September 29, 2009

Why aren't guys shunned for ordering fruity caffeine drinks?

In any bar, if a guy strutted up to the counter and ordered a strawberry daiquiri, the girls would point and laugh from a safe distance while the other guys would surround him and duly begin chanting, "You! Are! Gay! -- You! Are! Gay!" If anything, guys steer toward drinks that are bitter, not sweet, in order to look tough.

If that's true for alcoholic drinks, why doesn't this happen at all when they order caffeinated drinks? Sit down in any Starbucks when it's busy, and it won't even take you half an hour to see the disgusting pattern emerge -- so-called men requesting a caramel macchiato, frappuiccino, passion tea lemonade, or -- worst of all -- a pumpkin spice latte. Like all other forms of pollution, the sound of a man ordering a drink with such a revoltingly cutesy name should be taxed by the government -- preferably by cutting off one of his balls, although on second thought that may not provide a very strong incentive in his case.

Those drinks are incredibly saccharine, and the guys have no excuse since they could just have easily ordered an espresso or black coffee. (And this is just as true for other coffee sellers, not only Starbucks. Look at all of those Dairy Queen blizzard wannabes that Dunkin Donuts peddles.) So, what's the key difference between caffeinated vs. alcoholic drinks, or perhaps between going to a coffee house vs. going to a bar?

We can rule out a lack of time for behaviors to settle in -- maybe at first a guy could've ordered a frappuccino and no one would have known how sugary it was, but "specialty" coffee has been entirely mainstream for 15 years. By now, people know roughly which drinks are sweet and which are bitter.

I also don't buy a costly signaling argument. It's true that the fruity coffee drinks are more expensive than the brewed coffee or espresso, while the fruity alcoholic drinks tend to be cheaper than the stronger ones. So maybe guys are just ordering whatever the most expensive stuff is in order to show off their wealth to female onlookers. But get real -- we're not talking an Aston Martin vs. a Honda Civic. If a guy wanted to look like a big spender in Starbucks, he'd conspicuously ask the barista about their espresso machines for sale, as though he were in the market for a several-hundred-dollar gadget. Or perhaps he'd order $100 worth of their ground coffee.

The other costly signaling argument is that guys are ordering fruity drinks to show how little-in-doubt their manliness is -- "Because I'm so macho, I can broadcast my fondness for 10 year-old girl drinks and no one will question my masculinity." Again, get real. These guys always look like hell, both physically and emotionally. It wouldn't work even if they weren't -- just imagine if James Bond's catch-phrase were altered to "Omigosh... I guess I'll just have an appletini."

And it's not as though the point of going to buy coffee is necessarily to load up on sugar. At Dairy Queen, we excuse guys for ordering sugar-bombs because that's all they sell. Because that's the whole point of going to Dairy Queen, we expect them to order such things. But they sell bitter drinks in coffee houses, and indeed that's probably what our mental prototype of "coffee" is -- not something with java chips, caramel syrup, and whipped cream.

I also don't believe it's due mostly to the lack of comfort that the onlookers would feel in pillorying him in a coffee house during the daytime, whereas they'd feel fine doing so in a loud and rowdy bar at night. Even if they wanted to, would guys try on pink running shoes at Foot Locker, or reach for a case of wine coolers at the supermarket -- let alone buy them?

And if you thought that guys aren't trying to look tough or impress anyone at Starbucks, saving that preening instead for the bar that night, guess again. You can't get them to shut up about the deal they're supposedly closing, the gig that their loser band has, bla bla bla. They also try to look at least somewhat successful (unless they're in IT), or at least show up in athletic gear to signal their fitness. And they often shamelessly flirt with the cute baristas. So clearly the coffee house isn't a world apart from the bar regarding macho posturing.

The only half-baked guess I have is linguistic -- there aren't any coffee names that sound badass. "Scotch," "gin and tonic," "whiskey" -- those all have a hard sound to them. But the only coffee drinks without sucrose are espresso and cappuccino -- and let's be honest, those names do sound just as la-la as macchiato and latte. Back when you could place your order for a "black coffee," that might have worked because black is inherently tough. "House blend" or "Pike Place Roast" just doesn't have the same no-frills ring of "black." Would a "Scotch, neat" have the same appeal if it were called a "Blissionata, pure"?

To test this idea, you'd look across languages and see whether men order the more bitter types of coffee where people have a more manly sounding name for them. For example, even if you don't speak Spanish, you can tell that a "cortado" sounds more macho than a "cappuccino." (And the connotation is tougher too -- it refers to espresso that's "cut" with a little milk.)

Perhaps coffee houses should invent mixed bitter tasting drinks and brand them with harder sounding names. It's good that they already call them "shots" of espresso, but that won't do for larger serving sizes. (Ordering 10 shots would make people think you were crazy, not strong.) I was going to suggest something subtle like "Thor's Hammer," but I see that's already been claimed by the alcoholics. However, this problem would work itself out during the competition between coffee houses: those who couldn't think of an appealing name would find their sales undercut by those who could. The winning names would have proven themselves.


  1. let the masculinity coffee wars begin

  2. "Back when you could place your order for a "black coffee," that might have worked because black is inherently tough."

    I had a business meeting in a coffee shop a week ago where I simply ordered "coffee" and the barista knew what to do. And yes, the guy I met with ordered some weird sugary concoction only tangentially related to coffee.

    If anyone asks I tell them I like my coffee like myself...dark and bitter.

  3. I think there's an obvious signaling explanation that you've missed:

    Many (most?) guys in bars are there to meet girls, among other things. Guys in coffee shops are mostly there for caffeine, not to pick up girls (or at least they realize it's easier to pick up girls who are under the influence of alcohol as opposed to caffeine). Also, men tend to be in bars with groups of friends, but go to coffee shops in smaller numbers, typically alone. And I bet most get their beverages "to go" at coffee shops - what do they care about the people receiving the signal if they're about to leave anyway?

    Signaling masculinity only matters when you care about the audience receiving the signal. Men care about how girls and their friends perceive them at a bar, but don't care about a bunch of strangers in a coffee shop that they'll never see again.

    One more bonus explanation: perhaps masculine men who prefer black coffee or espresso tend not to visit shops with sugary and overpriced coffee drinks like Starbucks. So maybe the sample of men found in Starbucks and the sample of men found in an Irish pub represent men with truly different levels of masculinity.

    I think both explanations probably play a part to some extent in what you observe.

    (sorry if this comment was submitted several times... hard to tell if they are getting through)

  4. But think again about Foot Locker, the supermarket, or a liquor store. Guys don't go there to meet girls, and they're generally in-and-out. So they're perfectly free to try on pink running shoes or pick up some wine coolers.

    And yet they never do, just as if they were in a bar surrounded by girls they wanted to talk to. So the different social environments can't be it -- at least not those differences.

    The selection bias could work, but I still doubt it. The bitter drinkers have to go somewhere, and all of the coffee sellers have both bitter and lots of sweet drinks. If it were a self-segregation thing, we should see one group of coffee sellers who catered to bitter drinkers and another who catered to sweet drinkers. It would be steak houses and seafood houses vs. places that served mostly pasta, bread, and salad.

    But we don't see that -- they all offer black coffee, espresso, cappuccino, and a variety of sweetened drinks. If there's a major coffee seller where the majority of male customers buy almost only the stronger drinks, it is a well kept secret.

  5. "So they're perfectly free to try on pink running shoes or pick up some wine coolers."

    This misses my point. Guys who would buy pink running shoes would then have to use them for months or years, presumably in public, and perhaps with friends. The signal lasts much longer than in the store. Alcohol is usually bought to be consumed later in a social setting, so again, most of the signaling occurs outside of the store. Contrast those examples to someone making a quick stop for a coffee drink to be consumed immediately.

    As for the selection bias, you may be right that bitter coffee drinkers still go to coffee shops that sell sugary drinks. However, I certainly think you find many people in coffee shops that you wouldn't find out in the bars drinking whiskey. More bookworms, in my experience. Certainly the patrons of both bars and coffee shops overlap to a significant extent, but not completely, I think. And perhaps that contributes. I actually think my signaling argument contributes more to your observations than this.

  6. I still don't buy the signaling idea. A guy drops into a liquor store or supermarket. He may be in-and-out and consume the alcohol later -- but will it be in front of a large social gathering with girls he wants to impress?

    If not -- say, if he's drinking mostly alone or with a few people who he doesn't have to impress -- then he is free to pick up wine coolers.

    I grant that the pink sneaker argument doesn't work, though, since as you say everyone would see that, and it couldn't be private. But alcohol consumption sure could be.

    Maybe the self-selection argument is simpler -- guys who want to show their masculinity rarely bother drinking coffee. It's hard to show how much of a man you are by drinking strong coffee, since it's not that hard. You would choose something that really took toughness, like strong booze.

    So that would explain why we see more sweet drinkers in coffee houses than in bars -- but still, why don't people look upon them the way they'd look upon the same person ordering a strawberry daiquiri? That's the central question. There is little social shaming.

  7. OK, one more thought on this...

    People start drinking coffee at many different ages: some start in high school, others in college, others even further in adulthood (or never at all).

    Many people, including guys, don't naturally like the taste of beer when they first try it; it takes getting used to for a new drinker. Most Americans who ever drink, usually start before or at age 21, at least in my observations.

    But as mentioned above, people start drinking coffee at many different ages for different reasons. And like with beer, maybe many people do not immediately like the taste of black coffee. Perhaps the men you observe purchasing sugary coffee drinks are relatively new to coffee. And because they are not worried about signaling for reasons I gave earlier, they don't mind warming up to it via sugary coffee drinks (whereas a college freshman who has never drank alcohol before might feel pressure to just drink the beer, having limited options and trying to signal in social settings). I'm not sure that a taste for beer naturally translates to a taste for coffee for new coffee drinkers.

    Anyway, I think there are likely a few factors to this. Hopefully some of my ideas have been helpful.

  8. OK, one more (I just saw your response)...

    "He may be in-and-out and consume the alcohol later -- but will it be in front of a large social gathering with girls he wants to impress?"

    Doesn't have to be with girls he wants to impress. Could be with guys. You don't want to signal to your guy friends that you like wine coolers.

    And alcohol is certainly consumed socially in most cases. Alcoholics drink by themselves. The rest of alcohol consumers drink with others.

    As for why people don't look down upon sweet coffee drinkers, it's probably because you don't often know what coffee other people are drinking (unless you are really paying attention, like in your example). It's only occasionally a social beverage. And people tend to leave strangers alone. Not much opportunity for negative feedback to encourage a change in behavior.

  9. The desirable signal this sends is that when the guy needs a sugary, caffeinated drink he buys an expensive fancy coffee-based one that requires going to a special coffee bar, not soda pop out of a vending machine. That signals that you have money, leisure time, and think you're better than white trash who drink those "unhealthy" sodas.

    Maybe black coffee wouldn't send a desirable signal around SWPLs, either - black coffee is something the wrong kind of white people might drink out of a thermos at their construction job, after all.

  10. I just wanted to point out that as of yet, I know of absolutely no stigma that correlates to a male ordering a sweet coffee. Unlike the Fruity or sweet alcoholic beverages which are publicly agreed upon to have a "girlish" stigma, Fruity/sweet coffee drinks have not yet been labeled as "feminine." A sweet coffee is seen very much the same as ordering an ice cream, no one is going to bat an eye if the person decides to get their ice cream cone dipped in chocolate.

    These specialty coffees, unlike the color pink and wine coolers, are not seen as gender specific as of yet. They are as about as neutral as ice cream.

  11. If there's a major coffee seller where the majority of male customers buy almost only the stronger drinks, it is a well kept secret.

    Dunkin' Donuts.


  12. Most masculine men drinking black coffee don't bother with coffee shops and instead use instant coffee (and sometimes a thermos) or they brew their own.

    Also, apart from corporate types, what sort of masculine man is going to be found in a coffee shop. That shit is for pretentious art house fags.

    Just my 2 cents.

    - Breeze

  13. agreed on the demographics differences and the risk of discovery differences. At a bar, it's usually pretty obvious what a person is having from a distance (drink colors, glass shape) but in starbucks sleeve covers up the syrup, milk, custom, and drink boxes on the cup, leaving only decaf and shots available. So you can't really tell what they're drinking until starting a conversation, and by then you've already judged their manliness.

    There's a pretty good correlation between manliness of drink and drink name, but it's definitely not 1. sidecar and white lady, are about equally manly drinks, but one has a manly name. smirnoff and smirnoff ice are about equally manly names, but one's a manly drink and the other is not. could it be that the manliness in coffee drink names suffers from small sample size? 5/7 manly drinks (black coffee, iced coffee, long black, red eye, black eye) have manly names, and 2/7 don't (espresso, americano). you're relatively limited on the ways you can mix coffee, espresso, and water for manly drinks, but there are many more different alcoholic drinks.

    perhaps these guys mentally compare drinking frappes with coca-cola and think it's gender neutral. I don't think most guys consider the sugar content in drinks as much as I(we) do. the carbs in beer, and the sugar in scotch & soda, rum & coke, gin & tonic, etc have not kept them from being manly drinks.

  14. RhodeIslandBlue10/2/09, 3:38 AM

    This is a perfect example of why simplistic anti-psychology darwinistic explanations for human behavior can't account for actual human behavior.

    People can, through social isolation or subculture immersion or a number of other mechanisms, come to prefer the taste of sweet drinks and not give a damn about the opinion of the kind of person that would call another gay as an insult in a public place.

    Is your anti-psychology belief in any way tied to your constant heterosexist and homophobic insults? I don't see any rational or moral basis for such a behavior. Perhaps you are just a sad victim of your culture.

    You should write a post sometime explaining your justification for this absurd level of sophomoric masculanism and the need to throw anti-gay sentiment in everyone's face.

    I'm sure it would be illuminating.

  15. Yawn. Stop talking like such a fag.

    Words like "heterosexist" belong in a comp lit seminar in 1992 -- get with the times. And here I thought your kind was supposed to be on top of fashion...

  16. OK, let's say that everyone else in the coffee house is ignorant of how much sugar there is in a java chip frappuccino with caramel and 10 pumps of hazelnut syrup. Maybe there is no one else there at all.

    But the barista knows that, and they are typically young girls who aren't that bad looking. Guys usually try to look somewhat manly when there's a young cute girl serving them.

    So imagine we had an empty bar and an empty coffee house, and the bartender and barista are identical twins. A guy goes up to the bar -- and doesn't order a strawberry daiquiri. He gets something stronger. But then he goes up to the barista and orders a frappuccino.

    Social context and lack of information may matter, but it still seems like there's something else deeper going on here.

  17. Sweet hot beverages are traditional in Europe, from cafe lates to cappuccinos, passing thru licor with coffee.
    Until 10 years ago, all Americans knew was horse piss that passed for coffee. And they would all freak out about a caffeine bust that only Americans are able to feel. That is gay.
    You´ve got a long way to go.

  18. Agnostic, I think you're overanalyzing this one.

    It's probably true that guys have slightly less of a sweet tooth on average than girls (especially as adults), and that more manly men, for whatever reason, prefer things that more girly men are more turned off by on average (bitter black coffee, bitter beers, etc.; or you could say brats, pickles, and Bud Light over chocolate bars, cake, and yogurt).

    A lot of drink ordering at places like Starbucks is just for the novelty; half the customers aren't stereotypical regulars with an absurdly overly specific drink in mind before they walk in. I can't say I'd feel differently ordering a Pumpkin Spice Latte versus a straight espresso no matter how hot the barista is. I see your point--she typically does "care" insofar as she's assessing you as a male--but it's just not strong enough of an indicator of anything to warrant much analysis. Lots of effeminate coffee house losers drink straight espresso and black coffee everyday, and lots of alpha males occasionally go to Starbucks or the equivalent and get whatever the fuck sounds tasty.

  19. Another point worth adding: I recall reading about a consumer study, perhaps multiple, that shows that people routinely say they want their coffee to be "bold" and "flavorful" and whatnot, but the vast majority of participants, when taking the taste tests after giving their supposed preferences, respond more favorably to weak, milky, sweet coffee.

    Cigarette smoking might be a good analogy to this too. Most smokers don't smoke menthols (I'd guess just under 2/3 American smokers don't). Yet they're sweet, they go down easier for most people, and personally I like them almost as much as non-menthol (especially when not drinking beer at the same time) despite having no sweet tooth at all. It's got to be half socialization: menthols are considered to be for pussies (as considerably more women smoke them than men; real men go for Marlboro reds), like lattes.

  20. I live in Sydney where people often ask if i take sugar with my coffee, i find this odd and its not something i've come across in my home nation Uk or while travelling to countries around the world.


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