Working Together Apart
I write this at a table in the corner of Te House of Tea. My friend Joan sits across from me. We have our laptops open. Joan has headphones in her ears. We type. I can’t see what she writes; she can’t see my screen, either.
This feels normal. But when I described it recently to my father, it sounded bizarre:
“I’m meeting a friend at a café this afternoon to work.”
“Someone at FrogDog?”
“No. She and I don’t collaborate. We work at the same time.”
“We do catch up a bit when we first get there. And on breaks.”
“But yes, Dad. Mainly, we work. Separately. Together.”
Civilization may always have had a café culture. Socrates and his interlocutors likely debated in the closest agora. Between the two world wars and after, Paris cafés bristled with impassioned artists, writers, and philosophers.
When the café ethos moved to the United States in full force in the mid-1990s through the Starbucks expansion, it energized me. Finally, for a country built on the car and with so few public meeting spaces, we had rediscovered the joy of community. I love sitting in cafés, reading, talking with friends and business contacts.
But the phenomenon of meeting in cafes to work seems a little newer. The artists, writers, and philosophers of the Paris café culture’s heyday escaped to ateliers to do their actual work.
I look around the coffee shops in which I meet friends to work and at least a couple other tables have two or three people typing away, quietly industrious, the detritus of drinks and snacks littering the table, together but apart. Could they work together somewhere else? Probably. Libraries would accommodate them. So would many of the coworking-style work spaces popping up around many urban areas. They could bring their own food and drink.
Yet they meet in cafés.
At home and at my office, I have perfectly good work spaces. At certain times and for certain purposes, these more formal offices provide the only real places to accomplish tasks. But at other times, particularly when writing, I’d rather meet in a cozy public spot to share a little camaraderie, chat a bit during breaks, have a drink and a snack, enjoy a friend’s company while I get things done—and have her hold me accountable when I don’t.
To what can we ascribe this café culture shift?