Thursday, 14 October 2010

#37 Anyone for tea? (Part II: The funny part)

America would be a much better place if they drank tea. I realise this is an obvious argument for a Brit living in America to make, but hear me out.

In Britain - indeed, over much of the world - tea serves a crucial social function. You immediately offer it to visitors, and not just esteemed visitors - workmen and tax collectors.

You drink it at work, in a social way. People do tea runs. And you take your turn. If you don't, people notice."She always has a cup but never makes it." Just me? I've thought that at every British office I've ever worked in.

It is a complicated exercise in reciprocal altruism. Remembering who takes milk, and sugar, and how much, and in which mug - it is a small, but significant olive branch. It smooths office interaction. You notice that they notice that you notice that they like the purple spotty mug, a little bit of milk and one spoonful of Splenda. You both smile at your mutual noticing.

Not so with coffee. It's probably a frequency thing - you can't knock it back. People tend to drink it at very different rates. Some people - seriously, I've seen them - only have one cup all day. All day long. One cup. What the fuck do they look forward to in the afternoon?

So people make their own. Some people go out to buy it. In the latter case, they will offer to get one for you, but it isn't the same. Because they are going somewhere to buy it, there are no surprises - no secretly stashed biscuits, or unmentioned slices of birthday cake that suddenly appear to office-wide cheers. The situation is socially ambiguous, since they are spending real money - do I give them money beforehand? Do I pay them when they get back? Do I just buy their next one? But Sally has two extra shots and caramel syrup, hers costs $5! That's another thing - it's much more expensive. A tea bag I'm happy to write off, I would really care if someone didn't return a Double Chocamochachino-shaped favour.

Where Brits have social cohesion, Americans have social anxiety. Where Brits have hydration, Americans have one cup - all day long. Where Brits have their favourite mug, Americans have a disposable cardboard/plastic amalgam that insulates against heat. What the fuck is that about? I want to cradle my warm cup in my hands to get me through dreary winter days at the office. I don't want a lukewarm lump of cardboard held at arms-length. There is no emotional connection with that.

And here's the worst part: on occasion I go to Starbucks, or a similar establishment, to sit, and drink, and read. Maybe work. Probably just read. I've done this in England for years, especially during winter. I blame the sofas. Well, if you sit in Starbucks in America, they do not -repeat: DO NOT - give you a mug. You sit, cuddle up in your winter coat and scarf in an outsized purple armchair, thumbing through a Jane Austen novel. And you have to suffer the indignity of drinking out of a lukewarm lump of cardboard.

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