A Well-Caffeinated Afternoon
The mall is a place full of “hustle and bustle” during this time of the year. I have found refuge from the stressed-out Christmas shoppers in a coffee shop. I went on the day of the first real snowfall of the season, and thus the shop was quite busy, filled with people looking for hot drinks as a way of escaping the cold. At the first glance, the lineup to get a drink was short, but then, the person ahead of me ordered four complicated drinks and so my single drink took about 15 minutes. The baristas were kind. The seating was adequate for a store in a busy mall. It was hard to find a spot but a table cleared just as I needed it. I sat beside a man on a laptop and two women, one of which had a guide dog. The atmosphere of the shop was welcoming and comfortable; the music tasteful and the décor modern. The store also has a few festive decorations, mostly the colour red that this brand has become known for during this time of year. The people who enter the shop vary greatly. The average person seems to be between the ages of 18 – 40. For a Sunday afternoon, I was expecting to see more teenagers lounging around the mall.
Almost everyone in the shop is using some form of technology, either for ordering at the counter or for when they are enjoying their beverage. Almost no one orders food. Hardly anyone is talking. It is mostly groups of women in the shop while men seem to enter by themselves. The employees make no interaction with customers, and one walks around tidying up the drink station and changes garbage. Their name tags seem to highlight this coffee shop’s obsession with names and personalization –their name tags are handwritten. More families with young children start coming in around 4:30pm. This seems to be a place of trust because many people feel comfortable leaving their belongings, even laptops, on the table while they order or go to the washroom. The employee’s tip jar is also out in the open, very close to the edge of the counter, and has a 5-dollar bill just sitting in it. This trustiness strikes me as oddly Canadian.
The average person seems to stay in the shop for approximately 10 minutes. Mostly people order and leave. There are many spots to sit and students like to stay in coffee shops for long hours to read or study, but there are only 2 other people who I see doing this today. Most of the customers have already visited other parts of the mall before coming in. Looking at their shopping bags, most of them seem to frequent children’s and food stores. The majority of the guests is very quiet, except for one family that sits beside me around 4:45 pm who are very loud and have a young child with them. They leave within 10 minutes. The shop closes off its entrance to the mall at 5pm, but they still have a steady flow of customers, most of which are single men. This tells me that their customers are loyal and not just shoppers at the mall.
Some people are confused when the shop closes, and I am approached by a man who thinks I am an employee. This may be because I was wearing all black which may have looked like some form of a uniform. As it gets darker outside, the shop is mostly filled with older people and no children. The employees begin closing the shop. I notice the posters on the walls about the ethics that the store holds and their company initiatives. It is interesting to see a big brand name that showcases its values to its customers. The shop has personality, but not much more than any other coffee shop of similar styles that I have been to.
The smell of freshly ground espresso and fresh coffee awoke my senses after my long shift at work inside the mall. This promising smell was inviting me in on this cold November day. The first snowfall of the season was an open invitation to splurge on fancy hot chocolate and lattes for many that day. Every time the front door opened, it sent a chilly reminder down your spine that winter was officially here. The tables outside that had yet to be taken in from the warmer months were now covered with a nice layer of snow which made me grateful to be in a warm cozy coffee shop. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming. The store is tastefully decorated for the holidays, with accompanying drink and food specials that come with the season. It is a tough decision when it comes to picking a drink as I wait in a relatively short line but I settle on an apple cider and a Nanaimo bar. The fact that my drink comes in a festive cup and my snack comes in a holiday bag makes the experience even better for me because I love this time of year. I find myself a spot near a window with a good view of the whole shop. I am facing the drink bar with the window behind me. Although the restaurant is warm and I am nowhere near the entrance, I still manage to catch the cold breeze that comes in every time the door opens.
The two women sitting to my left are deep in conversation. They speak passionately about the education system. I assume at least one of them is or was a teacher, or maybe a passionate parent. One of the women has a guide dog. The man on my left is typing away on his laptop and is oblivious to my presence when I ask him if the seat beside him is available. I soon realize he is wearing headphones and is not intentionally ignoring me. I see many people come and go through the line-up. Everyone seems to be ordering hot drinks, not cold ones, and no one is ordering food. This may be because it is 4:00 so it is not a common meal time. The music that filled the air when I first arrived was like a smooth jazz/ Christmas playlist. But now, it is like someone keeps hitting the skip button on a randomized Spotify playlist and it is making me feel uncomfortable. After about 20 minutes of this, the music finally settles into an alternative playlist that better suits the vibe of the store.
The people inside the shop are quiet for the most part. Many people are here alone. It only starts to get loud when groups of women come in, and take a seat next to me. I overhear many conversations about shopping and family life. I am also pretty sure that the side of my face is in a selfie one of the women took that day. The shop gets somewhat uncomfortably loud when the baristas use a particular machine. I am not sure what it is, but it sounds like a blender full of metal; the loud noise pierces my earadrums. I become accustomed to the sound by the end of my stay. A woman beside me is also trying to get her three-year-old daughter to “clink” cups with her for a “Snapchat video” after which the todler will not stop saying the word clink for about 5 minutes. This mother-daughter-snapchat relationship intrigues me.
As the shop comes to a close, I do not want to leave. The shop is so warm, but my chair is not comfortable at all and eventually I have to move. I am one of the last people to leave, and as I wander out of the shop, into the dark and the snow, feeling grateful for my warm tea in my hands and vowing to come here again.
My first ethnography is written in a way that is more impersonal and direct. It describes exactly what it happening in front of me, and feels like it is written verbatim. While there are some personal details, I focus more on what I am seeing, and give less insight about myself as a writer. The writing feels more analytical. I put more of an emphasis on what I saw and not on what I felt. I made a larger amount of observations with little details about each in order to get a good general idea about the two hours I spent there but it does not allow the reader to feel how I felt in those two hours. I also assume that the reader is familiar with the setting of a Starbucks by leaving out small details.
From this piece, I learned that I do not enjoy this form of writing. I feel like it is even less enjoyable to read. It seems like the reader is getting a very superficial look at the comings and goings in the coffee shop. It does not offer a very sensual depiction of the setting. The description reads like a list of facts, that probably would not be very enjoyable for a wider, non-academic audience.
My second ethnography is written in a more enjoyable way. It is passionate and full of emotive language. I feel like the reader can easily put themselves in my shoes while reading, because my description involves the senses. The reader will also feel more of a personal connection because I refer to myself and I add more character to the piece. It presents my findings in an effective but entertaining way. My reader can feel what I felt without too many boring details.
What I learned from this piece was that I like writing this way much more and I think that most people may find this way of writing to be harder to write but easier to read. I did notice that it is easy to get sidetracked from what you are trying to say, and I can see why some people are critical of ethnographies when they are written this way. It does seem more like literature than empirical research, but I think it is nicer to read. I was inspired by the writing by Abu-Lughod because when reading her ethnography, I felt like I was transported to where she was and I wanted to try to mimic that effect.
All together I learned that I enjoy the way that ethnographies can take on such different forms of writing but in the end, it all comes down to portraying a group of people or a culture in a way that is accurate, informative, and hopefully interesting to read. I also learned that observation can be hard when you don’t know what you are looking for but it causes you to think critically and ‘put yourself in other people’s shoes’ to see why they are doing what they are doing. I noticed a lot of things that I would not have if I wasn’t looking so closely. I learned about the way that I see the world, and that I should try to look beyond what is happening, and try to understand why it is happening.