine in order to live our exhausting lifestyle.

It's like yoga except without the part about getting out of your chair

It’s like yoga except without the part about getting out of your chair

Among people of my age and somewhat younger, the second of those three aforementioned perceptions seems to be the most prevalent and the one that contributes most to the popularity of coffee. At least among consumers in their late teens or early twenties, coffee is supposed to be associated with calmness and comfort, like the leisure of having free time and using it to read a good book, or the sensation of being safe and cozy inside on a rainy day, or the sound of James Earl Jones’ voice reading John 1 played over Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas Lullaby. People, especially in a relatively safe and affluent culture, have a craving for comfortableness, a calm and easy lifestyle, and the illusion of security that comes from placing those connotations onto something as simple and easily achievable as coffee. Of course, that falls apart when people get snobbish about their favorite brand of coffee, especially when their brand of coffee is expensive and rare. Oh self-entitled coffee-obsessed hipsters, we’re just trying to appreciate and be satisfied with the simple joys of life, so don’t try to tell us that your simple joys are better than our simple joys.

Incidentally, when you think about it, it’s kind of silly to associate coffee with calmness and relaxation, since that is the opposite of what caffeine does to our bodies. Both of coffee’s other two reputations, that of a benevolent deliverer of caffeine and that of a harmful chemical, are much more self-explanatory and accurate. It is true, though that, coffee is usually served as a warm beverage, and people experience warm beverages as being soothing. Tea and hot chocolate are also warm beverages, with a much lesser amount of caffeine, but I guess we prefer coffee as our go-to comfort drink because it’s something that so many of us drink on a daily basis anyway.

coffee machineSo what does our relationship with coffee say about our culture? It says that we live busy and tiring lifestyles, hence the need for so much caffeine. It says that we feel an emotional need to be comfortable in our everyday lives. But I think that mostly, it says that, as a collective group, we’re kind of obsessive when we decide that we like something.

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