Today's post is the last in a three-part series on coffee. Monday's post investigated how coffee came to be such an integral part of everyday life. Wednesday's post provided a history of the coffee bean's travels around the globe. And today's discussion considers the social place of coffee in our lives. Be sure to go back and read the others if you've missed them!
Happy Friday, folks. If you're on the East coast, I tried to time this post with your morning coffee—as I'm sure that many of you are just settling into your work day with your morning cup of java. And the truth is that you wouldn't be alone—the morning cup of coffee has become a regular ritual for many folks, who may believe they can't get started on the day's tasks without it. (Or they can, but prefer not to, and we'll get to why in a moment.) Coffee has attained tremendous importance among workers. Sidney Mintz, a renowned anthropologist who has written extensively about food, included it in a list for "proletarian hunger killers," which also includes sugar, tea, and chocolate (1979). Coffee is important to capitalism in many ways: it has spurred trade and the exchange of ideas, and like spices and other commodities, has served as leverage for controlling powers through the ages. It's a part of a larger global conversation, but have you stopped to consider it's role in your life? Yes, you've been told that there is a brand of coffee for you, but that still doesn't explain why you may buy it or why you permit yourself the indulgence of caffeine. Bring your coffee with you and let's peel back the layers a bit.
Chances are you have a coffeemaker in your workplace. It may just produce instant coffee, but it still produces a cup of caffeine when you need it. What about at home? And how far away are the nearest coffee houses—even if they are major chains? We're surrounded by coffee and caffeine. Why? We live in a society that demands productivity during certain hours&38212;and if you live in a large urban center like New York City, there is a demand for productivity at all hours. We have standardized labor production so that we don't necessarily work when it's best for us (unless you're a freelancer, and can work during hours that make sense to you), and coffee not only gets the day started (even if that day is actually a night shift), it gets us through the day.
Reader Wendy made some interesting remarks on Monday's post about our body's relationship to time while responding to my question about whether we're becoming "manufactured morning people." Our time is managed; it is not our own. Psychologists Ryan, Hatfield, and Hofstetter (2002) report that while 75% of adults over the age of 65 consider themselves morning people, only 10% of those under age 65 feel that they can be categorized in this way. These subjective ratings for peak productivity times also correspond with data from objective measures of cognitive functions, including analytical thought and judgment, memory, and the ability to suppress irrelevant information (e.g., wandering thoughts) (68). That is, individuals over the age of 65 seem to perform better on tests of memory and concentration in the morning, while individuals under the age of 65 seem to perform better on these types of tests in the afternoon. This may be in part related to shifting sleep patterns over the course of the individual's lifetime and our accommodation of routines, but this phenomenon is not well understood. Ryan et. al. propose:
It is likely that cognitive dysfunction at nonoptimal times of day is related to a general decrease in physiological arousal or alertness, because self-reported time-of-day preferences correspond to cyclical fluctuations in physiological measures, including body temperature, skin conductance, and heart rate. If time-of-day- effects are simply due to fluctuations in physiological energy, then one might expect that the performance of older adults during the afternoon might be facilitated by substances that increase arousal (2002: 68). [Emphasis mine.]
Enter coffee, stage right. Caffeine is perhaps the most widely used stimulant in our general population. It helps us get through those non-optimal periods for productivity when we compelled to be productive anyway. Caffeine makes us feel alert and attentive. It is a highly lipid soluble, so it tends to cross from the bloodstream into the brain quickly and we feel its effects relatively quickly. In animals, caffeine has shown that it reaches peak accumulations in the brain within minutes of ingestion (Ryan et. al. 2002: 68). And it hangs around in the brain, stimulating the regions that control sleep, mood, and concentration, slowly dissipating over three to four hours (68)—which is plenty of time for you to get through your morning inbox, survive the staff meeting, return a few calls, and then get ready for lunch.
The office coffee machine serves two purposes: it's a convenience for you, the coffee drinker, but it's also a productivity booster for employers who want employees to get down to work when they arrive (instead, perhaps, reading blogs about anthropology and coffee). Rocky Sexton (2001) talks about the ways that alcohol consumption allows Mardi Gras revelers to act out as their masked characters:
Intoxication, or the appearance of intoxication, which may involve minimal alcohol consumption, confers a degree of immunity for the foolish conduct that defines Mardi Gras ... Drunkenness in this context is thus better viewed as a culturally constructed form of ritualized inebriation although there is the potential for actual over-consumption to the point of physical impairment (2001: 28).
Alcohol consumption is very much a part of the Mardi Gras experience. Not only does it lower inhibitions, it also serves as a way to bind the community of revelers together. After all, if they're all doing it, then it's normalized for the context and helps revelers behave as they are expected to behave in this setting. Perhaps we can apply his term "ritualized inebriation" to coffee consumption as well. We consume coffee as a means of performing the tasks we need to complete in the setting of the workplace. And if we all do it, then it normalizes the behavior and helps us believe that we are achieving optimal levels of productivity. It also becomes a crutch throughout the day as we reach for our afternoon lattes to plow through the second half of the day—believe me, the line at the Starbucks near my job is equally as long in the afternoon as it is in the morning. We use it to ward off boredom and fatigue. The next time you travel take a look at the number of folks drinking coffee or caffeinated beverages. Perhaps there is a sense that carrying coffee or having it nearby confers the idea of productivity also. So not only are we drinking it to get us through the day's activities, but we have it with us to seem like we're busy and productive during times when we're not actually working—it could almost be classified as a status symbol.
Over the years, coffee drinking seems to have moved farther away from the social activity that it initially appears to be. While people still frequent coffee houses for leisure activities, it's far more likely to see a variety of folks working on laptops or reading, or doing some other form of productive work at coffee houses. The number who are there solely for social purposes seems very small. I'm not advocating you give up your morning cup of coffee—as with all my other posts here, my goal is really to make you think about the things that we accept as a part of our daily lives and consider our relationship to them.
So tell me, how many cups a day do you need? Are you more productive before or after your morning cup of coffee? And if you aren't a coffee drinker, that's fine too. Are you using some other form of caffeine? Are you a one-time coffee drinker who's given it up? Weigh in below.
Ryan L, Hatfield C, & Hofstetter M (2002). Caffeine reduces time-of-day effects on memory performance in older adults. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 13 (1), 68-71 PMID: 11892781
Sexton, R. (2001). Ritualized Inebriation, Violence, and Social Control in Cajun Mardi Gras Anthropological Quarterly, 74 (1), 28-38 DOI: 10.1353/anq.2001.0010