Tag Archives: linguistic anthropology

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.

The Struggles of Being a Bilingual Immigrant Child

If there is one phenomenon nearly all bilingual immigrant children know, it is the role of being a translator for your parents. This is not a new phenomenon in the slightest. There have been many stories to videos describing how children will translate for their families, for better or for worse; Children trying to get a video game out of their age rating, being annoyed to help their parents talk to Customer Service, to even just language brokering between the waiter and their parents. However, in Jennifer F. Reynolds’ article, “In the Service of Surveillance: Immigrant Child Language Brokers in Parent-Teacher Conferences”, a specific case study is done; How do bilingual children cope with being an interpreter between two authoritative figures, their parents and their teachers? According to Reynolds, the act of being a translator between parents and teachers subjects children to multiple layers of surveillance, as well as how these children are both empowered and restricted in this unique position they hold. Reynolds then moves forward on how children in these positions are essentially unpaid labor, who’s knowledge of both languages and cultures are utilized to help their parents learn and navigate their new environment. In this way, parents are dependent on children, despite the parent typically being the authoritative figure in most cultures. In this case, we can see how language provides authority, when one is dependent on another for communication. However, in the case of parent-teacher conferences, teachers are talking about children. This means, in this specific scenario, teachers, an authoritative figure, is talking about the child, and asking the child to tell their parents what they said.  This means that the child on question has the power to honestly (or dishonestly) translate language between the two authority figures, giving children the power in this scenario, despite in a normal mono-language social situation, children would not have any power. Furthermore, an interesting finding is that in these situations, teachers have (generally) three different models: Talking to the parents (and having the children passively translate), talking to the child directly (and have the child translate to their parents) or expecting the child to translate word-for-word in real time as they were speaking. This meant that the children had to determine the model the teacher is using. This also shifts the power positions each participant has, with the secondary power figure being either the child or the parent depending on the model used. This is an interesting (in anthropology, at least) situation, because this is a specific paradoxical situation; One is talking about a child, to a child, to tell their parents. This puts children in the position of speaking to and for both their parents and their teachers, while putting pressure on them to be honest, and accurate. However, this fails to consider the fact that some words do not translate exactly between languages. It is a very difficult position if one looks a little deeper beyond the surface. But, this study has revealed the necessity to address the pressures put on bilingual children, and work to ease these societal pressures.

  1. Funny All You Need “Jesus Garcia Translating Phone Calls For Mexcian Mom 😁#MrChuy”. Youtube video, 1:52. Februrary 23, 2019. https://youtu.be/KjPomoWEdz4
  2. Reynolds, J, M Orellana, and I García-Sánchez (2015). “In the Service of Surveillance: Immigrant Child Language Brokers in Parent-Teacher Conferences.” Langage et société 153(3): 91-108.