Monday, February 1, 2010

Coffee House Cotillion

What follows are some papers I've written. I'll put more up as I find the time.

I wrote this first paper, "Coffee House Cotillion," in 1993 while a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at Northwestern University.

“Coffee House Cotillion: The Construction of Private Space in a Public Place”

Coffee houses have a standing pattern of behavior characterized by the existence of private space. Patrons negotiate the construction of private space through involvement in one or both of two processes. The “process of not bothering” and the “process of engagement” prevent routine, everyday encounters at the coffee house from becoming too intimate; interactions remain at a “stranger” level.

The process of not bothering is characterized by individual actors, Singles, who are by themselves at the coffee house. The process of engagement involves multiple actors, Withs , who are together at the coffee house. Patrons involved in one or both of these processes are signaling to others a desire to be alone.

No interactional order, however, is immune to interference by way of “inappropriate” behaviors. I examine four incidents where the processes of not bothering and engagement, and the private space they maintain, are disrupted in the coffee house: intentional and momentary, intentional and prolonged, coincidental, and accidental. In the event of disruption patrons are faced with the perception that “something unusual is happening (Emerson 1970) and must act to bring the situation back to normal.

Community and Public Life

Sociologists have long discusses the impact of industrialization and urbanization upon peoples’ ability to construct a sense of belonging and shared identity with others in their lives; individual anomie and alienation have taken the place of organic community (Hewitt 1991) and mechanical solidarity. There seems to be agreement that a defining characteristic of modern urban life is the lack of, and corresponding search for, community.

Coffee houses fill a niche in modern urban society as a public place where people are “uniquely accessible, available, and subject to one another” (Goffman 1963, p. 22). Regular attendance and the construction of private space in a coffee house establishes a community of strangers where only the more general characteristics of other regulars’ identities are known (Simmel 1971).

Modern day coffee houses are similar to what Ray Oldenburg, in The Great Good Place (1989), describes as “third places” where regulars gather for the purpose of informal interaction. Yet the fact that interactions remain at a “stranger” level makes coffee houses importantly and informatively distinct from third places in the formation of community.

Third Places

Oldenburg argues that the core of people’s activity occurs in two “places.” The “first place” is the home; people’s private family life occurs here. The “second place” is work; this place “reduces the individual to a single, productive role” (p. 16).

Modern U.S. society, writes Oldenburg, lacks places where people can simply “hang-out.” In fact, to hang-out with nothing in particular to do is looked upon negatively; those who are not at home or work are seen as up to no good. What U.S. society lacks, argues Oldenburg, is an acceptable intersection between first and second place where informal public interaction can occur – U.S. society lacks “third places.”

Historically, third places are the pubs and coffee houses of European cities where individuals go and “on any given visit some of the gang will be there” (p. 32). Talk is plentiful and good here, and takes place on neutral ground where people “do not get uncomfortably tangled in one another’s lives.” (p. 22). Furthermore, third places are “levelers” open to all and emphasize “qualities not confined to status distinctions current in the society” (p. 24).

Third places provide a place to interact outside the boundaries of first and second places that foster a sense of community among members. Informal participation in third places gives regulars an opportunity to be public; an opportunity that connects the lives of members with each other. In confining activities to home, a completely private place, and work, a completely and explicitly productive place, people lose their sense of belonging to a community – this is the case, argues Oldenburg, in modern urban society.

Coffee Houses as Public Places

The type of coffee houses I’m describing are like third places in that membership simply requires routine attendance. Coffee houses differ from third places, however, because patrons do not go expecting to meet with other regulars for purposes of informal conversation. Instead, patrons go to the coffee house and construct private spaces in the midst of strangers who have constructed private spaces of their own. Coffee houses are public places for private activities.

The interior of a typical coffee house is made up of numerous small tables occupied by individuals, couples, or groups of nor more than three or four people. There is very little conversation between tables, and the general rule is for conversations among groups to be kept at a level which does not bother other costumers.

Many activies occurring at the coffee house have the quality of “time killing.” Killed time is inconsequential time that does not impinge upon the more “serious” aspects of one’s life (Goffman, 1963; Cavan 1966). Reading, game playing, and idle conversation within one’s own private space are common time killing activities in the coffee house. Though inconsequential, these activities do not resemble the informal interactions of third places. Time killing activities pursued by coffee house patrons are kept within the boundaries of constructed private space and do not unnecessarily involve other patrons.

The coffee house is furnished with a multitude of “tools” that offer something to do for individuals with time to kill. The most common tools are reading materials such as magazines, newspapers, and used books. These items are strewn throughout the coffee house and are readily accessible to all patrons. It is also common for patrons to bring along their own books and magazines as time killing tools.

Coffee houses also provide games such as chess and backgammon as time killing tools. Third place games, according to Oldenburg, are games which “move along in lively fashion” (p. 30) and allow for vociferous involvement among players and spectators – Oldenburg gives Gin Rummy and the French game Boules as examples of third place games. The overwhelming favorite game of coffee house patrons is Chess; it isn’t uncommon to see two or three chess matches going on at one time in the coffee house. Chess is not a game like Gin Rummy where lively conversation is the rule. Instead, chess involves intense concentration among players and spectators alike; interactional privacy is afforded chess players so they can make the best possible moves.

Though most coffee house activity involves killing time, there are patrons involved in more “serious” activities. I observed people at the coffee house involve in such consequential activities as writing books, writing wills, paying bills, tutoring college students, and collecting data for research projects. As with time killing activities, however, the consequences of these more serious activities is interactional isolation, not third place conversation.

Like third places, patronage at the coffee hose is regular and one often recognizes other regulars. But regulars here rarely do more than make eye contact and nod to one another. Regularity of patronage at the coffee house does not lead to lasting third place interactions. One the contrary, as my paper makes clear, the overwhelming interactional activity taking place at the coffee house revolves around how not to become friendly with other regulars.

Thus, like third places, coffee houses are places where people can interact away from the intimacy of home and productivity of work. Unlike third places, coffee houses are places which foster privacy. People do not go to the coffee house, as they do a third place, to engage in lively conversation with regular others. The regulars at the coffee house remain strangers; one is comfortable in seeing the same regulars on a daily basis, but does not want them as friends.
This said, this paper is a study of the processes by which people construct the private spaces which proliferate in a specific type of modern public place -- the coffee house.


To gather data for this paper I spent approximately sixty hours as a “formal” participant-observer at two coffee houses in suburban Chicago. I spent a significantly larger amount of hours as an “informal” participant-observer at a number of other coffee houses throughout the area. As a formal participant-observer I sat in the coffee house, paper and pencil in hand, taking notes on the happenings around me. These notes ranged from the most micro-details of individual behavior (i.e. the scratching of one’s head or the position of one’s cigarette) to a general demographic survey of the patrons. As an informal participant-observer I attended the coffee house alone or with friends, leaving my note pad at home. Although I did not take notes during informal visits, I did keep an eye open for behaviors and symbols both old (as confirmation of already discovered processes) and new (those not yet discovered).

The two coffee houses I observed had the same owners and the same name. The first was located on the corner of a mildly busy street intersection. Because of its location near a mid-size university, a student age population made a strong showing here at all times of the day. In the morning, because of its location across the street from a public transportation station, al line ran to the door of patrons buying coffee “to go;” the coffee house was just a stop on their way to work. On weekend and Summer evenings the coffee house became overrun by high school students who quite literally took the place over. They pushed tables together moved freely from table to table and clique to clique; talked and yelled so that all could hear; and ran through the rooms with seeming disregard for patrons who were not members of the high school crowd.

The overall age composition of the second coffee house was older than that of the firt the clientele fit generally into what many would call “yuppies” or “thirtysomethings.” This was due to the second’s location in a more residential area of the city, further away from the university and high school. On weekday mornings and afternoons mothers with infants gathered and were the main costumers. This coffee house was also very near public transportation and, as with the first, had a strong “to go” crowd in the morning. neither the college nor the high school crowd made much of an appearance at the second coffee house, though older graduate student and professors could be seen involved with book and dissertation projects.

Employing strategies developed by Glaser and Strauss (1967) as “Grounded Theory Methodology” (see also Hadden and Lester 1980; Strauss 1987), while gathering and analyzing my data I become aware that I wasn’t simply undertaking an ethnography of coffee house life. Rather, since grounded theory focuses attention on generic issues, the coffee house is better characterized as a powerful strategic arena for the investigation of social actions and processes which transcend the particular site. Although my analysis of the processes with which people construct private space is limited to coffee houses, it is my contention that these are processes which are observable in other public arenas.

Standing Patterns of Behavior

A “standing pattern of behavior” consists of behaviors “routinely expected within the setting, treated as fitting and proper for the time and place, and persistently independent of the changing populace” (Cavan op cit., p. 3). These are taken-for-granted patterns of behavior which are seen as inherent in the arena, and which people “know” simply by recognizing the existence of the arena – independent of the clientele. In this sense one can speak of “coffee house behavior,” or “bar behavior (Cavan ibid.) or “nudist colony behavior (Weinberg 1965); regular members of these places perceive behaviors within the arena as inherent.

An important factor in the construction of the standing pattern of behavior in the coffee house, in any arena for that matter, is the regularity with which patrons attend. Many of the people who are at the coffee house at any given time are “regulars.” Regulars come to the coffee house at least once a week; many come everyday. Thus, although the coffee house is a public place consisting of strangers, these are strangers who are familiar with some aspects of each other’s identities and any particulars of the standing pattern of behavior in the arena.

Because of their familiarity with the standing pattern of behavior in the coffee house, patrons can take a stance that “nothing unusual is happening” (Emerson 1970). That is, because of their familiarity with other patrons and in understanding what “usually” goes on in the coffee house, patrons can expect certain activities to occur with a high degree of accuracy. For the most part, and with good reason, patrons believe that nothing out of the ordinary will take place.


The standing pattern of behavior at the coffee house is characterized by the construction and maintenance of private space through two processes I refer to as not bothering and engagement. These processes are behavioral patterns which allow one to do what one wants without unwanted interruption by other coffee house patrons. In this way what is routinely an “unfocused interaction” characterized by strangers does not develop into a “focused [and more intimate] interaction” (Goffman 1963).

Processes of Not Bothering and Engagement

The public nature of the coffee house makes it similar to an open region – a “physically bounded place(s) where ‘any’ two persons, acquainted or not, have a right to initiate face engagement with each other for the purpose of extending salutations” (goffman 1963, p. 132). The process of not bothering allows a Single to stay in the coffee house without exchanging such salutations with just “any” other person.

Rog is here. He sits at table #2, facing south. He faces in toward the table, his back is toward the wall. There is a computer print-out spread across the table from north to south. His cigarettes are on the south side of the table, on to of the print-out. His lighter, as usual, sits on top of the cigarettes. He has a pad of paper directly in front of him on which he is writing. He writes with his left hand, smokes with his right. His coffee is held with his right hand. This (using the right hand for cigarettes and coffee) is because his left hand is continuously occupied with a pen. The entire table is filled with his stuff. His coat fills the east seat, the one toward the middle of the room.

Rog maintains his process of not bothering by arranging his “stuff” in a way which will not allow others to sit at the table. In placing his print-out across the table, and his coat on the most accessible “open” chair, he makes it difficult for others who might think of sitting with him to do so. Physically, there is no room for others; symbolically, the space belongs to Rog.

The process of engagement is characterized by strategies and techniques members of a With use for the procurement of overt interaction with each other.

Two women sit at a table for two. They face directly toward one another. Woman #1 has her legs crossed, both of her arms on the table. She sits back in her seat but leans the front of her body toward Woman #2. Woman #2 sits leaning forward, both of her arms on the table.

A major part of the process of engagement is the face-to-face orientation of the interacting members. in the above example the women involved are not only oriented face-to-face, they exaggerate this by putting both arms on the table and lean toward each other to claim the interactional space as their own. In claiming the intractional space, they are presenting it as a private space occupied by themselves and not open to strangers.

Concurrence of Processes

The process of engagement, like the process of not bothering, is part of the standing pattern of behavior in the coffee house in that it gives recognizable evidence that those engaged have constructed a private space. A process of not bothering is engaged by a Single in maintaining solitude. A process of engagement is constructed by members of a With to show allegiance to the group and separation from others.

To categorize an individual’s interaction involvement as a process of not bothering or a process of engagement depends on the relationship of the individuals involved and their relationship with other arena members. Because the consequences of the behaviors are the same (only one’s group involvement is different) anytime one is involved in a process of engagement one is also involved in a process of not bothering.

The Older Group discusses ages, birthdays; they talk constantly, no lapse. Someone is always smoking. They discuss purgatory, “Did you know the Pope did away with purgatory?” Laughs, laughs, they seem to revel in their own intelligence (humor). They talk as if they wre in a bar and drunk, loud. They switch from topic to topic at the drop of a pin, two or three topics at once. . .fishing, pasta, hell.

Here the Older Group – regulars – is giving evidence of their involvement in a process of engagement with each other. Their behavior indicates that they are acquaintances, if not intimates, which makes joining their With difficult for someone who is not a member. Their interaction is one requiring background knowledge of each member; one does not “joke” haphazardly with strangers. Thus, the same behaviors which make this a process of engagement within the Older Group also make it a process of not bothering between the Older Group and other members of the coffee house. They have created a private interactional space for themselves. Those not familiar with the individuals within this group, strangers, are excluded.

Individuals may also move from one process to another and back again during their stay at the coffee house. Two women are sitting at a table. They lean on the table toward each other. They sit directly across the table from each other. Woman #2 leaves for the bathroom. Woman #1 immediately adjusts her body to face the H St. window and stares in contemplation out of the window. The window is two rows of tables away from her so she has to stare in a way which avoids staring at another person; she manages to do this. She has picked a location which dissects two tables at the window. It is obvious that she is staring out the window and not at another person.

The two women in this example were in a process of engagement with each other and a not bothering process with others. Woman #2 temporarily exits the With. Woman #1 then constructs a not bothering process between herself and the rest of the coffee house patrons by looking ot the window with an intensity which makes it clear that she is not interested in making contact with anyone else.

The fluidity of processes is evident in the way Woman #1 moves from a process of engagement to a process of not bothering. The entire time, consequently, Woman #1 is in a process of not bothering with other coffee house patrons, but when Woman #2 leaves, Woman #1’s behavior becomes qualitatively different.

Disruption of Processes

Occasionally behaviors occur in the coffee house which elicit a “something unusual is happening (Emerson, op cit.) stance by disrupting the private space of others. Thus, as with most public arenas, the attainment of private space in the coffee house is contingent on the behavior of other patrons. Four incidents of process disruption are discussed here: intentional and momentary, intentional and prolonged, coincidental, and accidental.

Intentional and Momentary

In an intentional and momentary disruption the perception that something unusual is happening lasts for only an instant, as does the interruption of one’s privacy. The target of the disrupter’s advances at first takes a stance of something unusual is happening, but in recognizing the intentions of the disrupter, adjusts accordingly, and retakes a stance of nothing unusual is happening.

Huf walks slowly into the middle room, looking at each table. She zeros in on a corner table with two women. She walks towards it, puts her right hand on a nearby chair, and looking directly at one of the women sitting at the table says: “Miss, can you spare on cigarette?” The woman looks up at Huf and quickly looks away. When she realizes that Huf isn’t going away, and after Huf speaks, the woman replies, “sure.” The woman shakes her cigarette pack so that one cigarette sticks out. “Thank you,” says Huf as she takes the cigarette. She walks away.

The woman who is disrupted in this example is involved in a process of engagement with another woman at the table, a process of not bothering between her With and the rest of the coffee house. Huf is disrupting this process of not bothering. To do this she faces fully toward the woman and looks her straight in the eye. The woman, at first having faith that nothing unusual is happening, looks at Huf and accords her “civil inattention.” That is, she appreciates and openly admits that Huf is present yet withdraws her attention to show that Huf does not “constitute a target of special curiosity” (Goffman 1963, p. 84).

When Huf does not accord civil inattention back, the woman takes the stance that something unusual is happening. Huf makes her intentions known (nce she gains the woman’s attention); she wants a cigarette. The woman adjusts her stance to nothing unusual is happening and gives Huf a cigarette, thus concluding their interaction.

In this example Huf purposefully disrupted the woman’s private space – it was an intentional disruption. But she only wanted to disrupt in temporarily, only long enough to get a cigarette. Specific behavioral steps were taken by all involved to insure that the disruption of the woman’s private space was intentional, yet only momentary.

Intentional and Prolonged

In an intentional and prolonged disruption the purpose of the disrupter is for prolonged interactional involvement. The adjustment by those being disrupted from a stance of something unusual to one of nothing unusual does not happen immediately. More overt (and possibly rude) behavior is often taken by those whose privacy is disrupted, toward those doing the disrupting, in order to bring the situation back to normal.

Woa asks if she can sit with the Older Group. “Is this seat taken?” “No,” is their reply. She sits for a minute or two, then asks Mig for a cigarette. The others in the group tease him. . . “Charge her for it.” Mig gives a cigarette to Woa without looking her in the eyes. She follows the conversation of the group by watching them as they speak. The members of the Older Group, however, never verbally address Woa nor do they look her in the eyes. She stays for only a minute or two.

In this example the members of the Older Group are involved in a process of engagement with each other, a process of not bothering with others. Woa is an intruder in the Older Group’s already established With. In doing this she is disrupting the privacy which the Older Group has constructed.

Woa attempts to become a member of the Older Group’s With by following the conversation with her eyes in a effort to make contact. The Older Group denies Woa entrance into their With, and defends their group privacy, by avoiding any verbal or visual contact with her.

In having their privacy disrupted the Older Group takes a stance that something unusual is happening. They deal with the disruption by ignoring Woa. Even in dealing with Woa in this way, however, they do not relinquish the stance of something unusual. Woa has disrupted the Older Group’s private space and a stance of nothing unusal is happening isn’t evident until she leaves, “a minute or two later.”


Another incident of process disruption is coincidental. The intent is not necessarily to invade another’s privacy (nor to put forth a stance of something unusual is happening), but simply a spur of the moment interactional aside.

A woman walks in to use the rest room. She walks past the air conditioner and then makes a loud “ooh” and turns and walks back so that the air blows on her. Sonic is sitting at the table closest to the conditioner. He looks up at the woman when she makes her sound. She says to him “this feels good,” talking about the cold air. He acknowledges her comment with a very small smile. She says “You’re smart. I can see why you are sitting here in the back.” He does not acknowledge this statement except to look at her blankly – he looks a bit annoyed. He then looks back down at his book, effectively ending the interaction.

The woman in this excerpt is merely expressing the enjoyment she gets from the cool air of the conditioner. She is invading Sonic’s privacy because he is the person closest to her. Her goal, however, is not to construct an ongoing process of engagement with Sonic (as Woa does in the previous example) but to share a single piece of experience with him.

Sonic behaves in a way which makes clear his stance that something unusual is happening and his wish to return to a process of not bothering. He never verbally addresses the woman, nor does he maintain any constant eye contact. The incident ends as quickly as it began. Although Sonic’s process of not bothering is momentarily disrupted, his privacy is never really threatened and a stance of nothing unusual returns quickly.


Because private space in the coffee house is not “soundproof” or physically partitioned, accidental disruptions of process are not uncommon. When this occurs an account is offered by the disrupter which attempts to repair the interaction process and bring back a stance of nothing unusual is happening.

Woman #1 sits at a table by herself, reading a book. Woman #2, also reading a book, sits at a table directly behind #1. Woman #1 has her back to Woman #2. Woman #2 sees a bug on the wall between her and #1. Woman #2 closes her book (a hard cover) and smashes the bug against the wall making a loud sound. This sound startles Woman #1, who “jumps” in her seat. Woman #1 turns her head and partially turns her shoulders and says to #2, “Excuse me.” The intonation is more disapproving than apologetic.

Woman #2 (in response): “I had to get that bug.”

Woman #1 gives a facial expression which “explains” that she finds #2’s behavior annoying.

Woman #2 gives an unapologetic explanation for her behavior. “I hate bugs. . .” It is a rather long explanation and Woman #1 turns her back to #2 midway through it.

The process of not bothering between the women is disrupted when Woman #2 smashes the bug. The noise of smashing the bug disrupts Woman #1’s private space and influences her to take a stance of something unusual is happening and look up from what she is doing. The two women make eye contact bringing the existence of privacy between them into question.
Woman #1 is obviously disturbed by the disruption of her private space by a stranger. Woman #2 recognizes this disruption and gives an account for her intrusion of Woman #1’s privacy. By giving an account she is attempting to repair the situation; it is an attempt by Woman #2 to demonstrate that she did not mean to disrupt the process and that she will not keep it from going back to its former state of nothing unusual is happening. The length of Woman #2’s account is in itself a disruption of #1’s privacy. Woman #1 reconstructs her privacy by turning her back on Woman #2 in the middle of the account.

These excerpts show the dynamic nature of the standing pattern of behavior in the coffee house. Processes meant to insure private space are constructed but their maintenance is susceptible to various incidents of interactional disruption. These disruptions bring into existence a stance of something unusual and appropriate reactions are necessary to bring back one of nothing unusual.


This paper present a micro-analysis of behaviors in coffee houses that result in an ongoing standing pattern of behavior characterized by the existence of private interactional space. Through involvement in the processes of not bothering and engagement Singles and Withs secure space of their own.

Through analysis of this sort may seem pedestrian-- it’s quite commonsensical--its importance rests with the fact that people’s quest for community is an everyday occurrence. The behaviors described I this paper are people’s experiential realization of commonly discussed sociological organization (i.e. organic community; mechanical solidarity [Durkheim 1984]). The analysis of how people construct private space in an otherwise public place highlights a basic social process (Bigus et al 1980) by which such sociological organization is constructed and maintained.


Bigus, Odis E., Stuart C Hadden and Barney G. Glaser. 1980. “The Study of Basic Social Processes” in The Handbook of Social Science Methods: Qualitative Methods, edited by R. Smith and P. Manning. New York: Irvington Publishers.

Cavan, Sherri. 1966. Liquor License: An Ethnography of Bar Behavior. Chicago: Aldine.

Davis, Murray S. 1973. Intimate Relations. New York: Free Press.

Deboer, Charles. 1993. “’Keeping the Roof Up:’ Standing-in-Line and the Local Production of Social Order.” Unpublished manuscript, Department of Sociology, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.

Durkheim, Emile. 1984. The Division of Labor in Society. New York: Free Press.

Emerson, Joan P. 1970. “Nothing Unusual is Happening” in Human Nature and Collective Behavior: Papers in Honor of Herbert Blumer, edited by Tamostu Shibutani. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Glaser, Barney G. 1978. Theoretical Sensitivity. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press.

Glaser, Barney G. and Anselm Strauss. 1967. The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Goffman, Erving. 1963. Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings. New York: Free Press.

Goffman, Erving. 1967. “Where the Action is” in Interaction Ritual. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor.

Goffman, Erving. 1971. Relations in Public: Miccrostudies of the Public Order. New York: Basic Books.

Hadden, Stuart c and Marilyn Lester. 1980. “Ethnomethodology and Grounded Theory Methodology: Integration of Theory and Methodology” in Urban Life 9: 3-33.

Hewitt, John P. 1991. Self and Society: A Symbolic Interactionis Social Psychology. 5th Edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Lyman, Stanford M. and Marvin B. Scott. 1989. A Sociology of the Absurd. New York: General Hall.

Oldenburg, Ray. 1989. The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You through the Day. New York; Paragon House.

Simmel, Georg. 1971. On Individuality and Social Forms. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Sommer, Robert. 1969. Personal Space: The Behavioral Basis of Design. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Strauss, Anselm L. 1987. Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Weinberg, Martin S. 1965. Sex, Modesty, and Deviants. Ph.D. Dissertation: Northwestern University.

1 comment: