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Out of Our Minds
Tuesday, December 06, 2005 3:41 PM
What Was She Thinking?
Anita Sharpe on Ethics

We all know what would happen if we walked into a crowded restaurant (or any restaurant), sat at a big table (or any table) and proceeded to eat a sandwich we brought from home without ordering anything else. But some people seem to feel that it's perfectly fine to do virtually the same thing at a coffee shop.

When I walked into Caribou this afternoon, a young woman sat at the largest table in the place, sipping a diet soda that appeared to have been purchased someplace else. She seemed oblivious as customers streamed in, looking around for a place to sit. When I left more than an hour later, she was still seated alone at her table for six, talking on her cell phone.

If you had been behind the counter at Caribou, what would you have done?


anita - 12/7/2005 1:23:47 PM
What intrigued me the most about the incident was her apparent lack of purchase (that Caribou carries Coke products in bottles; she was drinking a Pepsi product out of a can.)

I see this all the time; there is a local Starbucks with great outside seating -- but it is often overrun by people bringing in fast food lunches or just sitting and smoking, but not buying anything.

Why is a coffee shop in many people's minds different from a restaurant?
William - 12/7/2005 10:22:28 AM
I think Anita's question raises a more interesting question. 'Why is it that we feel it's someone else's responsibility to make our life better?' Her supposition that the counter person at Caribou should have done something to address this issue is interesting. This is a conversation about ethics. I have to wonder if the counter person is really ethically bound to that responsibility.

I believe 'ethics,' in this context, are the principles that I use to determine how I should behave towards others. They are inwardly focused.

Anita seems to be suggesting that the woman drinking diet coke and taking up more than her share of space in the cafe has crossed an ethical line. That's a slippery slope for Anita, because it suggests she is using her personal ethics as a way to measure another person's behavior. That's human nature, of course, but it's not really fair. The woman at the table has not been given an opportunity to agree with Anita's position on the social contract for ethical behavior in a coffee shop, so how can we hold her accountable to those ethics? And can we hold the counter person responsible to those ethics?

We've all encountered situations like the one in Caribou, and I believe it's a common reaction to question why other people around me are not behaving as I believe I would behave in the same situation. I wonder why the other drivers on the road don't drive as courteously as I do, or why people queuing up to get on an airplane cut in front of me in their eagerness to board. I wonder why the airline gate agent doesn't enforce some ethical behavior in the boarding process. But in the context of this conversation, I realize I am guilty of an especially nefarious kind of selfishness. An ethically justified selfishness that, in the moment, feels justified and righteous. That's a dangerous place to live. Wouldn't it be better if I could refrain from being judgmental and just be satisfied that I will eventually find my seat on the plane, regardless of whether another person gets on before me.

The woman at the large table and the Caribou counter person are not responsible for my happiness. By expecting either of them to behave in my personal best interest, following my ethical guidelines for coffee shop behavior, I actually increase the odds that I will have an unsatisfying experience in the coffee shop.

How much better to refrain from judging the failure of others in this situation, and instead join the woman at the large table.
Shonnie - 12/7/2005 9:02:31 AM
I think going back to Anita's question is vital here and I know folks are sharing their ideas about this woman--her intentions, beliefs, attitudes, judgmentt, etc. However, I think that part of our collective challenge today is that we see others as the problem. We might be blaming the President, Congress or the terrorists for the debacle in Iraq, but the real question to ask is 'What am I doing about it?' It's no different in our other interactions in life--whether it's blaming the driver who pulled in front of you, bemoaning your neighbor whose dog barks, or complaining because your favorite coffee shop is full of other patrons. I think it's time for each of us to be willing to both BE differently (i.e., compassionate, curious, open, honest) and DO things to create the outcome we want in the world. So in this situation, any of us--not just the cafe staff--could warmly approach the woman and share the table with her. Heck we might even invite other chair-seeking patrons to join us.
smashwillis - 12/7/2005 4:08:02 AM
There are plenty of individuals with this type of mentality. The manager can get rid of one today, but there will be many others to come for sure.
Wendy Johnson - 12/7/2005 12:26:59 AM
Assumptions will be the death of us. I work with a wonderful man with severe food allergies. There are many places where we go as a staff that he cannot eat. He always calls ahead and makes sure its okay that he brings his own food. Perhaps the clerk behind the counter knew what the woman was doing and had approved.

As for the table...maybe she had been with a larger group and they all left...

Maybe it was the only empty table when she came in and she didn't think to move.

Maybe we need to be less 'American' and into personal space - then we could have sat down with her and found out the real story instead of standing back judging and assuming.

But then again, I am assuming about you - and I am probably really wrong! :-)
Coley - 12/7/2005 12:15:08 AM
I think two totally different things are at play here-- 1. the fact that she was sitting at a big table by herself (which seems to be what everyone else is focusing on) and 2. the fact that she didn't seem to have bought anything and rather, brought in her own beverage to drink in a business that sells the same thing.

In response to her sitting at the big table, I think it depends on what she was doing. I will admit that I spend quite a bit of time at Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, and Borders sitting at the 'big' table all by myself for long periods of time. However, I would never sit at that table by myself without a reason. I only do that when I go in to do work and need to spread out books and papers to be able to do everything I need to. It would bother me if someone sat for long at one of those tables by themselves sitting on their cell phone. But if the woman on the cellphone was spread out doing work while talking, I wouldn't mind one bit.

The second factor, not purchasing something from the store OR (gasp!) bringing your own food or beverage in is absolutely unacceptable. In fact, this idea, to me, is much worse than somebody taking up the big table by themselves. Buying an item is your 'rent' on being in that area. (If you're with other people and they buy something I don't think that you are obligated to make a purchase, but at least one person in the group is!) When I need to get out of the house or office to do work or homework, I consider the money factor. If I don't want to pay, I go to a library. Otherwise, you are buying, at the very least a beverage. Caribu, Starbucks, Seattles Best, Borders, Barnes and Noble-- they have those inviting areas that they want you to sit in, WHILE YOU EAT/DRINK their product. They don't put in their tables and couches so you can drink the diet coke from a vending machine in a nice atmosphere. There is something wrong with somebody who would do that. Caribu is private property. The second somebody walked in and popped open a Coke they bought somewhere else, the manager should have been over and politely asked her to leave.
Janet Auty-Carlisle - 12/6/2005 11:14:20 PM
Geez, this is getting a lot of response which means you have hit a nerve but I really go back to the original thought. Couldn't somebody just have said 'Excuse me, do you mind if I sit here?' What would have been so difficult about that? And, if the staff weren't sure what to do, couldn't they just have said to her, 'excuse me, but do you mind sitting at another table while we are so busy?' What's the big deal here? What's the worse that could have happened had somebody asked her if they could join her? OMG maybe, just maybe, they would have had to talk to her, or make a connection.....I have been known to frequent coffee shops, and fast food joints occasionally, and....sometimes I even sit longer than a few minutes. Does that make me sound like I should be considered some kind of vagrant or space stealer or something....Please....gimme a break...living la vida fearless....Jan
Jerrome - 12/6/2005 10:59:46 PM
You point out, Anita, that the soda appeared to be purchased somewhere else. If this woman had bought a cup of coffee and then taken the largest table would that have been better?

I think the point is this: Why do people take more than they need, like this woman did with the table? What a classic American problem these days -- the couple with one kid buying the Suburban because they like the space or the supersized combo meal or the 7000 square foot house. In this culture of gluttony, why is this woman's actions any surprise at all?
William - 12/6/2005 10:27:36 PM
I wonder why other customers didn't feel comfortable joining this woman at the large table?
Julie - 12/6/2005 10:19:05 PM
Anita has asked what the clerk behind the counter should do in this case, which is interesting. I also wonder why this decision, which is essentially a policy decision, is in the hands of a mocha maker. Isn't this freeloading an enterprise-wide problem? What does senior management of Caribou want the clerk to do?
Eric Sohn - 12/6/2005 9:27:45 PM
Let's assume the general case (i.e. it's not the owner's daughter or mistress) for the moment, since the approach would be different in an unusual case.

You have to remember both the effect on the person at the table, and everyone who witnesses the interaction.

With this in mind, before the crowds became an issue, I would ask if she was expecting others (as well as if I could help get her something - always sell). I'd explain that the busy time of the evening was coming up and, if she could accommodate me by moving to a smaller table, I'd really appreciate it.

If that didn't work, I might consider telling her that there was a party for 6 with a reservation for that table....or sitting down at her table. I'm not sure which I'd have more ethical problems with...both are pretty desperate. But preventing letting one person's lack of consideration ruin a whole mess of people's evenings might sooth my conscience.
jose nazario - 12/6/2005 8:40:52 PM
yeah, but if it was the owner's daughter and people were being turned away from your business by someone using a whole table, shouldn't she know better? shouldn't you teach her better, to be more mindful of customers' needs (namely a place to sit)?
Ro - 12/6/2005 7:32:13 PM
Other ideas to entertain. Things aren't always what they seem, after all.

Perhaps it was the owner or the owner's daughter. Or maybe a known restaurant critic testing the atmosphere with less than splendid behavior.
Robert - 12/6/2005 5:51:33 PM
I think the Caribou people allowing other customers to be displaced is a bigger sin than the obvious rudeness of the cellphone chick.
Much has been written about our Starbucks and Kinkos 'subculture,' which enables everyone and anyone to hang out and do virtually anything or nothing, in someone else's space. No doubt this attitude has been migrating to other small storefront businesses, and owners may truly need help in dealing with these 21st century vagrants. Oddly, it seems the Caribou people didn't know what to do. (I would have jokingly pointed the customer and her phone to the smallest, least attractive table, and claim cellphone reception was better there.)

During this season of buying, this does remind me to reward the bookstores and coffee-shops that have allowed me to use their free seating and other facilities. Sorry, big website in Seattle that has everything, you're cool, but Barnes & Noble and Borders let me use their men's room ....
Janet Auty-Carlisle - 12/6/2005 5:14:03 PM
Pehaps it was somebody who was not familiar with the customs of the area/state/country. Here's a concept...how about just walking up and saying 'Excuse me. Do you mind if I sit in one of these seats? ' You may have been the only contact for this woman, maybe not. Heck, you may have even made a new friend. Really, in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter? Living la vida fearless, Jan www.tobeyourbest.net


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