Proper Café Etiquette for the Modern World

Sign from a Nice, France cafe that says "Un Cafe, 7 euro", "Un cafe, s'il vous plait, 4.25," and "Bonjour, un cafe s'il vous plait 1.40"
From a café in Nice, where it pays to be nice.

The world is changing, sometimes so quickly, we are not clear what the proper way to act is. Oftentimes, the lessons we have learned from our parents do not serve us in the situations we find ourselves. One of these areas is in the proper way to interact with people in our “third place,” the café we like to spend time in.

Although not always clear, many of the good manners we have been taught from an early age will serve us in dealing with the staff and customers of our favorite coffee shops. Thinking of the feelings of others, being kind, and trying to make the world a better place are always a good idea whenever we come in contact with our fellow humans.

Etiquette and Politeness

Etiquette is a word that the English language has borrowed from the French. Its original form signified a list of ceremonial observances “at court.” Over time, it eventually morphed into the English word “ticket.” In its current usage, a good definition of etiquette is “the accepted rules of polite behavior in dealing with others.”

Obviously, polite behavior can be seen to be situational. Shouting during an orchestra concert is generally frowned upon but it is quite acceptable (and possibly even expected) at a football game. In the same way, there are certain acceptable ways to behave in a café or coffee shop that are different than those found in a bar or tavern. Both types of establishments are meant for the public consumption of beverages and social interaction. However, we relate to one another in different ways while patronizing them.

Being polite is so rare these days that it is often confused with flirting
Your barista is probably not flirting with you

Café Politeness in History

The roots of these “differences in manners” can be found in the English coffee houses of the seventeenth century. Unlike the alehouses of the 1600s, which were rowdy, bawdy, and somewhat low-brow, coffee houses brought together people of diverse social strata. It is quite possible that a sailor could have sat with both an earl and a college professor, politely discussing a far-off land, news of the day, or the latest mathematical discovery. The informal “rules” of the coffee houses discouraged swearing, quarreling, and gambling, which helped the coffee houses earn the nickname “Penny Universities.” For the cost of a cup of coffee (which was a penny), one could be exposed to higher learning. The fact that they were partaking of our favorite stimulating caffeinated beverage and staying sober probably helped keep things civil.

So, if we want to be polite, courteous, civil, or just nice, we should endeavor to have and show good manners. As we learned in the movie Blast From the Past, good manners are how we show others that we respect them. It also makes for a more harmonious atmosphere in public spaces.

That being said, I thought it might be useful to codify what I consider to be some of the better ideas for interacting with other human beings in a café environment. I am willing to accept that I may have missed some and I am counting on you, dear reader, to add any others in the comments. So, without further ado, I bring you

Tim’s Rules of Coffee Shop Etiquette

Be aware of the environment of the café

The most important person in the world to you is you. I get that. However, do not be so self-absorbed that you forget that everybody else in the coffee shop also feels the same way. Each of your fellow customers has their own life, and those lives do not revolve around you getting your caffeine fix. They are having their own caffeine issues. And possible pastry.

Be Friendly and Polite to the Others

NEWS FLASH: The workers in the café are also people just like you! Be respectful to them. Remember, they are the only method available for you to get your coffee. The baristas behind the bar work long hours and have intense periods where the orders are coming fast and furious, so be sensitive to their situation. Feel free to ask questions about drinks you don’t understand and the qualities of the coffees available for purchase. Experts – and they usually they are experts – love to teach others what they know. Unless it’s busy – if this is the case, then keep your time spent with them brief. There are others (who also happen to be humans) waiting to place their orders, too. Try not to inconvenience them in the same way that you would not like to be inconvenienced.

As for the wait staff, they also work long hours, often for modest wages. They are responsible for cleaning up after sometimes messy customers and keeping the wheels of the operation in motion. Remember, they choose to serve you but they are not servants. Be kind to them.

As for the other folks waiting to place their orders, SURPRISE! They are people, too! They have their own desires (coffee), their own agendas, (getting their order submitted and getting on with their lives), and their own inner monologues (Why is this guy/gal taking so long to make his/her order?). Just as you might view the person in front of you in the line, they see you only as an obstacle to their achievement of caffeination. Cut them a break and be nice to them, too.

Politeness While Ordering

Speak clearly, both when ordering and when giving your name. After you have made your order and have paid the cashier, stand off to the side. Wait patiently for your order to be served to you.

I can’t believe I have to type this: Do not put your dog on the counter! No matter how cute your little Yorkie or chihuahua is, no matter how much emotional support it gives you, it does not belong on the counter of an establishment that serves food to the public. To recap, dog in the shop: fine, subject to café rules. Dog on the counter, NOT fine. And possibly the violation of multiple health codes.

Tip the staff once in a while, especially if you are a regular. They don’t get paid a ton and will truly appreciate it. Are you really going to miss that change in your pocket? That dollar probably means a great deal more to them than it does to you.

Picking Up Politely

Don’t crowd the counter… Leave room for other customers to step up and get to their drinks.

Remember, sometimes orders are not completed in the same sequence they were made. Did you order something complex? Did you order several beverages at the same time? Are several baristas working on multiple orders? Just chill out… yours will come out to you soon.

Make sure you pick up YOUR order and not someone else’s. You don’t want it and someone else does. Remember, orders come out in a semi-random fashion. Also, as an aside, nobody but you cares if they misspelled your name on the cup.

Politeness While Dining In

Keep it neat. If you spill something, grab a couple of napkins and wipe it up. If there is a public trash can, take that as a signal for you to bus your own table. Leave your table and the area you have been sitting cleaner than it was when you sat down. And don’t pour liquids into the trash. Nothing makes a bigger mess than a plastic trash bag with a small hole in the bottom and a half drunk, half-caff latte that someone poured into it.

On the subject of phone use, for the most part, do not be on the phone when you are ordering. The exception would be if you are getting someone else’s order… wait, do you know what? No. Get that straightened out beforehand. Let the person behind you go first so you can get your act together and give your undivided attention to the placement of your order.

When sitting in the café, keep your phone use to a minimum. There is scientific research that shows how overhearing only half of a conversation is annoying way out of proportion to the annoyance of hearing an entire conversation. Keep your call short and quiet or take it outside.

Politeness At the Drive-Through Window

If you are using the drive-thru window, it is very important to be ready when it is your turn to order. “May I help you” is not your cue to start asking what everyone wants. Prepare your order in advance so you can give it, pull forward, and keep the line moving.

Speak slowly and clearly. Those microphones have limitations and with all the engine noise communication can be tricky.

If you want something special or something that is not listed on the menu, park your car and go inside to order. It is to everyone’s benefit to do so. That way you can explain precisely what you desire, you will get exactly what you want, and you will not hold up the line at all.

If you need more than 4 drinks to complete your order, it is better to park your car and go inside. Larger orders really slow down the car lanes and then everyone behind you is mad at the person working at the window. That’s not really fair, is it? By the same token, remember that if the line at the drive-thru is slow, it’s probably not the fault of the person working the window, so don’t take it out on them.

Be ready to pay. It should be no surprise to you that you are going to have to either give cash or a card when you reach the window. Don’t start digging in your pocket or, God forbid, rooting around in your ashtray for change when the cashier holds their hand out for payment.

Camping Out Politely

Remember, your coffee shop or café of choice is a business. In order to continue to provide you a place to work on your screenplay, they have to make a profit every single day. When you squat at a table, you are taking up space that should be generating revenue. This affects the overall profit equation of the café.

With that in mind, order something every hour or so. As long as you are keeping an income trickle flowing, you are generating revenue. If this is the case, the shop owner, manager, and staff are probably not going to mind you and your laptop spending some quality time in the dining area.

Be sure to tip the staff a couple of bucks, especially if you are going to make a habit out of monopolizing a table. You would be surprised at how a few dollars in the tip jar can buy you a disproportionate amount of goodwill. It might even turn you into a VIP.

Use the smallest table that meets your needs. In a busy café, spreading across a four-top might mean there is no place for a paying customer to sit. With that in mind, be willing to share your table with someone if space runs short. If you notice the café getting full, be sure to make the offer to some poor soul searching for a port in the storm. You might even make a friend.

Electronics, the Polite Way

Come with your devices charged. Laptops, tablets, and mobile phones use batteries. Make certain that they are at full power when you leave home. If you did not plan ahead or are hanging out for a long time, select your camping area carefully to be certain that your charging cables do not create a tripping hazard or traffic problem. Do you want to be seen as a hero? Bring a multi-outlet power strip or multi-port USB hub to share with your less prepared fellow squatters.

Do not hog the WIFI. There is only so much bandwidth to go around and the older units often found in public spaces are even more limited. That means no streaming or downloading.

Be aware of the other people seated around you if you are watching something on a screen. Are there kids nearby? Can they see what you are viewing? Is it appropriate if they should happen to see? If you are thinking “that’s not my problem… their parents should be policing them,” then I would like to remind you that you are not the only person in the world, and you are not in the privacy of your own home. Keep it clean and make sure there are no incriminating reflections in the windows. NOTE: Under no circumstances is pornography okay in a coffee shop (unless you are actually shooting a porn movie in the café after hours).

Miscellaneous Camping Politeness

Do you want to have a meeting? Ask someone in charge if and when it would be okay. Meetings can be loud and take up a disproportionate number of seats for a disproportionate amount of time. Remember, the café is a business that has to make money if it is going to stay open. If it cannot stay open, you are out one café.

It is acceptable to ask another patron to watch your stuff so that you can take a quick bathroom break. By the same token, be prepared to offer the same service to one of your fellow campers.


Being polite is little more than taking other people’s feelings, needs, and desires into account before you act. This does require you to go through life with some modicum of self-awareness. It requires a little more effort than just doing or saying the first thing that pops into your head. But boy, does it make EVERYONE’S day a little nicer.

I like sharing information like this about coffee. If you do, too, join us in our Procaffeination Facebook Group. Along with a few hilarious coffee memes, you can see what’s going on in the world of coffee. Please sign up for the email list (No spam… promise) and you will be among the first to find out when the book is ready (and you’ll probably get a discount, too).


I am Tim Bruno, a former Kona coffee farmer promoting the soon to be released Procaffeination: A Coffee Lover’s Dictionary and several other coffee-related products. I will soon be adding a YouTube channel to my efforts. Stay tuned!

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