There are days when I go to bed dreaming of the first cup of coffee the next morning. It isn’t so much that I am addicted (which I certainly am) but that the ritual of coffee, the warm cup in my hand, the bitterness on my tongue, and the rustle of the morning newspaper in my ear all comfort me. As a Peace Corps Volunteer long ago I clung to my coffee ritual, carrying pounds of ground beans in my suitcase every time I traveled out of and back into the country because you couldn’t get coffee grounds in Turkmenistan. I made my coffee in a small stove-top espresso maker, added milk still warm from the milk lady’s pail, and listened to the BBC on a shortwave radio on my front stoop under the grape vines. These days, when I travel, I get up as early as I must to have an hour alone with a cup of coffee and the day’s news.
Coffee can ease and comfort our lives at work, too. There is the coffee machine where you bump into colleagues from across the organization, all seeking the same thing for the moment. You are all in the same boat when the creamer runs out, and there is something lovely about sharing that moment with your boss’ boss, or the intern whose name you didn’t know till now. There is the lure of coffee (and fruit and pastries, too) to sweeten the prospect of a meeting that might be a hard sell otherwise. You can get people to show up for many unpleasant or boring or necessary things if you put a cup of coffee in their hands. There is the excuse of a place to go, to walk to, when you’d like to have a talk with someone without the formality of the office: want to walk over to the coffee shop with me? And there is the kind gesture, the simple way of making someone else’s day a little better by checking to see if they would like a cup of coffee when they are in the midst of a proposal or paper or a thousand pages of collating.
I do realize that one could substitute tea or even soda for coffee, and that in the Mad Men days alcohol probably served some of these social lubrication functions. As usual, I suppose the key is knowing your audience and what they like. Regardless of what you drink, though, appreciate the power of the small gesture, and use it consciously to make connection. Next time you walk by the coffee machine, and you see someone you don’t know very well standing there waiting for their brew, maybe decide you’d really like a cup, too. And if the creamer is out maybe invite them to take a walk across the street to the coffee shop, instead. Oh, and while you are out, bring a cup back for the dad who was up all night with his sick kid. You’ll all feel better, and comforted, by the warmth in the cup.