7 Rules for Coffee Shop Etiquette

For those of us who work from home, coffee shops offer escape and inspiration. Please, can we keep them that way and not get ourselves banned?

Coffee and laptop in a coffee shop

Treehugger / K Martinko

Coffee shops are glorious destinations for all freelance writers, artists, graphic designers, and other creative types. I know because I’m one of them – a writer who holes up in front of a computer all day long – and there’s nothing quite so wonderful as having a place to go.

Coffee shops are a destination for freelancers of all types. They provide a change in scenery, interaction with other adults (even if it’s minimal), and a luscious caffeine-spiked beverage that you don’t have to prepare yourself. Most importantly, coffee shops have free WiFi, which allows work to continue uninterrupted—sometimes even better, because the change in surroundings can trigger inspiration.

Therein lies the problem, unfortunately.

The Trouble With Working in Coffee Shops

Coffee shop owners are getting fed up with the hordes of MacBook-toting, Americano-sipping freelancers who set up temporary offices at café tables. Owners are fighting back against the oppressive silence that falls over the entire establishment when too many customers are hunched over keyboards, headphones plugged in.

The Guardian calls it “the mausoleum vibe,” citing owner Jack Hesketh of Store Street Espresso in London, where electrical outlets have been blocked and the WiFi limited:

“Ultimately, coffee shops are social environments. We were finding that you’d go into the cafe and it would be 15 people sat at 15 different tables and you could hear a pin drop.”

Other coffee shops have taken similar stances. The Wooden Spoon in Denver has done away with WiFi altogether, creating “opportunity for social interaction.” One New York City Starbucks covered its outlets to discourage “laptop hobos” who stay beyond their normal battery life. A coffee shop in Chicago offers two-hour windows of free WiFi access to people who buy something, while another blocks it completely at peak weekday afternoon hours and all day on weekends.

The Guardian writes:

“Establishments in places including Vermont, Copenhagen and even tech capital San Francisco have imposed similar bans, hoping to make a clear distinction between themselves and the startup-friendly ‘creative hubs’ that loudly tout the speediness of their broadband.”

Is it up to coffee shop owners to determine how a space should be used by its customers? Who knows—that could be debated—but clearly etiquette is lacking if it has created this much resentment. So how can we freelancers make a better impression in order to support these spaces we value so much? We can follow the basic rules.

1. Buy Something Appropriate

Don't buy just anything, buy something nice, depending on how long you plan to stay. If you drink cheap Americanos, then buy one at least every hour. If you invest in a fancy matcha latte or almond milk London fog, then you can probably give it longer. Throw in a muffin, and you’re good for two hours. Whatever you do, don't be that dreaded customer who parks themself for six hours and drinks $1.85 worth of coffee and free cucumber water.

Clean up after yourself and leave a tip. Think of it as a restaurant.

2. Ask if You Can Stay

If it’s a new place, talk to the barista and ask if it’s OK for you to do some work on a laptop. That saves you the awkwardness of ordering and sitting down, only to discover the connection’s not working.

3. Choose the Smallest Table

Sit as far away from the action as possible. Tuck yourself into a corner. Do not occupy any more space than you have to. You get one chair, too. Do not put your stuff on a second chair. Avoid spreading papers all over the place; keep things looking as neat and tidy as possible. Nobody wants to come in and see someone who looks like they live there full-time.

If another person is working, pair up. Share a table. It doesn’t mean you have to talk, but it shows respect for the business.

4. Don’t Meddle With the Outlets

No trip lines running across the floor, no unplugging store lamps in order to charge your devices. That messes with the atmosphere and can really tick off the people who think long and hard about how their space should feel and appear.

5. Keep Quiet, and Be Considerate About the WiFi

Never, ever use sound on your computer. Headphones are a must. Even though the WiFi may be free, use it carefully. Downloading, streaming, gaming, and Skyping (for the most part) are all no-nos. They're distracting and they also use up precious bandwidth. Stick with basic stuff, like word processing and wasting time on Facebook. You know what I’m talking about.

Don’t take calls inside, if you can help out. Go outside. It will feel good. And if you think talking on the phone is no different than having a conversation with someone else in person, it is totally different.

6. Don’t Leave Your Spot for More Than 10 Minutes

Asking someone to watch your belongings while you use the restroom is reasonable. Asking someone to watch your belongings for 30 minutes when they have somewhere else to be is annoying.

7. Don’t Be Afraid to Talk to Others

There’s a reason you didn't go to the library. Engage in conversation, even briefly. Make eye contact and smile.