I avoid any coffee shop where I could be recognized by the barista. It’s often not a conscious choice, this avoidance, but slowly, as I feel more and more acknowledged, I’ll stop in that particular shop less and less until I hardly go there at all. I do not want to become a regular. I’ll try and explain.
A few months ago, I was getting coffee at a certain shop around three times a week. Always in the morning before work, some time between 7:30 and 8. There are four coffee places on my short 1.7-mile drive to the church where I work—two of them only do pour-overs (which are not expedient, and at one of the shops, are always too cold), and one has coffee that’s definitely serviceable but maybe not delightful. That left me with one clear favorite: good coffee, nice atmosphere, plus nostalgic memories of studying there in college. But then, I noticed that the morning barista was beginning to recognize me. She would smile and say something like, “Coffee again?” each time I stepped in. My anonymity was shot.
One morning, after she filled my mug with coffee, and I had paid for the privilege of drinking it, she started a conversation. I had been turning to leave, so the moment took me by surprise. She said, “What are you up to today?” I panicked. I felt lost, adrift on the open sea with my lifeboat sinking. Small talk. Oh no. I ran through a thousand possible replies in my head. Do I reveal that I’m a pastor? No, that’s usually uncomfortable for people out of the blue. Do I lie? No, that’s not good. So after a three to five second silence, I stammered back: “Work.”
The conversation took a nose dive from there, to the point where we were eventually talking about, get this, if we like snow or not. She enjoys it, though it makes her commute slippery. I like it until after the new year. Remember, this encounter happened in September; the leaves were hardly changing color. Mercifully, our chat came to a not-so-natural conclusion, and I made haste to my car, coffee in tow.
Now, let no one think I’m trying to throw the barista under the bus. She’s doing her job, and doing it well. A small part of me would like to blame her for beginning our ill-fated conversation after handing over my coffee, upsetting the natural order of things in the process. But the real culprit in this story is me. Because these harmless bits of small talk turn into opportunities for self-criticism. I can’t get them out of my head. For a good ten or twenty minutes afterward, I’m thinking about how I could have handled the back and forth with more grace, or if I appeared too annoyed, or why I was annoyed at all. The self-criticism threatens to teeter over into toxic when I beat myself up for being self-critical in the first place. A bad cycle is birthed.
I do realize how needless all this is—it’s good to be recognized, and small talk is often a precursor to true relationship. Probably the whole situation arises out of my introverted need to be anonymous in times when nothing is expected of me. But that need for anonymity squashes good opportunities for nice conversations or even new friendships.
Yes, there may be days when that anonymity is necessary for my own anxiety and mental health. But I can stretch myself, too. And I can be okay with small talk about the weather. And I can return to that coffee shop soon.
Brad Zwiers (’12) graduated from Calvin College in 2012 and Western Theological Seminary in 2015. He will not be graduating from any more schools. He often stares at books he wishes he could read but knows he will not finish and goes for long walks with his wife, Gwyn. Sometimes he plays basketball and always he follows the greatest sporting club in the world, Liverpool F.C.