Coffee doesn’t mean what it used to.
It’s no longer just a beverage; it’s the most highly leveraged social interaction model of our time.
The only problem is, we’re getting lazy in our approach. And this is leading to one of the biggest problems of all today: Coffee abuse.
Before you get too excited, let me clarify: I’m not referring to caffeine abuse, or substance abuse at all. But I do believe that we’ve been violating a foundational underpinning of the social construct around coffee itself: The coffee date.
In an era where face-to-face time is harder to come by, coffee catch-ups have become coveted commodities. Play your cards right and the right coffee can launch your career in a million different directions. If you mess it up, well, you’ll be stuck behind the barista counter for years to come. (And you wonder why we obsess so much over our lattes.)
As a professional networker, let’s be clear: I’m no stranger to wanting to meet a new, specific person. In general, I’m fully supportive of the good, old-fashioned hustle it takes to convince someone you don’t yet know to spend 60 minutes of their time with you.
But over the past week, I received five separate invitations from people I only sort of know inviting me to coffee, and something sort of snapped inside.
One recent interaction really rubbed me the wrong way. A new acquaintance didn’t even bother to figure out my email address and instead just went straight for the jugular — LinkedIn InMail. Her message read simply:
“Hi! I would love to get coffee sometime. When works for you?”
When I saw this, my brain flashed with three thoughts at once:
- Whoa! Talk about forward!
- Am I a terrible person if I say no? Damn it, I’ve already let her guilt me into saying yes.
- Hang on — do I even know this person?!
It made me wonder: In what other contexts is it appropriate to approach people that way? On the street, do you walk up to a stranger and ask, “I would love to get dinner sometime. When works for you?” At work, would you approach your manager and say, “So…. I’d love a promotion sometime. When works for you?” Or at home, when trying to give your husband a hint, it’d be super passive aggressive to say: “Hey honey, you know…. I’d love to live in a CLEAN apartment… when works for YOU?”
For some reason, coffee invitations have escaped all of this social stigma. It’s never rude to ask. After all, it’s just coffee. What kind of jerk turns down a coffee invite?
And that’s the trouble with coffee dates, isn’t it? Because as you and I both know, it’s never just one coffee. One coffee is a slippery slope that leads to another… and another… and then all of the sudden, you have this entire rolodex of people that you’re keeping up with just for appearance sake.
I recently had someone tell me that they added me to their quarterly rotation of people to email and invite out for coffee. I’ll be honest, while it’s certainly flattering to hear that conversations with me are helpful, when I heard that, a wave of panic rushed over me.
I have 6,773 contacts in my work email. It doesn’t take a venture capitalist to figure out that this strategy is just never going to scale.
But what are you supposed to say instead?
“Well actually, I’d rather…not..”
Or maybe just: “Unsubscribe”
Even times when I know I shouldn’t be taking that meeting — when I have something more important to attend or a work projects that’s going to suffer as a result — I still can’t seem to say no. There’s a tiny voice in the back of my head that stops me cold every time and judges me: “Uh oh, Bethany…. You better not.”
And that’s when I start to spiral.
“They are going to remember you by this one day, Bethany. To them, you’ll always be the jerk who turned down coffee. And then, years from now, when they make the cover of Forbes 30 Under 30 article — while meanwhile, you’re still holding out for that the 50 under 50 list — the person they’ll reach out to thank for jumpstarting their career won’t be you. It will be that all-star superwoman who DID respond to their cold, LinkedIn InMail and somehow said “yes” when everyone else said no. She’ll say that it’s thanks to that one little coffee that their career launched like a rocket ship, and that she’s paid it forward by offering that coffee date friend a C-level position at her multi-billion dollar company. You’ll never be able to use Twitter again because it will only serve as a constant reminder of the one you disappointed all those years ago. And to think, you could have been there at the beginning. That could have been you. Except that you weren’t. Because you said no. You monster.”
But then I gut check myself.
Wait a minute. Where do people get off thinking this sort of thing is okay? Why am I so over-sensitized to the importance of a coffee date that the idea of missing just one little thing gives me enough FOMO to say yes when I should say no? Who are these tech titans that have somehow managed to turn a meeting at an Intelligentsia or a Blue Bottle or a La Colombe into a potentially life-changing event, where million-dollar deals are transacted and fed into the fabric of our social consciousness for how business gets done these days and…Oh shit.
I AM PART OF THE PROBLEM.
Am *I* the problem!??!
I decided to turn inward to the source of all truth: My inbox.
In the three years that I’ve worked at Union Square Ventures, I’ve received 150,298 emails. I’ve sent 34,498 in return. And 1,294 have been about coffee.
In other words, 4% of all of my outbound email traffic has been related to a caffeinated beverage. (Apparently, yes, this is what VC’s get paid the big bucks to do.)
When I dug a little deeper into the archives, it hit me pretty clearly: I’ve been using coffee as my “catch all” for all “catch ups.” Whenever I’m introduced to someone new, I immediately offer to “grab a coffee” or “meet for coffee” or even ”connect over coffee,” if I’m feeling a little clever. But I also noticed that I use coffee as a scapegoat to get me out of meetings I don’t want to attend. I’ll say things like “Ooohhh…sorry, but I already have a coffee that morning…”
Worst of all, even when I know I shouldn’t take the meeting or can’t or don’t want to, I still can’t just say no. I’ll just dangle “the future promise of coffee” over them. I once suggested to someone that we should “plan on coffee.” “In the weeks ahead.”
And let’s be real…we all know what that means… But we just aren’t saying it:
Or: “…actually, I just can’t right now.”
Or: “Can’t we just do this over email?”
This isn’t easy to admit, but it’s become abundantly clear. The problem… is me.
I say — it’s high time to put an end to our over-abuse of the coffee date.
Together, we can change this dangerous precedent of over-committing ourselves to the world around us. We can say no when we are too busy. We can choose problem-solving via email over coffee banter. And yes, we might even dare to pick up the phone for a quick 15-minute call.
But in the meantime, I’ve heard great things about a new matcha place that just opened in my neighborhood, and I’d love to keep talking about this. When works for you?
Also published on Medium.