Sunday, September 23, 2007

Coffee Shop Sociology

I'm extremely unfocused when I'm at home. Too many distractions are too tempting: a kitchen full of food, an internet connection to play around on, a room that always needs straightening. So I often pick up and go to a coffee shop, where $1.50 for a small coffee also buys me a few hours of relatively focused study time.

And usually at some point during the coffee shop outing, I'll have to make a bathroom run. Who wants to pack up all those papers, books, pencils, and sometimes computer, only to lay them all back out again a couple minutes later (and feel guilty about sitting down without having bought anything new)? Not me. So I usually turn to the person next to me and ask, "Will you watch my stuff for a minute?" And every once in awhile, the same will be asked of me; I'll always comply.

So I got to musing: this is a weird phenomenon. I don't know the person sitting next to me any more than I know the prospective thief of my stuff. Why would I trust him or her with my stuff? I guess there's the factor of sameness -- because that person is a coffee shop-goer just like me, I feel a kinship with him/her. But probably not trust. Moreover, why do people agree to watch others' stuff, and comply while those people are away from their seats? They can't have built a friendship while sitting nearby sufficient to really care if that person's stuff is stolen or not. The best I can come up with is that people avoid conflict whenever possible. They don't want to make a scene out of refusing to watch someone's things for just a few minutes, nor do they want to deal with the resulting scene if a person returns to find his/her stuff missing. Hm.

I tried googling "watch my stuff", really the only permutation of this request, and got this video made god-knows-why by some Columbia business students. It's not really that funny, but it is appropriate.

1 comment:

Steve said...


I've considered the same matter myself. Maybe it's some subclause of the social contract that we all have to abide by. Maybe it has to do with the fact that when we speak to another person, we've automatically elevated our level of relationship. That reminds me of the conversation we had about cars, and how people get mad at other cars because there's no actual talking you do with another person in another car - just honking.