Felicia Perrier

A Day in a Cafe

The site where I have chosen to do my observation is a café on the university’s grounds. I chose this specific place because I know that it is active; students are constantly coming in and out, therefore I thought it would be interesting to see the dynamics of the space and social interaction. I also chose this site because I knew I could easily sit there for two hours and observe, while not bringing attention to myself or making people suspicious of what I was doing. The first ethnography I will do is a thick description, which focuses on the behaviours I observed within the context of the café. The second will be a sensorial description in which I attempt to transport the readers to the café by appealing to their senses.

Thick description

As I walk into the cafe, I notice that the room is fairly packed. Spread out around the room, students are multitasking by either doing work, eating, watching videos, listening to music, texting, reading or talking to one another. The café is rather small, but can contain many people with all its seating. Booths are located along one wall; tables are at the front by the counter, but some are also on the opposite side. The couches are what take up most of the space, and they separate the room into four different squares. Two longer couches face one another, while the single couches have been placed on the sides of the larger ones. In the middle of each square, there are coffee tables meant for people to share. The café is designed to be an open space where people can walk around easily. The way that the couches are placed makes it seem like the owners meant to encourage people to interact with one another, but from what I have observed, this plan did not quite work out.

I noticed that most of the students were there alone. Despite being beside each other, the majority are staring at a screen, headphones in their ears and eyes looking down. Very few people are actually interacting, with the exception of some groups of people either doing homework together, collectively watching a video on a laptop, or simply chatting over a hot beverage, as I see two girls doing. Even while some are eating, they are staring at their phone or laptop. It seems that many people have lost the ability to do one thing at a time without constantly looking at a screen. A simple task, such as eating, cannot be done alone. This may be because we, as humans, need constant distraction, or maybe because we fear looking strange eating alone—therefore, we multitask.

Most of the people are not interacting with one another, or really lift their eyes off their screens for that matter. It may be that it is the end of a semester, which means that students are stressed and have heavy workloads to finish. Finals are coming up as well, which means a lot of studying has to be done. Everyone is concentrated on what they are doing, and trying to stay focused. Those who are not doing work, such as the people I see scrolling through Facebook or watching videos, could be taking a break, giving themselves a chance to clear their minds. In addition, it may be that it is not in the Canadian culture to interact with strangers. It is rare for most people to go out of their way to talk to someone they do not know. Such a thing may be intimidating to many, as one does not know how the other would react in these types of situations.

The majority of people are on their laptops or smartphones. Only two people that I have seen were not staring at a screen, one in which was reading a book, and the other, a newspaper. There is no doubt that this generation has grown up in a world of technology, but it is almost scary to see how dependent we are of it. Computers are now essential to students, as we need them to take notes, log onto the university’s websites, do research, write essays, etc. Then there is the social media. We are constantly checking up on what other people are doing, what the new trend is, viral videos, etc., to keep ourselves entertained. We know that there is always something new to read or watch, therefore we keep going back as a means of finding distraction.

Sensorial description

Walking on the university’s grounds, students emerge from every direction, which makes it difficult for a walker, like myself, to reach her destination. It is hectic. Not far from the crosswalk, on the right hand side, I find the entrance.  I push the cold door handle: inside, it is dark, dull and drab. The staircase leading down is narrow and made of cement, making it feel hollow. One would not expect a dynamic café at the other side of the door, full of people and light. Warmth invades your chilled face and the aroma of coffee finds you senses right away. I find a spot and sit on the firm couch.

The space within the cafe is open and communal, but rather small.  It feels inviting. It can be seen as a lounge, as students come in and sit without purchasing anything. The smell of grease suddenly invades me; I see one girl walking in, fries in hand from the chip truck right next door. A microwave is installed for anyone who wants to come in, warm up their food and just sit comfortably. The calm ambiance welcomes people to just sit back, and kick up their feet onto the table, as one girl is doing. Strangers share the long couches, sitting near one another, but leaving awkward gaps in between. It would appear that the café is set up to be an open space for people to discuss, but rather it is a space in which people keep to themselves, while being surrounded by others.

The couches are placed in four separate squares, with small round tables between them for people to put down their beverage, food or schoolwork. Booths steal the space beside the wall on the left side of the café, while high tables sit at the front next to the counter. Most of these tables are taken up by a single person. Behind the counter lies the friendly staff, asking if “you need room for cream or milk.” The loud coffee making machines runs in the background. The café is dimly lit and the music playing in the background is low, and people talk over it with ease. Some are there, chatting away while sipping a steaming hot beverage, without a worry in sight. Others are found to be texting, as one man is doing across from me, with a smile on his face. He too was minding his own business, eating while listening to music. Another girl is just sitting, waiting. Finally, she waves down her friend when she enters. Groups of students are doing homework together, or just gathered around one laptop, presumably watching something collectively. Hushed sounds are radiating from these areas.

A constant flow of students is coming in and out of the café, marked by waves of loud, rhythmic footsteps. At times, it seems quite busy, with several people in line to order, or groups of people leaving at the same time, disturbing the serene ambiance of the cafe. The sound of music, laughter, chatter, doors opening and closing, and fingers hitting keyboards are all resonate inside this space. Bilingualism, a feature at this university, is proven to be a reality as the English and French language run in and out of my ears.

Mac laptops win the majority as students work away, head down, headphones in. Papers and textbooks have colonized some of these tables. Some students appear quite relaxed, even at the end of semester, watching videos while eating their lunches. Everyone in this café has a screen to their face, including myself, with the exception of a couple of people who are simply reading a book or a newspaper. In this day and age of technology, it is to no surprise. 


In my first ethnography, I had chosen to write a thick description on the basis of the behaviors I observed, and the context in which they took place. By conducting ethnographic observation at this site, I came to notice certain patterns. As mentioned, the majority of students there were essentially doing the same thing, but with slight variations. Most students were either on their phones or laptops, doing their homework or browsing the Internet, without interacting with others.  

For my second ethnography, I had chosen to do a sensorial description. Through my observations, I attempted to write a description in which readers could imagine themselves at the café. By describing the surrounding, the smells, the ambiance and behaviors, I had hoped that the readers could see exactly what I was seeing. By writing a sensorial ethnography, I have learned that it is important to not just write what you see, but what you hear, smell, and feel. These other sense are just as important in order to fully understand the context of certain situations. Both of these approaches to ethnography go hand in hand. The first focused on interpreting people’s behavior while the second was more descriptive of the scene. Together, the reader can have a fuller picture of what was going on in this context.

To conclude, I have learned that there are several different approaches to writing an ethnography. Before this class, I had not realized that there were different types, and that a sensorial description could be considered as a type of approach to ethnography. My appreciation for the work put in to writing ethnographies has grown even more, especially from those who stray away from the more traditional approach. I realize now how difficult it is to write, and my appreciation for works previous read in the semester, such as Hugh Raffles’ “Deepest of Reveries” or Kathleen Stewarts “Ordinary Affects” has increased. Attempting to make an ethnography sound ‘pretty’ or comedic is much harder than I could imagine, as I tried to make my sensorial description sound good. Raffles’ work has definitely influenced my second approach to ethnography, in which I tried to appeal to the reader’s senses through writing, as he did.