Eat, Drink and Be Civil: Sociability and the Cafe




cafe, coffee, civil, sociability

How to Cite

Felton, E. (2012). Eat, Drink and Be Civil: Sociability and the Cafe. M/C Journal, 15(2).
Vol. 15 No. 2 (2012): coffee
Published 2012-04-28

Coffee changes people. Moreover, it changes the way they interact with their friends, their fellow citizens and their community. (Ellis 24)

On my daily walk around the streets of my neighbourhood, I pass the footpath cafés that have become synonymous with the area. On this particular day, I take a less familiar route and notice a new, small café wedged between a candle shop and an industrial building. At one of the two footpath tables sit a couple with their young child, conveniently (for them) asleep in a stroller. One is reading the Saturday paper, and the other has her nose in a book—coffee, muffins, and newspapers are strewn across the table. I am struck by this tableau of domestic ease and comfort, precisely because it is so domestic and yet the couple and child, with all the accoutrements of a relaxed Saturday morning, are situated outside the spaces of the home. It brings to mind an elegant phrase of Robert Hughes’ about the types of spaces that cities need, where “solitudes may lie together” (cited in Miller 79). I could, of course, also have drawn my attention to other vignettes at the café—for example, people involved in animated or easy conversation—and this would support Hughes’ other dictum, that cities need places where “people can gather and engage in energetic discourse” (79), which is of course another way in which people inhabit and utilise the café.

The ascendancy of the café is synonymous with the contemporary city and, as semi-public space, it supports either solitude—through anonymity—or sociability. “Having a coffee” is central to the experience of everyday life in cities, yet it is also an expression of intent that suggests more than simply drinking a café latte or a cappuccino at our favourite neighbourhood café. While coffee aficionados will go the extra distance for a good brew, the coffee transaction is typically more to do with meeting friends, colleagues  or connecting with people beyond our personal and professional networks. And under the umbrella of these types of encounters sit a variety of affective, social and civil transactions. In cities characterised by increasing density and cultural difference, and as mobile populations move back and forth across the planet, how we forge and maintain relationships with each other is important for the development of cosmopolitan cultures and social cohesion. It is the contemporary café and its coffee culture that provides the space to support sociability and the negotiation of civil encounters. 

Sociability, Coffee, and the Café

Café culture is emblematic of social and urban change, of the rise of food culture and industries, and “aesthetic” cultures. The proliferation of hospitality and entertainment industries in the form of cafés, bars, restaurants, and other semi-public spaces—such as art galleries—are the consumer-based social spaces in which new forms of sociability and attachment are being nurtured and sustained. It is hardly surprising that people seek out places to meet others—given the transformation in social and kinship relations wrought by social change, globalization and mobile populations—to find their genesis in the city. Despite the decline of familial relations, new social formation produced by conditions such as workforce mobility, flexible work arrangements, the rise of the so-called “creative class” and single person households are flourishing. There are now more single person households in Australia than in any other period, with 1.9 million people living alone in 2006. This figure is predicted to increase to 30.36 per cent of the population by 2026 (ABS). The rapid take-up of apartment living in Australian cities suggests both a desire and necessity for urban living along with its associated amenities, and as a result, more people are living out their lives in the public and semi-public spaces of cities.

Maffesoli refers to restructured and emerging social relations as “tribes” which are types of “emotional communities” (after Weber) based upon the affective, life-affirming impulse of “being togetherness” rather than an outmoded, rationalised social structure. For Maffesoli, tribes have strong powers of inclusion and integration and people are connected by shared affinities or lifestyles. Their stamping ground is the city where they gather in its public and semi-public spaces, such as the café, where sociability is expressed through “the exchange of feelings, conversation” (13). In this context, the café facilitates a mode of interaction that is both emotional and rational: while there might be a reason for meeting up, it is frequently driven by a desire for communication that is underpinned by the affective dimension.

As a common ritualistic behaviour, “meeting for coffee” facilitates encounters not only with those known to us, but also among relationships that are provisional and contingent. It is among those less familiar that the café is useful as a space for engaging and practicing civil discourse (after Habermas) and where encounters with strangers might be comfortably negotiated. The café’s social codes facilitate the negotiation of less familiar relationships, promoting a sociability that is not as easy to navigate in other spaces of the city. The gesture of “having coffee” is hospitable, and the café’s neutrality as a meeting place is predicated on its function as transitional or liminal space; it is neither domestic, work, nor wholly public space. Its liminality removes inhabitants from the potentially anxious intimacy of the home and offers protection from the unknown of public space. Moreover, the café’s “safety” is further reinforced because it is regulated temporally by its central function as a place of food and beverage consumption: it provides a finite certitude to meetings, with the length of encounter largely being determined by the time it takes to consume a coffee or snack. In this way, the possible complexity or ambiguity associated with meetings with strangers in the more intimate spaces of the home is avoided, and meeting in a café may relieve the onus and anxiety that can be associated with entertaining.

Café culture is not a new phenomenon, though its current manifestation differs from its antecedent, the sixteenth-century coffee house. Both the modern café and the coffee house are notable as places of intense sociability where people from all walks of life mingle (Ellis 2004). The diverse clientele of the coffee house is recorded extensively in the diaries of Samuel Pepys and unlike other social institutions of the time, was defined by its inclusivity of men from all walks of life (Ellis 59). Similarly, the espresso bars of the 1950s that appeared in Europe, North America and to a lesser extent Australia became known for their mix of customers from a range of classes, races and cultures, and for the inclusion of women as their patrons (Ellis 233). The wide assortment of people who patronised these espresso bars was noted in Architectural Digest magazine which claimed the new coffee bars as “the greatest social revolution since the launderette in 1954” (Ellis 234). Contemporary café culture continues this egalitarian tradition, with the café assuming importance as a place in which reconfigured social relationships are fostered and maintained. In Australia, the café has replaced the institution of the public house or hotel—the “pub” in Australia—as the traditional meeting place of cultural significance. Not everyone felt at home, or indeed was welcomed in the pub, despite its mythology as a place that was emblematic of “the Australian way of life”. Women, children and “others” who may have felt or may have been legally excluded from the pub are the new beneficiaries of the café’s inclusivity. The social organisation of the pub revolved around the interests of masculine relationships and culture (Fiske et al.) and until the late 1970s, women were excluded by legislation from its public bars. There are many other socio-cultural reasons why women were uncomfortable in the pub, even once legislation was removed. By comparison, the café, despite the bourgeois associations in some of its manifestations, is more democratic space than the pub and this rests to some extent on a greater emphasis placed on disciplined conduct of its patrons. The consumption of alcohol in hotels, combined with a cultural tolerance of excess and with alcohol’s effect of loosening inhibitions, also encourages the loosening of socially acceptable forms of conduct. A wider range of behaviour is tolerated and sanctioned which can present problems for women in particular. The negotiation of gendered relationships in the pub is, therefore, typically of more concern to women than men. 

In spite of its egalitarianism, and the diversity of patrons welcomed, the café, as a social space, is governed by a set of rules that communicate meaning about who belongs, who doesn’t and how people should behave. The social codes inscribed into café culture contribute to the production and reproduction of different social groups (Bourdieu and Lefebvre) and are reinforced by the café’s choice of aesthetics. Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital accounts for the acquisition of cultural competencies and explains why some people feel comfortable in certain spaces while others feel excluded. Knowledge and skills required in social spaces express both subtle and sometimes not so subtle hierarchies of power and ownership, cutting across gender, ethnic and class divisions. Yet despite this, the relatively low cost of obtaining entry into the café—through the purchase of a drink—gives it greater accessibility than a pub, restaurant, or any other consumer site that is central to sociability and place attachment. 

In cities characterised by an intensity of change and movement, the café also enables a negotiation of place attachment. A sense of place connectedness, through habitual and regular usage, facilitates social meaning and belonging. People become “regulars” at cafés, patronising one over another, getting to know the staff and perhaps other patrons. The semiotics of the café, its ambience, decor, type of food and drink it sells, all contribute to the kind of fit that helps anchors it in a place. A proliferation of café styles offers scope for individual and collective affinities. While some adopt the latest trends in interior design, others appeal to a differentiated clientele through more varied approaches to design. Critiques of urban café culture, which see it as serving the interests of taste-based bourgeois patterns of consumption, often overlook the diversity of café styles that appeal to, and serve a wide range of, demographic groups. Café styles vary across a design continuum from fashionable minimalist décor, homey, grungy, sophisticated, traditional, corporate (McDonalds and Starbucks) or simply plain with little attention to current décor trends. The growth of café culture is a significant feature of gentrified inner city areas in cities across the world. In Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley in Australia, an inner-city youth entertainment precinct, many cafés have adopted a downmarket or “grunge” aesthetic, appealing to the area’s youth clientele and other marginal groups. Here, décor can suggest a cavalier disregard for bourgeois taste: shabby décor with mismatching tables and chairs and posters and graffiti plastered over windows and walls. Ironically, the community service organisation Mission Australia saw the need to provide for its community in this area; the marginalised, disadvantaged, and disengaged original inhabitants of this gentrified area, and opened a no-frills Café One to cater for them.

Civility, Coffee, and the Café

One of the distinctive features of cities is that they are places where “we meet with the other” (Barthes 96), and this is in contrast to life in provincial towns and villages where people and families could be known for generations. For the last two decades or so, cities across the world have been undergoing a period of accelerated change, including the rise of Asian mega-cities—and now, for the first time in history, the majority of the world’s population is urban based. Alongside this development is the movement of people across the world, for work, study, travel or fleeing from conflict and persecution. If Barthes’s statement was apt in the 1980s, it is ever more so now, nearly thirty years later. How strangers live together in cities of unprecedented scale and density raises important questions around social cohesion and the civil life of cities.

As well as offering spaces that support a growth in urban sociability, the exponential rise of café culture can be seen as an important factor in the production of urban civilities. Reciprocity is central here, and it is the café’s function as a place of hospitality that adds another dimension to its role in the cultivation of civility and sociability. Café culture requires the acquisition of competencies associated with etiquette and manners that are based upon on notions of hospitality. The protocol required for ordering food and drink and for eating and drinking with others encourages certain types of behaviour such as courtesy, patience, restraint, and tolerance by all participants, including the café staff. The serving of food and drink in a semi-public space in exchange for money is more than a commercial transaction, it also demands the language and behaviour of civility. Conduct such as not talking too loudly, not eavesdropping on others’ conversations, knowing where to look and what to hear, are considered necessary competencies when thrust into close proximity with strangers. More intimately, the techniques of conversation—of listening, responding and sharing information—are practised in the café.

It can be instructive to reprise Habermas’s concept of the public sphere (1962) in order to consider how semi-public places such as the café contribute to support the civil life of a city. Habermas’s analysis, grounded in the eighteenth-century city, charted how the coffee house or salon was instrumental to the development of a civilised discourse which contributed to the development of the public sphere across Europe. While a set of political and social structures operating at the time paved the way for the advent of democracy, critical discussion and rational argument was also vital. In other words, democratic values underpin civil discourse and the parallel here is that the space the café provides for civil interaction, particularly in cities marked by cultural and other difference, is unique among public amenities on offer in the city. The “bourgeois public sphere” for Habermas is based on the development of a social mode of interaction which became normative through socio-structural transformation during this period, and the coffee house or salon was a place that enabled a particular form of sociability and communication style. 

For Habermas, meeting places such as the urban-based coffee house were the heart of sociability, where conversational rules based on reasoned exchange were established; the cultivation of conversation was aimed at the dialogical egalitarian. Habermas’s bourgeois public sphere is essentially and potentially a political one, “conceived […] as the sphere of private people come together as a public” (Johnson 27). It refers to a realm of social life in which something approaching public opinion can be found. I am not claiming that the contemporary café might be the site of political dialogue and civic activism of the type that Habermas suggests. Rather, what is useful here is a recognition that the café facilitates a mode of interaction similar to the one proposed by Habermas—a mode of interaction which has the potential to be distinguished by its “open and inclusive character” (Johnson 22). The expectation of a “patient, willing comprehension of sympathetic fellows” (Johnson 23) refers to the cultivation of the art of conversation based on a reciprocity and is one that requires empathetic listening as well as dialogue. 

Because the café is a venue where people meet with less familiar others, the practice and techniques of conversation assumes particular significance, borne out in Habermas’s and Ellis’s historical research into café culture. Both scholars attribute the establishment of coffee houses in London to the development of social discourse and urban networking which helped set the ground for conversational rules and exchange and worked towards a democratic culture. In this context, values were challenged and differences revealed but the continued practice of conversation enabled the negotiation of such social diversity. Demonstrations of civility and generosity are straightforward in the café because of its established codes of conduct in an environment focussed upon hospitality. Paying for another’s drink, although not a great expense is a simple gesture of hospitality: “meeting for coffee” has become part of the lingua franca of workplace and business culture and relationships and is weighted with meaning.

As cities grow in density, complexity and cultural diversity, citizens are adapting with new techniques of urban living.  At a broad level, the café can be seen as supporting the growth in networks of sociability and facilitating the negotiation of civil discourse and behaviour. In the café, to act as a competent citizen, one must demonstrate the ability to be polite, restrained, considerate and civil—that is, to act in accordance with the social situation. This involves an element of self-control and discipline and requires social standards and expectations to become self-monitored and controlled. To be perceived as acting in accordance with the needs of certain social situations, participants bend, limit and regulate their behaviour and affects. In sum, the widespread take up of café culture, based on hospitality and reciprocity, encourages a mode of interaction that has implications for the development of a social and civic ethic. 


Australian Bureau of Statistics. "1301.0–Year Book Australia." 2009. 31 Jan. 2012 ‹›

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Author Biography

Emma Felton, QUT

Emma Felton is Coordinator, Widening Participation, and Research Fellow in the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia.