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Beware the etiquette of coffee meetings

Dave Gordon - Friday, 17 October, 2014

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Ever since the wild proliferation of franchised coffee shops began in North America about twenty years ago, it’s hard to find an adult who has not entered a name brand house of java.

We go to chat, for meetings, for dates, and simply to get a caffeine fix.

What people might not realize is there are many faux pas when it comes to meeting up for coffee in a professional capacity.

Much like other places people go together – for example, restaurants or cinemas – there are rules of decorum and social niceties that make our interactions smoother and more cordial. So too, there are things we must and mustn’t do to avoid insult.

Let’s take the example of a restaurant. Some of the unwritten rules are that you tip fifteen per cent; no Instagramming your food while you eat; treat the waiter with respect; only return food if there’s something wrong with it and not because you change your mind.

Here is a list of DOS and DON’TS that apply to coffee meetings that everyone should know:


Buy something - Diane Gottsman, modern manners and etiquette expert, adds that it’s discourteous to come to a coffee meeting not having purchased anything.

“If you’re taking a table, or taking up space, it’s polite to order something. That doesn’t include a cup of water,” she says.

Paying – if you’re meeting someone in the geographic middle, everyone pays for their own drink; although there’s nothing wrong with offering to pay for your friend’s drink (and vice versa).

It’s only fair, however, to insist on paying for your friend’s drink if he’s schlepped to your neighbourhood to meet you.

Sitting – Ask your friend where they’d prefer to sit. Don’t assume that anywhere is fine; some people don’t like to sit on hard chairs and some prefer a couch. Some people don’t like sitting next to windows; others don’t like stools or sitting outside.
If he says it doesn’t matter, then choose a spot.

Arrive on time - Even a simple coffee meeting demands the respect of the other person's time.

Confirm the address - There's a Starbuck's on every corner – make sure you've got the right one.

Courtesy - If you want to leave a good impression on the person you're meeting with, be sure to be courteous to the barista, give your order in an efficient manner (decide what you want before you get to the counter!), and leave a tip.

Clean up – that means your cup, stir stick, packets of sugar, any spills. It’s social decorum 101, and lets the person you’ve met with know that you’re not a slob.

Suit up – If it’s a business meeting, dress the part. “It’s not your living room. You’re still a representative of the company,” says Gottsman.

Wait for others – Whether it’s a group, or an individual, it’s polite to wait for them to show up before ordering. “Otherwise it looks like you’re there for the coffee or the eating.”

Be Discreet – In terms of business meetings, anything of a confidential nature may be heard by others in the coffee shop. If you must, speak in euphemisms or code, or generalities, until you get back to the real office.


Phones – Please don’t check your email or answer your phone during a coffee meeting. It’s rude. It’s akin to answering a call-waiting and putting someone on hold, as if to say the person who you were with first is of less importance. With a caveat: if your spouse calls, answer it with an apology to your friend.
Don't check your watch or phone for the time either – don't make it look as though you have somewhere more important to be. If you have a strict deadline, set a discreet alarm on your phone.

“And turn the ringer off. In fact, if it’s on buzz, turn that off too. You don’t want someone hearing the ringer or a buzz while you talk,” says Gottsman. “It’s highly distracting.”

Coats – Don’t take up a chair with your coat (or your bag) if it’s a packed coffee shop. It means an awkward conversation from another patron to ask if they can use the seat you’re obviously taking up unnecessary.
Also, unless you absolutely need to sit in a certain place, don't squat an entire table and several chairs while waiting for your friends to arrive if the place is busy.

“You can’t spread out like you would in a board room. You have your small space in a café, that’s it,” says Gottsman, who is frequently quoted in national and international media including The New York Times, BBC, CNN, Bloomberg Business Week, U.S. News and World Report, and Forbes.

What to order – if your friend or business contact is paying for your drink, don't order the costliest thing on the menu. Keep it simple and inexpensive.

Time – Do not take up more time than what is reasonable. If no time window for the meeting was predetermined, usually a rule of thumb is one hour. That’s equivalent to a lunch break. If there’s still urgent business to discuss after that, ask for a specific amount of time to wrap things up. Don’t assume they can offer you as much time as you’d like.

Jokes – a little levity is fine, but keep it appropriate. When the barista/cashier asks for your name to write it on the cup, don’t say, “Albuquerque” – if your name is not “Albuquerque”. Ix-ney on “Of all the drugs, caffeine is my favorite” and “I love keeping the small Colombian co-op in business – selling coffee beans.”

Fiddle – Do not play with the rim of your cup, nor chew on it; do not crush the cup down like it’s a soda can; don’t play the “boingy boing” game with the stir stick between your teeth; and for goodness sake don’t tap your fingers on the table. Most of all, Gottsman says, avoid that clankety-clank stir sound when the spoon stirs the coffee cup.

Overstay - “You don’t want to loiter,” says Gottsman. “If there are people waiting for a table or a chair, wrap up the meeting so others can enjoy being able to sit down.”

A growing movement, called the “Coffice” (coffee + office), endeavours to crowdsource coffee shops that businesspeople can use as an office – places they can utilize free WiFi and perch, in theory, as long as they please.

Gottsman considers an extended stay an abuse of the shop’s resources.

“You’ve got the laptop, papers all over the place, and it’s not your personal office. And you’re taking up space and bandwidth. While it’s free Wifi, it’s not. At least compensate by buying more food.”

Schmooze with others – So, you spot someone you know at another table. Wave, smile, say hi, and continue your business meeting. “Don’t get up to greet anyone you see you know. It makes it look like the person you’re with is less important,” Gottsman adds.



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