There is something innately humane about the desire to share life with one another. We share meals with our families, sit in classrooms with our peers, go to conferences and meetings with co-workers, and invite friends to accompany us in even the most mundane experiences in life such as grocery shopping or drinking coffee. We are social beings that crave each others company, affection, and insight.
The coffee shop phenomena is quite interesting to me. “Getting coffee” is seemingly the all around the ideal social setting nowadays: a safe date, a friendly conversation, a casual meeting, and an ironically comfortable place to study. Why is this? A coffee shop has an uncanny way of creating a personal and private atmosphere in a public place. Because of this, the atmosphere allows you to set the tone for your social interaction by the seating you choose, what you do and don’t bring, and even what you order! It seems a conundrum that one would want to go to a public place to be alone, however it is quite understandable considering the aforementioned innate desire for social interaction. On the other hand, if I were to invite a friend to “get coffee”, I would have the opportunity to specify the desired topic of conversation, set the tone by choice of seating, and communicate my priority to our conversation by silencing my phone and leaving my laptop at home.
In light of the importance of social interaction, I am simultaneously fascinated and horrified by the effect technology has had on this particular aspect of our humanity. On the one hand it makes communication both instantaneous and convenient, however it also allows for all lines of communication top be open at all times.
I heard an interesting piece on NPR a while ago, where the question of technology moderation was discussed. Interestingly enough, they were not discussing boundaries needing to be set for children, which is often the case, but for parents. The host interviewed his own daughter who openly complained about her father distracted by his phone all the time. He suggested that technology moderation was necessary for healthy social interaction within the family because, as technology now permeates all areas of our lives, the lines between those areas are being violated. Parents no longer leave work because of email, young couples are never truly apart because of texting, all of our relationships are essentially a click away. How does this affect our relationships in which we are physically present at any given time? Does this mean we are never truly engaged in any of our relationships because we feel the need to be simultaneously engaged in all of them at once? I would argue yes.
I don’t care how talented of a multi-tasker you are – you aren’t. In an interview with NPR News, Clifford Nass, professor of communication at Stanford University, said,
“People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted… And even – they’re even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they’re actually worse at it. So they’re pretty much mental wrecks.”
It would seem that humanity, in its attempt to optimize social interaction, has in fact crippled it. If we cannot truly multitask, yet continually attempt to do so relationally, will any of our relationships be healthy or even genuine?
To bring this full circle, let’s go back to the coffee shop phenomena. How did this phenomena arise? Out of necessity. While coffee houses have been in existence for centuries, the coffe shop only became commonplace in the 1990s. It became widely popularized by the underlying need to redefine the lines between social circles that became progressively blurred with the rise of technology. When you take a relationship out its natural habitat, in which boundaries have been violated, and intentionally place it in a setting that can be molded to meet present needs, you place your attention and priority on that relationship. Today, the coffee shop meets a need for an environment that is both distinct, comfortable, and flexible so that we can better create opportunities for genuine and unviolated human interaction.
So, if you’re ever in the great city of Knoxville, grab a friend, silence your phone, and grab a cup of joe at Remedy (my favorite coffee shop in town) and share a little life together.