Once I finished my barista training course, I started working in a coffee shop here. To give in to my Cultural Studies nerdiness completely, I have to say it is a fascinating way to observe Americans and their attitudes towards food, socializing and customer service.
I constantly draw comparisons to my experiences in the service industry in the U.K., in part because there really are so many noticeable differences. The way that Americans and Britons order, interact and experience coffee shops reveals a lot about both cultures.
1. Americans Like To Take Their Work To Coffee Shops, Brits Do Not
When I first moved to the U.S. back in 2010, I was surprised that so many students and professionals chose to do their work in coffee shops. To me, coffee shops were somewhere you went with friends in order to catch up and relax—not to do work.
Coffee shops in the U.K. are often not even built for people to sit alone and do work; there are fewer outlets/sockets and it’s rare to see a whole room of people not talking. They also don’t tend to stay open very late. (I do miss being done at work by 6 p.m. Those were the days.)
2. Britons Disdain Paper Cups
Given what I just said about café culture, it’s no surprise that Britons prefer their beverages served in porcelain mugs, not paper cups. As a barista in the U.S., I will serve drinks in a paper cup unless otherwise specified. In the U.K., I didn’t give anyone a paper cup unless they asked for it “to go.”
And hell hath no fury like a Briton who is denied a porcelain mug due to a broken dishwasher. I actually had some people opt not to get a drink at all rather than have it in a paper cup.
3) Hot Or Iced?
I’ve lived in the South for four years, but when I hear “tea” I still think hot and served with milk. Southerners say “tea” to mean iced tea, and “hot tea” otherwise. Given the practically-living-on-the-sun summers that we get here, I don’t hold it against the patrons that they more often order cold drinks. Even though I sometimes hate making 5,000 frappuccinos a day.
In the U.K., most people won’t even think to ask for iced caramel macchiatos or iced chai lattes. I used to spend much more time with the steam wand, cursing my inability to make perfect cappuccino foam, and making multiple hot drinks at once.
You could say it’s the weather, but I’m pretty sure my parents would never, ever order an iced tea or iced coffee, even if there was a heatwave going on. If it’s at all warm we Brits head to the pub.
4) Everyone Likes To Order Off The Menu
First of all, people of both countries enjoy ordering “secret” drinks. For Britons it is usually some kind of traditional espresso drink, maybe to see how classical your barista training was. Americans tend to order something they saw online that combines various syrups to make a drink taste like a Cinnabon or a butterbeer.
I don’t mind so long as they know what they’re asking for and aren’t going to get angry at me for not knowing an off-menu item (which has happened in both countries—y’all, chillax, this isn’t life or death).
5) Customers Are More Entitled In…
Americans are more entitled customers in a general sense: They want to have your attention immediately, they ask for their drink to be done exactly to their liking (even down to the number of ice cubes in their drink), and they expect to be treated as if they are a supremely important person.
I admit, it can be annoying to be on the receiving end of those expectations, but I also feel better knowing that if a customer is unhappy in any way, they won’t be shy about letting us know what’s wrong. Britons often won’t send the drink back even if they picked up the wrong one.
American customers also tend to feel entitled to have a conversation with you, whereas Brits don’t usually engage—so I’ve got to know a lot of people through my job here, which is an aspect I love about it.
6) Americans Embrace Decadence
In the U.K, I made a lot of black coffees, cappuccinos, lattes and teas. Some people liked to have their drinks sweetened with syrup, and kids ordered frappuccinos, but generally it wasn’t a decadent selection of drinks.
I serve plenty of Americans who just want a black coffee, but generally speaking they are 35+ in age; anyone younger tends to be all about the seasonal frappuccinos, syrup and extra whipped cream. (I love that my customers are so adventurous, though! My co-workers and I enjoy it every time someone asks us to be creative and make them a new drink.)
The food on offer is reflective of these tastes, too. In the U.K., people ordered paninis, fruit toast and muffins and pastries. In the U.S., I serve cheesecake, large cookies and pizza, items which are treated more as meals or desserts in the U.K., and therefore unappealing to have in a coffee shop.
7) The Consumers and Businesses Focus On Different Social Issues
In the U.K., people care about recycling and fair trade. We were instructed not to give out coffee sleeves unless it was an extra-hot drink like a tea or Americano, since most coffees aren’t so hot that you can’t hold them right away. I know without a shadow of a doubt that this would not fly in the U.S., and that customers would complain if they weren’t given a sleeve automatically. U.K. brands tend to compete about who is the most green and the most fair trade, issues which aren’t mainstream concerns here.
In the U.S., the biggest social issue surrounding the service industry is about wages and hours. For those who are unfamiliar, one of the main labor disputes in the U.S. is that companies will avoid footing the bill for their employees’ healthcare benefits by making sure they don’t employ people for more than 30 hours a week. Which means a) it’s difficult to find full time work without combining two or more jobs, and b) a lot of Americans are still uninsured. Of course I don’t discuss this matter with my customers. But when I am a customer, I am especially mindful of treating service industry workers with the respect they deserve.
8) Pronunciations Vary According To Accent
I’ve written before that despite my interest in Cultural Studies, I generally don’t find accents all that interesting. Too bad for me, because I have to talk about my accent to customers every single day. So I am particularly aware of all the ways we Brits pronounce things.
There is the obvious “tomAYto” versus “toMARto,” but did you know Brits say “cah-ra-mel” and Americans* say “carm-mal”? And that for some it’s “mocka” and others it’s “moh-kah?” Also the Southern pronunciation of “venti” (“ven-tee” to me) as “vintAY” will never not make me giggle to myself.
Having a customer service role is how I discovered that, in addition to the word “water,” Americans will never understand me saying “thirty.”
*Is this actually more of a Southern thing? Please weigh in, Yankees.
9) Christmas And Holiday Food Is Different
I lived for Christmas in the U.K. Every time I went Christmas shopping I would end up inside a coffee shop to get turkey/brie sandwiches, yule logs, mince pies or gingerbread lattes.
But the U.S. feeds my pumpkin-lovin’ soul with pumpkin bread and pumpkin spice lattes. The Christmas food is usually more cranberry/peppermint oriented than at home, and the drinks often include traditional American fall flavors such as caramel and apple. I’m not complaining no matter where I am!
(Fun fact: My family calls me “the coffee snob” due to all my barista-ing, but my all-time favorite coffees are actually Fresh Market’s Pumpkin Spice and the Starbucks Christmas Roast. I am a festive person I guess.)
10) Regulars Are Awesome In Both Countries
I love regulars. I really do. It’s like seeing a friend show up at work.
In the U.K., I would often have people wave to me as I was getting on a bus or walking around the city, and I realized most of these people recognized me from my job. I don’t see many of my American customers in town because I live in a different neighborhood, but I’m sure they would be just as friendly to me elsewhere as they are when I’m at work. I try to learn as many names as possible, and in return, most regulars know my name. Most do take the time to ask me how I’m doing or what’s new with me.
The truth is that working in the service industry is hard, and it’s not at all what I hoped to be doing after many years of school, so the fact that these people acknowledge me as a person rather than someone serving them makes all the difference. I am thankful for them and it makes my daily life so much brighter.
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