Sharing tables in coffee shops?

Food politics
Cafe etiquette

A few weeks ago, we went to Edinburgh. It was the Edinburgh Festival, and the whole city was heaving with people, half of whom were apparently students in a show of some kind … my favourite pitch was for a show that was apparently a cross between American Psycho and American Pie. We didn’t go to see it. Chainsaws and dessert don’t mix.

Walking around Edinburgh, trying to do the normal touristy things at the same time that the Festival is in full swing is a tad tiring, and it’s easy to get slightly frazzled after being jostled all the way up the Royal Mile and back down again, so we took to camping out in many of the city’s excellent independent coffee shops (flat white, latte, hot chocolate, mocha and two slices of that chocolate cake please? Finished? Feel human again? Right, back into the throng).

So, one afternoon, we stumbled into a typically stripped bare and basic coffee shop, of the type that looks like they decided to have a refit, then gave up after the initial demolition phase, deciding instead to leave it at just bare brick, ragged concrete and dangling light bulbs, with a load of mis-matched furniture rescued from a skip outside some sort of institution that closed in the Sixties. These places are fine by me, because usually, all the money that would’ve been spent fitting the space out has been diverted into some beautiful, hissing espresso machine sat proudly on the counter, the sort that you can feel the quality and the power from ten feet away. The coffee is normally world-class.

There was some space in the back, so the kids went to sit down. What happened next was just astonishing.

I followed behind after ordering, and there I found my family crammed onto a table that was OK, but not quite big enough. I managed to find another chair after a bit of a struggle and sat down too.

Now, there was a couple on the next table over, reclining regally in a couple of large armchairs, ignoring our plight, braying loudly about some festival-related bullshit. There were also a couple of extra seats that were covered in bags and coats, close to us, close enough for me to have used, actually.

I must admit – and I’m not particularly proud of this – to taking an almost instant dislike to these people, for reasons I couldn’t quite pinpoint. OK, the loud English accents, and the pretentious nonsense they were spouting probably had something to do with it, and I suddenly started to understand a little more clearly why the Scots fancied a bit of independence.

By the way, glad you’re still with us, Scotland *big hug*.

So anyway, coffee finished, Ethan one step further towards honing his appreciation for his ‘starter coffee’ choice of a mocha, we hit the street again, where it turned out that those people had done something quite obnoxious.

On seeing Jenny walk around the corner and make for the empty table, the woman had quickly leapt up and spread her assorted stuff out as widely as she could, to claim as much space as her useless possessions could cover. She sat back down and ignored Jenny as she struggled to get the kids seated properly. The woman’s other half of whatever description arrived back and they continued to spread their wings, clearly fully understanding that they could and should share ‘their’ space with at least another three people, given that they were actually only using less than half of it.

All the while, people came into the room, looking for a place to sit, saw none, or rather saw a space seemingly legitimately reserved for somebody who’d perhaps just popped back to the counter, turned around and left. At least £20 worth of business walked out of the door because of that.

Apart from the sort of behaviour that couple displayed being downright rude, it must drive coffee shop owners absolutely insane. This is a hard business, and getting money through the till is vital for survival. It must be soul destroying seeing your income literally walking away because people act in such a selfish way.

This is where a point of etiquette comes into play. Many coffee shops are very small, and there’s an unwritten and unspoken rule that space is public and should be shared. It makes perfect sense, really, and I think that it’s broadly understood and accepted. People need to sit down, and where there’s limited space and the place is clearly a ‘quick coffee and maybe a slice of cake’ type place instead of a ‘proper lunch’ place, it makes sense for people to be a little more open with what they’d normally consider ‘their’ personal space, so it’s very common to see complete strangers perched around the same tables in coffee shops the world over. Most of them are staring intently at their phones, anyway, so the chances of social interaction being necessary are limited.

This only works when everybody plays the game.

Of course, I should have challenged this particular couple. I should have asked if anybody was using that seat when I was roaming the entire café looking for another chair, but I didn’t, I simply chose to store it all up and let it out a few weeks later in a slightly ranty blog post.

I am British, after all.