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101.culture.hacks

no. 70 – relationships, cafes, third place

You may not think poor table service is connected to relationships, but coffee houses, Beirgartens, and cafes make them possible. Relationships develop thanks to inattentive service. They offer what the American counterparts don’t, time. Time for conversation and bonding to develop. Significant relationships developed during youth  over long family dinners or hanging out with friends because we had the luxury of time. 


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Cafe culture or “third place” isn’t based on turning tables for profit. The system is designed to put people before profits. For example, the wait staff isn’t forced to turn tables for tips to make up for a low minimum wage. Need are met with a living wage or salary. Although things are changing (culture is dynamic) but in many places, waiters can work their whole life at one restaurant, and it’s enough to support an entire family. 

The upshot is, you’re left with plenty of time to talk and get to people, and that’s how relationships are formed. Persistent (and intrusive) American style table tending would interfere with that process. The American food experience focuses on “task” first, and serving food quickly and efficiently. Food is viewed as fuel, not something to derive pleasure (see historical legacy, puritan). And certainly not done in isolation, or on the go.

Yet, cafes are also an ideal place to simply “be”. To be alone with your thoughts and to reflect, or take stock of the day’s events. Italians call it dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing. Humans delight in observing other humans. It’s one of the ways we learn social cues. The French think observing ourselves and others is so important, cafe chairs face the street. And they have a word for this past time, flaneur.

culture.hack

While it’s easy to get distracted by the charm of a cobblestone ally (as I often do), but try to plan ahead to eat. Don’t wait until the last minute when you are starving to look for a restaurant. Keep an eye on the time for when and what bistros and cafes are actually serving food. Late afternoon when the notorious American hunger clock strikes, you can bet only coffee and sweets are being served. 

When restaurants reopen in the evening to serve food don’t ‘walk in hungry. There will be the slow (and exasperating) process of waiting for a menu, taking your order, and food preparation until it is finally served. This can take upwards of a half hour (more if it’s crowded) and getting agitated only causes more problems. 

To avoid this, try to carry a snack. EVen better, develop the habit of eating with other people and use the time (lunch can be 1-2 two hours in some Latin European countries) to get acquainted better. Developing relationships during this time is money in the bank of human relationships. There will come a time when you need to make withdrawals (for favors, help, or information). 

If you have to eat alone, people watching is always a good idea and it comes naturally because people are endlessly fascinating. To take your mind off the exasperatingly slow service, bring a book or your Kindle to read, pick up a paper to catch up on the news, or check emails from your device. You might make some notes, journal, or catch up on some office paperwork. Anything but focus on how annoying the slow service is.


Visit my website Expat Whisperer for expat coaching packs or listen to my original podcasts on demand. You might also enjoy the always fascinating culture blog feed that deconstructs everyday life. Or, take one of my labs you won’t find anywhere else. I may be travelling somewhere in the world, but you can always find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

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