All posts by Cydney Roy

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.