Stereotypes. You’ve heard of them, and probably taken part in using them. Usually a popular belief about one specific group of individuals,it’s no surprise using stereotypes to define others can be somewhat misleading. What is even more interesting, however, is the same principle seems to hold true when identifying ourselves and where we ‘belong’ – in social settings, at school, work – and in coffee shops.

It only takes a few minutes after walking through the door of an aroma-filled building to scan the customers and recognize the “rules” of a specific coffee shop — who sits where and how one should act in the given environment. Nearly all coffee shops are the same, collecting patrons from all walks of life while overlaying invisible seating charts to designate where a person should sit.

Most visitors can be grouped in one of the following categories: 

1. Businessman/Businesswoman: Professionally dressed, confident posture and an uncanny fixation on the computer screen in front of them. Usually order the largest coffee and consume in one sitting, only pausing to take a quick (and noticably important) phone call. Watching sometimes gives me the urge to instate a “don’t drink coffee and type” rule, as I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen unnoticed coffee dribbling down the chins of these folks and onto their shirts. Without saying a word, it’s evident others in the establishment understand their message: “I came here to work, so please don’t bother me.”
Location: Sits around the perimeter of the room, hoping for less noise in case needed for an important phone call.  

2. College Student: It’s common for these individuals to sport sweatpants, glasses and half-brushed hair. Books with titles I cannot yet pronounce cover every inch of their table, except for the small space being occupied by a silver laptop and flashy iPhone.   A calm and relatable air to them, the college student nonchalantly orders the largest drink on the menu. He/she has open more than five web browser tabs at one time, alternating between social media sites and email to try to forget about the blank Word document lingering in the background; a reminder of an unfinished assignment.
Location: Near an electrical oulet, close to the front counter in preparation for a quick coffee refill.

3. Parent: Usually a mother, the parent enters the place with children attached, as if desperately looking for a break from reality (not to mention a fix of caffeine!). Food and drinks are ordered for the kids and the stay isn’t long thanks to the screaming toddler leaving a trail of crumbs, even on their way out.
Location: Far away from anyone in the place without kids, hoping for less interuption and feelings of guilt.

4. The Others: A ‘catchall’ for those not fitting nice and neat into the categories above, among them: couples, girlfriends of varying ages and ranging from teenager to adulthood, middle-aged women reading alone with a cup of tea and the weird woman in the middle of it all, writing in a small pink notebook (that’s me!).
Location: Varies

I find it interesting that no matter the location of a coffee shop, they all have a similar theme – a common place, collecting people who enjoy coffee and others who don’t. Either way, there’s no dress code, no prerequisites, no judgement. And yet, stereotypes and unsaid cliques still exist.

In The Book of Awakening, Mark Nepo shares an experience a friend of his had while cleaning a fish tank and found it resembled something we often see in our society among humans.

“[He] put the fish in the tub, so he could clean their tank. After he’d scrubbed the film from the small walls of their make-believe deep, he went to retrieve them. He was astonished to find that, though they had the entire tub to swim in, they were huddled in a small area the size of their tank. There was nothing containing them, nothing holding them back….I began to see just how much we were taught as children to fear life outside the tank.”

I recently overheard someone say “find yourself in everyone you meet.” I am, and have been, in every one of the categories above. Yet, I too continue to stay in  the same corner of the coffee shop based on my identity on a given day, sipping coffee among the others in my school of fish.

The next time you walk into a public place, look around. Have the fish gathered? If so, find your fins and join a new school of fish. Because whether in life or as a fish, it’s better to swim than to float.

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