Bring Café Culture to Work


I’ve traveled a bit in Europe and in the Middle East, and one of the most attractive cultural elements of these places are their café cultures. In Egypt, you can walk down any road and find what I call “old man cafes.” You will see old Egyptian men sitting outside of a small shop or juice bar or tea place at a two-person table smoking shisha and playing backgammon. In Europe, you can’t go too far without finding a nice sidewalk café where you’ll see people sitting drinking coffee for hours in the middle of a work day.

Consider this analysis of the “Hamburger Stand” in the Tao of Pooh:

In China, there is the Teahouse. In France, there is the Sidewalk Café. Practically every civilized country in the world has some sort of equivalent – a place where people can go to eat, relax, and talk things over without worrying about what time it is, and without have to leave as soon the food is eaten….’You’re important. Relax and enjoy yourself.’ That’s the message of the Teahouse. 

What’s the message of the Hamburger Stand? Quite obviously, it’s ‘You don’t count; hurry up.’

Though I think this type of place is starting to take hold in the US, it will take a significantly longer time before it becomes culturally acceptable.

Since I moved here many years ago on the back of affordable movers I hired, I have been longing for this coffee experience, who can blame me! However, I’ve been experimenting with this on my own at work since I started my Taoist month.

In the afternoon, it’s unlikely that I’ll get much work done. If I’m pretending to do work, I’ll just browse the internet while keeping an Excel spreadsheet open.

The thing is I realized browsing the internet is not really “non-action.” The worst part about it is it’s not productive either. It’s this strange activity that burns mental energy and yet accomplishes nothing.

With the epiphany that I should do even less than browse the internet, I decided to do the next best thing, get coffee with a work friend.

I’ve built a nice routine where I invite a former co-worker of mine who started working for the client for an afternoon coffee break. We’ll go down to the cafeteria, grab our coffees, and just chat for an hour or so. Fortunately, we both get our work done in a much shorter period than 8 hours, so no one really notices that we’re gone for an extended period of time.

On other days when my co-worker is not available, I’ll take my coffee break alone and just bring a book. Also very refreshing. I get some great thinking done without even trying.

This form of wu-wei or non-action is incredibly relaxing! It doesn’t give me the headaches that web-browsing does. Plus, I benefit from hearing office gossip/news that is useful to keep track of (this former co-worker traffics in gossip).

Now, I’m fortunate to work in a place that doesn’t micro-manage. But I do think you can pull it off in almost any workplace. Here’s how I would do it:

  1. Become competent in your job; this is important. It’s unfortunate we have to do this thing called “work,” but since they’re paying you, you need to perform at a minimally competent level.
  1. Develop a good relationship with your supervisor. This might even be more important than step one. If your supervisor, assuming you have one, just doesn’t like you, he or she will make your life miserable and definitely make a fuss when you’re gone for an hour (or two) in the middle of the afternoon.
  1. Don’t tell anyone you’re leaving for an hour (except the person you’re inviting). Just do it. This is one of those beg for forgiveness later situations.
  1. Select a venue that is somewhat anonymous. My client is a large government organization with a huge cafeteria so I can get coffee anonymously. You may have to go across the street to Starbucks or something.
  1. Enjoy!

I haven’t really encountered any obstacles….yet. But if you have any experiences trying to bring café culture to work (whether succeeding or failing), definitely share in the comments.