The Manufacture of Culture

You know, we worry too much about the Punch-and-Judy show of political blogging, not to mention the quiet, relatively cobwebbed corner of the Internet occupied by self-declared academic blogs.

If you want a look at what blogs are really for, there’s a fantastically engaging dispute unfolding over a clash between a customer and a barista at a Washington DC coffee shop. The basic issue: the customer ordered espresso over ice. The barista said that espresso over ice was against store policy. The customer, irritated, ordered espresso and some ice. This was reluctantly given to him. When he prepared to pour his espresso over the ice, the barista said that what he was about to do was “Not Okay”. Customer is angry. Customer returns later and orders an iced Americano, which is ok by store policy. (Really not much different than an iced espresso, in my humble opinion.) Customer pays with a dollar bill upon which he has written a message for the store.

Here’s the original post from the aggrieved customer.

It turns out someone else witnessed the exchange.

The store owner replies (and then doesn’t allow comments, unlike the other two posts).


The comments, though, are the real payoff of the whole exchange. You get the inevitable smattering of metacomments from people who think the debate itself is irrelevant, sure. (I find this kind of comment incredibly annoying, by the way: the person who shows up to say, ‘How silly that you all have the energy to post about such things, or beat dead horses, etcetera.’ How silly does that make the metacommenter, then? He’s got the energy to post about people posting.) But mostly what you get are people making strong statements about the following subjects:

1. How espresso should be consumed.
2. How coffee in general should be consumed.
3. Whether businesses should have policies that dictate how customers consume what they buy.
4. How a service employee should behave.
5. How a customer should behave.
6. What the “real” motivation for the policy might be (to prevent something called a ‘ghetto latte’, where a customer orders espresso over ice and then adds 6 ounces of half-and-half himself for free)
7. The particular history of this particular business, including their problems with DC taxes.
8. Witnesses offering their reading of the way the two individuals in conflict actually acted (I think we’re up to three self-proclaimed witnesses, though the barista himself hasn’t said anything yet, I think.)
9. Whether it’s ever worth getting pissed off enough to write confrontationally on a dollar bill.
10. Whether the owner of a store should reply to a clearly non-serious threat of arson with a slightly less non-serious threat to punch a former customer in the dick.

Once you get into the thread, I think you’re going to end up with an opinion yourself. (For the record: I think it’s right that it’s not the best way to drink espresso though I don’t like iced coffee of any kind; it’s none of the barista or store’s business what someone does once they’ve ordered something and it’s stupid to have a prescriptive policy of the kind that the store has in the first place; the barista himself handled the situation badly; it was over the top to go back and hand in the defaced dollar: that’s what blogs are for.)


This is how culture gets made, transformed, and is made meaningful. An incident or moment breaks into the assumptions, ideas and orientations that govern everyday life and reveals that there are wide disparities between different people about shared experiences. The accidental character of the particular incident shapes the debate that follows. If Jeff Simmermon hadn’t reacted visibly to the barista at the store or had passively accepted the store policy while quietly fuming about it, the blog entry wouldn’t have drawn attention from BoingBoing. If the barista had initially suggested an iced Americano or shown good humor about the store’s policies, Simmermon probably wouldn’t have been irritated. Simmermon’s quotation of “Five Easy Pieces” gives readers a cultural anchor, and gives further nuance to the different reactions coming from readers.

Sometimes social scientists or humanists argue that stories and incidents serve as mirrors or as synecdoches, that they are a smaller, more concentrated way to view the whole of society. I think this story shows the problem with that perspective. Stories like the “Iced Espresso Incident” don’t reflect underlying social reality: they make it. People discover their own assumptions when reading about such an incident, discover that other people may have very different assumptions, and then modify, rethink, or strengthen the mental software that guides them through everyday life. The particular contours of the story that pulled back the casing of everyday life to reveal the wiring and infrastructure underneath lends unpredictable shape to those reactions. Change the particulars of the story, and you change the way that culture transforms in its wake.

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10 Responses to The Manufacture of Culture

  1. hestal says:

    This kind of dispute was shown in the movie “Five Easy Pieces.” Jack Nicholson is ordering a variation of a sandwich and the waitress blocks his every attempt to get what he wants.

  2. Alan Jacobs says:

    “Okay, give me a chicken salad sandwich, *hold the chicken salad.*”

    All this raises another question for me, the by-now old chestnut about whether the internet or more specifically, the posts-and-comments region of the internet is generating higher levels of hostility or merely reflecting the hostility that’s already there. The store owner reveals himself to be a gigantic asshole, and there’s no way I would ever buy a packet of Sweet-n-Low from a guy like that, much less a cup of coffee but would he have been such a total jackass if the whole conflict had stayed in the store? Or was the net’s infamous amplification effect at work here?

  3. Alan Jacobs says:

    The comment software deleted my carefully-crafted dashes.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I find that really irritating about WordPress, the thing with the dashes. Oh well.

    The original poster actually referenced “Five Easy Pieces” in his blog entry.

    I think it’s the net amplifying, Alan. “Five Easy Pieces” precisely suggests that this kind of thing is an old issue. That scene is often quoted or viewed in isolation from the movie with some admiration for the Nicholson character; the scene is taken as a kind of rugged-individualist reply to mainstream conformism. Seen in the context of the movie, it’s a little more complicated, because the character’s antisocial and alienated perspective is costing him and his family a lot. Stepping back from it, I’ve got some sympathy for the customer’s anger (and admiration for his willingness to express it), some sympathy for the barista and the store’s belief in quality, and some notion that grown-up adults would resolve this in some other fashion. But I have to say that some of the vivid fun of life in the human world would drain out if we all behaved like Canadians in every aspect of our daily interactions.

  5. jliedl says:

    Timothy, we Canadians can be as confrontational and vivid as people in the US, never fear.

    I’ve been following this story with morbid interest for the last two days. The value judgments implicit in the comments are, as you say, fascinating and revealing of how people want to see themselves as mavens of one viewpoint or another on coffee, corporations or conflict. And, as often happens on the internet, taking extreme umbrage over someone else’s perspective.

    Me? I’ll order tea and to heck with all of this coffee chatter!

  6. jeff.simmermon says:

    Hi — I am the author of the original post that touched this whole storm off. And I’ve refrained from commenting, at all, because really this thing has become such a big dumb deal when it shouldn’t be. At all.

    But I had to drop in here — this is the most intelligent, salient discussion of this issue I’ve seen anywhere, ever. I’m just letting comments roll past, just to stay sane. But this is really thought-provoking, and I’ll be referring to it soon.

    Thanks for being the ONLY grownup to touch this thing,


  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, you may not be feeling like it was a good idea to post the original entry, but thank you for doing so. Internet conversation tends to make someone who shares a vivid story into an object to squabble over, but without people telling vivid stories, most online conversation is just stuck parasitically repackaging content from the mainstream media.

  8. CMarko says:

    The thing that really sticks out for me is the owner’s comment that “We have our reasons [for our policies], and we’re happy to share them.” But that’s belied by his attitude earlier in his own post, when he explains the policy against iced espresso: “Number one, because we don’t do it. Number two, because we don’t do it.”

    The espresso rule itself just strikes me as entertainingly odd, but I’m strangely disturbed by this inconsistency in the owner’s post. I think what bothers me is that “We’re happy to explain this” seems to have become an empty phrase, the equivalent of “I apologize if you were offended by my actions.” I’d rather that organizations admit when they are being opaque, rather than engage in this kind of faux-transparency.

    I wonder if that’s a reflection (or a creation?) of our culture as well: we feel compelled to claim that our policies are rational and open to discussion, even when our actions demonstrate otherwise.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Right. In some ways, it would be more in keeping with the indie-store aesthetic to simply say, “Because I’m a bit eccentric, and that’s the sort of store I keep, I will not stock XYZ, or serve the following foods. Sorry, but that’s me.” Instead it’s got to be “There’s a reason for this policy that isn’t just my personal aesthetic”.

  10. joeo says:

    I think what bothers me is that ??We??re happy to explain this?? seems to have become an empty phrase, the equivalent of ??I apologize if you were offended by my actions.?? I??d rather that organizations admit when they are being opaque, rather than engage in this kind of faux-transparency.

    I would like to see how they can explain their policy that “No questions will be answered about the $5 Hot Chocolate.”

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