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Culture Creating Itself: Starbucks Observed, Essay Example

Pages: 8

Words: 2213

Essay

Introduction

In choosing a public setting which reflects cultural significance, I observed a local Starbucks coffee house for a period of several months.  The significance itself is, I admit, partially attached by how I view these places, even as my own view relates to how they are widely seen in the public mind.  Starbucks is today an iconic brand and place.  The stores have figured in many films, and in ways usually emphasizing the place as a popular site for people who are smart and of a certain social class.  The Starbucks customer is largely known as someone who demands quality coffee and who makes choices based on modern thinking.  This is, again, my own attachment of perception, and it seems to be a common one as well.  At various times of day, then, I observed what went on in this Starbucks for approximately three months.  My observations and thoughts regarding the subject follow, which all support my final opinion as to the true cultural significance of the place.  This may be expressed as a belief that such a significance is kept in place, not only by the location itself, but as much by the expectations and behaviors of its customers.  When a place takes on a unique cultural meaning or identity, as the Starbucks coffee shops have, that identity is reinforced by those choosing to go there.

Personal Bias

Before presenting my observations and conclusions, it is necessary that I relate how I myself approached the Starbucks.  There was definitely bias attached to the place, although not entirely of a negative kind.  More exactly, even as I have occasionally had coffee at a Starbucks, my view of the place was always that of entering a very specific type of public arena.  It is not especially upscale, and the interiors are usually set out to create a feeling of ease and comfort.  Nonetheless, I always attached an “arty” quality to Starbucks.  It is, in my mind, where people who are concerned about trends and the latest in culture go, as I also believed that the same people go to reaffirm this sense of identity about themselves.  On one level, the coffee and other food items for sale there are of excellent quality, and this is certainly reason enough to be a customer.  At the same time, I do not believe there is any escaping the association with the brand to a certain, socially admirable kind of person.  In my mind, Starbucks reinvented the idea of the coffee shop and elevated it to a deliberately “cultural” presence, and I think most other people feel the same way.  It is a casual public arena, but it is also a famous one, and I entered for my observations very aware of my bias about this.  I also took into account that, as a foreign student, I was liable to view any behaviors reflecting culture as reflecting purely American culture.  To that end, I made a conscious effort to “forget” what impressions I ever had about the brand or the image.

Observations and Descriptions

Rather than record my observations in terms of times and dates, I think they will be better expressed in terms of content, along with references to specific times.  To begin, on my first visit on a late morning, I was especially careful to make note of the place itself.  This is a Starbucks on a city street, set between various shops and office buildings.  The front is mostly glass, and the interior is lit in a dim way.  There is light to see by, but the effect is very much subdued.  The store is not large, and is essentially a good-sized room with counters on an angle to the right, and casual seating in the rest of the space.  A bar and stools are at the front windows.  The color scheme is a pleasing combination of deep greens and darker yellows, and jazz music usually plays softly in the background.  By the counters and near the door are various displays of merchandise all bearing the brand, including gift packs of coffee, mugs, and cookies.  Handwritten signs on blackboards present the coffee selections and daily specials.

On that first visit, I ordered a coffee and remembered a Starbucks characteristic I have always noted: the casual courtesy of the attendants.  They are always well-mannered and friendly from my experience, and this was no exception.  I took a seat near the counter, to better observe customer interactions.  Business was slow at that time of day, and I noticed that the customers coming in took advantage of this ease.  Each person took their time at the counter, often making small jokes to the attendants, because there was no line behind them.  All in all, and interestingly, even this first visit felt like a scene from a film.  I believe this is due to the soft décor and lighting, which imply a casual level of sophistication, but I also believe the customers themselves created this subtle effect.  I must stress that this effect truly was subtle, but I was nonetheless aware of the way people carried themselves once in the shop.  It seems to me that when Americans enter commercial venues, they are usually somewhat aggressive.  They tend to move quickly, and do not appear to be very happy about where they are and what they have to do there.  At the Starbucks, there was a kind of automatic respect, or slowness, as soon as customers walked in.  It was more like they were entering a party or someone’s home, than a coffee shop.  I mention this because, again, these minor differences in behavior struck me.  No one spoke in a loud voice, and the conversations at nearby tables were also muted.  I generally do not observe this level of consideration in public, commercial spaces.

The next visit I made was timed to coincide with a “before work” rush.  I arrived at the Starbucks at eight in the morning, took my coffee, and again took a seat near the main counter.  Half an hour later, a steady stream of customers entered, and a line formed.  The attendants moved quickly, the line moved as well, and I sensed no dissatisfaction from the guests.  It seemed very much like the crowd was expected by all concerned, as all concerned were confident that it would be taken care of efficiently.  Here, I noted that the behavior of the guests altered to meet the demands of the business.  Everyone was polite, but no time was wasted in idle jokes or chatter.  Observing this, my mind went again to the contrast between this behavior and what I have noticed elsewhere, even in other coffee shops.  There was a uniform level of civility here I do not see in other places, and this then caused me to reflect on the “film set” feeling I have mentioned.  I asked myself: has the presence of Starbucks in movies actually had the effect of leading people to believe, on a subconscious level, that they are in a film?  Then, I also wondered just how self-perpetuating this behavior was.  More exactly, as customers set the tone of how to behave, it seems likely that new customers felt the need to reflect this same, modified, courteous manner.  However it was happening, I was beginning to get the distinct impression that this Starbucks represented a kind of mini-culture, or an aspect of American culture in a concentrated form.  This may be defined as an American sense of upholding ideas regarding civility and sophistication not applicable in other public arenas.

Other visits I made were at night, either early or mid-evening.  This proved to be especially interesting from a cultural viewpoint, because the Starbucks both changed and was essentially the same.  Once the business day was done, the people coming in were more visibly relaxed, and even the staff seemed more casual.  At the same time, that atmosphere of dim lights, jazz music, and an awareness of being in a popular place all seemed to work the same effect.  On more than one occasion, for instance, I saw someone from one table approach a single person at another, to ask if a chair could be taken.  All of these exchanges were polite, and not in a forced way.  One young man interrupted another who was working on his laptop to ask about the chair, and actually apologized for interrupting that person’s work.  It struck me that this was an atmosphere somehow requiring these levels of courtesy, simply because, again, I rarely witness such behavior in other public places.

In these evening visits, I noticed something else that seemed to have great cultural significance, and as unique to Starbucks.  While the conversations around me were not loud or offensive, they were still not hushed, and many seemed to be about issues of the day.  These issues ranged from political topics to the latest music videos, but they had one thing in common: all were discussed in ways reflecting liberal points of view.  I do not say this to suggest that there was any, overt political element to the talk; instead, it was simply obvious that the vast majority of the customers, both young and older, were not conservative in their thinking.  Put another way, I would guess that anyone with a strongly conservative character would not feel comfortable in this environment.   Based on these impression, I then further speculated as to my main thinking; namely, whether the clientele is this way because that clientele seeks out Starbucks, or whether the place itself creates a cultural atmosphere that encourages this type of discussion and viewpoint.   Linked to this was another sense I was developing in my observations, particularly in the evenings, that Starbucks somehow represents to its customer a kind of “European cafe” feeling, yet one also very modern and American.  Many discussions I overheard, in fact, were about films, music, and art.  They were not scholarly conversations, but they strongly indicated confidence on the parts of the speakers.  None of this, I repeat, was at a level clearly elevated or snobbish.  At the same time, there was a uniformity to both the subjects and the attitudes of the guests that pointed to a specific culture, and one of education and intellectual awareness.  Certainly, there were other conversations that were clearly more personal and light in nature.  Even these, however, seemed to reflect a gravity they would not have in another setting.

Ultimately, I visited and observed this Starbucks approximately two dozen times and, as noted, at various times of day.  Not unexpectedly, the atmosphere was different in the evenings, as all such places adapt when business changes and the work day ends.  I witnessed a consistently high level of service combined with evident customer satisfaction; I never saw, in fact, anyone having a real issue with either the staff or the products.  I saw, in other words, a successful store in a major franchise, operating exactly as it is expected to operate.  My final evaluation, however, indicates a unique cultural significance, and one I believe belonging entirely to Starbucks.

Conclusions

Given my observations at the Starbucks, it is tempting to simply state that the store reflects perfectly the idea of it in the ordinary mind.  It is a good-looking and comfortable public place.  It delivers quality products from a professional and friendly staff.  It is just as “hip” as people believe it to be, and it attracts seemingly intelligent people who enjoy good coffee and stimulating conversation.  At the same time, these very impressions indicate that something more is going on in cultural terms, and because of how iconic Starbucks has become.  As it is in many films, it has come to represent a comfortable, resting place for a certain kind of person, and one who reflects a certain kind of status.  This is by no means confined to wealth or power; rather, the Starbucks customer is usually only enlightened, participatory, and successful enough to afford the more expensive coffee.  This leads to a very specific significance, then, because it removes some element of the casualness of the stores.  They are casual, yet there seems to be some deliberation involved in their selection, only because it meets with the clients ideas of who they themselves are.  Ultimately, I do not think Starbucks draws this type of person, beyond its obvious attractions.  Instead, I think the customer base maintains the cultural significance for and by itself.  Starbucks set the stage, and it certainly works to maintain the “Euro cafe” feeling its customers enjoy, but it is that customer base which translates the Starbucks experience into a cultural expression.  It is an expression based on an American type: somewhat worldly, agreeable, and usually liberal in attitude and viewpoint.  Starbucks has a cultural significance which, I believe, validates my original bias.  Because it was promoted as “hip,” it generated a wide customer base very much wanting to share that identity.  This is the real success of Starbucks, in my estimation, because it can rely on its customers to perpetuate its presence, and this in itself is of great cultural significance.  Ultimately, I feel that when any place takes on a unique cultural meaning or identity, as the Starbucks coffee shops have so widely done, that identity is continually kept in place by those choosing to go there.

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