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Environmental Psychology and the Coffee Shop

Social Design + Comfort + Community.

Death to Stock
Source: Death to Stock

For years, a certain coffee shop has been my ‘second home.’ I am on friendly terms with virtually every staff member. One of them babysits my kids! I’ve grown to know (or, at the very least, recognize) most patrons who stop by the place at certain times of day. For example, in the morning, there is a group of guys who come in after training for bike races. There are a few runners, early-rising retirees, and folks on their way to work. I also see the afternoon regulars: groups of older ladies chatting about their weekly activities; moms with babies and toddlers stopping in after a trip to the playground. The evening shift usually consists of people doing what I do: studying, writing, thinking, and planning. Some come in alone to read a book or tablet. Others are on what is so clearly a first date.

If you sit in a coffee shop long enough, you acquire a snapshot of its local community. I suppose this can be said of other establishments in the public sphere (a grocery store, a pub, or a gas station). But not quite. In a coffee shop, people seem to be themselves. They speak openly; they cross their legs; they laugh out loud; they stay awhile. I’m not convinced people engage with strangers as easily in other public spots. Are you?

Being around a variety of people doing a variety of activities in a single place is one of the best parts of my day. Many others must feel the same because this experience is why coffee shops are often marketed as a ‘third place’ (a setting outside of the home and beyond the traditional workplace). Indeed, the interpersonal opportunities afforded by coffee shops is part of what makes the business model so popular and successful. Physically, they serve as hubs for communication and congregation – in both verbal and nonverbal terms. They are places to ‘see and be seen’ – an important facet of human nature.

I am not at all the first to point out the importance of coffee shops to society. After all, coffee houses played a significant role in the enlightenment period of 17th century Europe, serving as accessible environments for influential thinkers to gather, debate, and learn from each other. Much more recently, environmental psychologists have thought about what these places mean to people. At the Environmental Design Research Association conference in 2012, I listened to Lubomir Popov, an Associate Professor at Bowling Green State University, present theoretical ideas about place-making in Starbucks stores, in particular. And, a study by Waxman (2006) linked coffee shops with place attachment. Not surprisingly, length of patronage was found to positively correlate with peoples’ sense of attachment to their community.

To me, Robert Sommer’s social design framework explains much of why coffee shops become a third place. Recall that social design encourages congruence between a place and its users’ behavioural needs. For a student or mobile worker, requirements related to concentration and productivity are met by numerous tables of various sizes, seating of various materials, and an unspoken understanding that it is acceptable to stay in the setting at length. Facilitating users’ sense of control over a space is another tenet of social design. The more occupants can alter a space to meet their needs, the more comfortable they will be. Many of us feel free to move tables together to work in a group or turn a big comfy chair toward a window. It is, by design, just fine to do so!

Social design also aims to foster social support in environments. For people using a coffee shop to meet others, especially for the first time, these settings can offer a sense of social safety. And, for those who are often by themselves, coffee shops can provide either a sense of social opportunity or one of anonymity. I know a few individuals who go out for coffee to purposefully strike up conversations with others at the store. Conversely, some like to get out for a coffee because it means that, for a brief portion of their day, no one will talk to them!

So, if you are reading this post in a coffee shop, look around. Ask yourself why you chose the establishment you’re in, or the seat you’ve got. Are you near a window, watching people on the street? Are you working alone, comforted by a lower risk of interruption? Are you waiting for someone you’re set to meet - a blind date, perhaps? Are you hoping that today’s the day you’ll find an excuse to talk to another regular customer? Either way, I’m willing to bet that your behavioural and social needs are being met.

I think such a mix of amenities, hospitality, social opportunity, and comfort is, psychologically, so important. Whether a 'third place' serves coffee or not, it is undoubtedly a wonderful thing to meet, work, create, and dream in public, in one’s community.


Popov, L. & Popova, M. (2012). Starbucks: Making Business by Making a Place. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Environmental Design Research Association, Seattle, WA.

Waxman, L. (2006). The Coffee Shop: Social and Physical factors Influencing Place Attachment. Journal of Interior Design, 31, 35-53.

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