Coffeetalk: Starbucks and the Commercialization of Casual Conversation

In “Coffeetalk: StarbucksTM and the commercialization of casual conversation”, Rudolf P. Gaudio addresses ideas and literature regarding “casualness” and dissects the North American practice of meeting others for coffee in a so-called casual manner.

Gaudio’s primary argument is that “casualness” is culturally constructed- not naturally occurring. The author states that such constructions of casualness are predicated upon various cultural practices and ideologies. Furthermore, Gaudio argues that coffeetalk is a specific form of constructed casualness which was largely influenced by commercialization and capitalism.

The author uses a variety of research and evidence to support his arguments. He opens with and continuously refers back to a scene in the movie, “Good Will Hunting”, where two characters of vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds discuss getting coffee. The posh Harvard student, Skylar, suggests to the lower-class main character, Will, that they should get coffee sometime. To which Will responds, “Or maybe we can just get together and eat a bunch of caramels… When you think about it, it’s as arbitrary as drinking coffee.” Though this example is not typical ethnographic evidence, in this instance, it perfectly encapsulates what the author is trying to say in an easily-understood, relatable manner: getting coffee is a default idea for casually socializing in North America, but it is by no means inherent.

The author uses an example from his previous research in Nigeria to further this point. He states that scheduling to meet for food or drink is “virtually unheard of” in northern Nigeria, effectively introducing an instance of casualness which opposes the Western idea of casual coffeetalk (660). Gaudio also refers to past literature to reveal Western coffeetalk’s “bourgeois” history and bias, noting that conversing over coffee was originally an activity specific to British elite.

Relatedly, Gaudio’s ethnographic evidence highlights coffeetalk as a form of casualness which is highly dependent upon financial status. The author uses his own ethnographic research on coffeetalk practices in Tucson, Arizona and other North American cities to display the significant influence of capitalism on “casual”, Coffeetalk culture. He especially highlights the common necessity of scheduling coffee meet-ups due to busy schedules in the average person’s life. Gaudio’s ethnographic evidence successfully portrays the commercialization of casualness by the coffeehouse chain, Starbucks, through their creation of a “safe” and “cultured” environment to meet customer’s needs or wants of casualness. Specific ethnographic details as minute as the importance of drink names at Starbucks- such as “Frappucino” or “grande”- go above and beyond to show the intentionality of commodifying a certain ambience for conversation.

Overall, Gaudio’s article generates larger implications that conversation and settings of conversation are not inherently “casual” or otherwise. It reiterates that uses and ideas of language are predicated upon cultural factors.

Gaudio, R. P. (2003). Coffeetalk: StarbucksTM and the Commercialization of Casual Conversation. Language in Society, 32(5), 659–691.

1 thought on “Coffeetalk: Starbucks and the Commercialization of Casual Conversation

  1. This is a well-organized summary in which you clearly lay out in your first paragraph what the author does in the article.

    Your second paragraph contains three succinct paraphrases of Gaudio’s main argument and two logical premises upon which that argument is based. Impeccably well-put.

    Your summary provides an excellent overview of Gaudio’s opening “ethnographic” example, and in the third paragraph briefly but deftly summarizes both his ethnographic evidence from Nigeria and his historical analysis of the roots of coffeehouses in bourgeois Europe.

    Your fifth paragraph demonstrates that you’ve accurately located and are able to succinctly restate several crucial details in Gaudio’s argument. Your summary would benefit from a little more connection here as to why those details are important. In other words, if coffeetalk is tied to economic status and is a phenomenon particular to a certain type of consumer in a capitalist society, why does Gaudio go to such lengths to detail how it’s predicated on advance scheduling and based on certain assumptions about “safety”? Why are these important for his reader’s understanding of his main argument?

    Your closing paragraph might also benefit from a bit more specificity regarding which cultural factors Gaudio is discussing and/or why the reader might care about the implication that what they think of as “casual” is actually an effect of ideologies of capitalism.

    Overall, the summary is well-written and accurately paraphrases the author in accessible and understandable language. The only direct quotation is appropriate because it tells the reader the quoted phrase is how the author characterizes the near non-existence of scheduled commensality in Nigeria.

    The outside source you incorporate is well-integrated into your summary and is an excellent choice–very useful for readers to be able to actually see the movie scene Gaudio is referring to.

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