How’s this for a bit of irrational behaviour. This morning, I was struggling to keep my focus on something I was trying to write. Constantly breaking off to check Facebook or find a snack or a drink. My solution? Go out to the Unicorn café.
Where, of course, as there is in every café, bookshop and public space in America, there is free wifi, allowing me to check Facebook and plentiful snacking and drinking. Without mentioning the wasted time that it takes to pack my laptop into my bag, walk to the café, settle myself in, walk back. Nevertheless I got my work done far more efficiently and quickly than I would have done at home, and the only explanation I can offer is that, more than four months in, I have Gone Native.
At the Unicorn (which is quite a small place) I counted eight laptops, a couple of people writing in notebooks, and a guy at the next table with an Ancient Greek textbook and flashcards. Balanced by three groups of people (one with another laptop) actually talking to one another. What has created this collective insanity? Why don’t we all go home? Or go to the library, where we can’t spill coffee over our laptops and don’t have to buy a $3.67 latte for the privilege of working there?
OK, people work in cafés in Britain. But nothing like as much. I occasionally did an hour’s work in the Starbucks in Bristol Borders, but I would feel self-conscious. I used to feel I was taking up space that I had no right to be taking up once my coffee was finished, and I would sit there spinning out the last dregs of my coffee or crumb of my cake to give myself a reason to stay another five minutes. And so many people would be talking and jostling around me, or distractingly staring at my freakishness, that I tended not to get much work done anyway.
Here things are very different. I got into writing in cafés when I was writing my novel in November, and soon realised how normal such behaviour is over here. Staff never come and ask you harassingly if you want another coffee… there are so many tables that space is not an issue… and a huge proportion of the other customers are doing the same thing. It’s got to the point where, when I go for breakfast with M at one of these establishments and we talk the whole way through I wonder if I’m disturbing people’s work.
I was discussing this with American J the other week, and his explanation of the phenomenon is that it’s is all about shame. We don’t want to be seen in public looking lazy. We want to look industrious, creative, intelligent. And this (rather surprisingly) is a powerful enough motivator to keep us working much harder when we’re away from home. Also, I think it might have something to do with not feeling isolated (which is partly what this post by Geekpreneur argues). Even if you don’t exchange so much as a glance with anyone else there, you feel part of a community of laptop-typers, and you’ve had your existence acknowledged by the barrista at least. Helps diminish that nagging sense that whatever you’re doing is totally inconsequential and you may not, yourself, actually exist. (Maybe this is why cafés beat libraries like the Bristol and Northwestern ones where, once seated, you can hardly see anyone else.) And then, maybe there’s something of the sense of occasion. I never stay more than a couple of hours in a café: eventually, you outstay your welcome. And for those two hours, having assembled all your things, having made the journey out, having bought an expensive coffee, you have got yourself into the zone.