Learning the rules: how we learn about coffee and conformity.

At the table next to me, there is a young mother sat drinking her coffee. Her daughter, probably about three years old, is sat with her colouring book and her ‘babychino‘. The babychino is something of a new phenomenon to me: it’s a coffee without the coffee or, as we like to call it, a frothy milk.

Coffee drinking, like smoking or eating out, is a combination of taste and etiquette, which come together as ‘experience‘. The addiction is not just with the caffeine, nicotine or caviar, it’s with the experience of comfy chairs, coffee grinders, rollups and napkins.

The babychino is a learning experience: it teaches a child how to drink coffee, and how we ‘experience‘ coffee. It contains all the experiential elements of the cappuccino, but without the kick at the end. It teaches us to be conformist coffee drinkers.

This approach to learning is common, to reduce the activity to individual experiences, to roleplay and practice these elements, to learn through feedback what is acceptable, what is ‘normal‘, to learn what we need to do to conform and fit in. Whether we are learning to operate a nuclear power plant or to eat out in a nice restaurant, we need to understand what ‘correct‘ means and understand the range of behaviours that fit into ‘normal‘.

Our actions are heavily guided by feedback from our environment. Using a phone loudly in the coffee shop will be frowned upon as it disturbs the atmosphere and disrupts the experience for everyone else. Sure, not everyone agrees with this, and some people do it anyway, but not everyone chooses to conform (or sometimes they simply don’t know the ‘rules‘).

Any kind of interpersonal skills are developed through childhood and beyond through trial and error. From our earliest friendships and encounters we start to learn about love and rivalry, about arguments and reconciliation, about trust and respect. Our childhood experiences feed and shape what we become and, whilst it’s possible to modify and adapt our behaviours, they provide a strong foundation for our adult lives.

So the babychino is both a drink and a learning experience. It’s like a child playing with a wooden cooker and pan set, or indeed a wooden gun. They are analogies for the real thing, safe ways of exploring behaviours and relationships and of forming templates for future action.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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