Last Year’s Books  ·  Approaches to Teaching Philosophy

For the Price of a Cup of Tea

Despite the fuss made of Britain’s growing café culture, the fact remains that finding a decent coffee shop can be tricky. The mediocre coffee served by the big chains has predictability as its only real merit, and while prices are high everywhere, only very occasionally could they be considered worth it.

Coffee stains

After all, even setting aside the ostensible product, most cafés stumble in other areas too. The service is perfunctory, the rooms draughty, and the décor as insipid and remote as the inevitably tedious music.

In such places even the babble of voices is not cosy or reassuring, but harsh and alienating. The ill-considered—or more likely, unconsidered—acoustics responsible for this effect reinforce the impression that all these people want is your money.

Talented craftsmen, helpful secretaries, and the people who run good coffee shops have motivations inexpressible in the one-dimensional language of the bottom line. They do good work because it’s intrinsically rewarding; because it’s good in itself. Success may follow from their actions, but it shouldn’t be considered as the reason they act as they do—or at least not the sole one.

Everyone has to eat, and everyone wants to be rewarded for their contributions, but to think that people can be motivated to do good work through monetary incentives alone is a mistake. Except in rare—perhaps pathological—cases, this is simply not how human beings operate.

Good cafés forms good relationships with their customers, attracting an ecology of regulars unsatisfied by mere lay-bys. They do this, quite simply, by serving superior food and drink in a friendly atmosphere. It’s not a complex formula, and yet it’s one that remains beyond the grasp of businesses whose overriding concerns are a uniformity of customer experience and their own profit margins.

Beautiful and elegant. Culture is indeed created by humans, and not the coffee itself. A cup of coffee, no matter how good, is not an atmosphere, is not art, and is not an emotional attachment to your favorite chair or the people behind the counter. For all the big chains, small chains, and independent shops, there is indeed too few a percentage with that sense of belonging. So don’t feel alone on your side of the sea; it’s pandemic.

I like the song your title refers to, by Belle and Sebastian. That is, if your title did refer to it :)

It did indeed. I was thinking about quoting a couple of lines, but it broke the flow of the article, so I just left it in the title.

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