Overthinking: February 2009 Archives


February 6, 2009

Dan Savage addresses the difficult ethical issue of the mutual obligations of the laptop user and the coffee shop in which he works:
Don't want people to sit in your cafe with their laptops? There's a simple solution: don't have WiFi. But if you're going to have WiFi then for fuck's sake have fucking WiFi. And if your WiFi isn't working, if it's down and it's gonna be down all day, you might wanna mention that to people before they wait in line, buy a coffee, leave a tip, sit down, and pull out their computers. Because then each and every one of those computer users is going to walk up to the counter and ask if you have WiFi. It's an asshole move to look at each laptop computer user/customer in turn like they've just asked you if you have herpes. And if it really kills you to sneer out, "Yeah, we have WiFi, but it's down," then put a little sign on the door that says the WiFi's out. Then laptop users won't bother you with their questions, their presence, or their patronage.

UPDATE: And laptop users? Tip based on the amount of time you intend to spend in the cafe, not on the price your beverage; buy your refills; share tables; and always remember that you're not actually in your office.

I occasionally work in coffee shops, so this is a topic I've given some thought to. I think it's pretty clear that there's some implicit obligation for patrons to fork over some money occasionally and not just sit at a table (yes, yes, I realize that there's no contract requiring you to do so, but think about the equilibrium issues here: if nobody ever paid for their drinks you can bet that coffee shops would start forcing you to rent tables.) But this doesn't tell you how much to spend or how to allocate your payments between the coffee shop and the staff.

If the shop is pretty full, I think it's reasonably clear: you're depriving the shop of space that could be used by paying customers so you should be buying a bit more than the average customer. The same logic holds for the staff, since presumably those customers would tip. If the shop is mostly empty, though, the situation seems a little more complicated. You're not costing the shop any money and WiFi is basically free for the shop to offer (the router is cheap and the Internet service is a fixed cost.) That doesn't mean you don't need to fork over any money, since, as I said, there's an implicit obligation, but I have no idea what the right amount is. I usually buy a drink when I come in and then maybe one every hour or two. It's not clear how much to tip the staff either: their work scales with the number of drinks you order, so my instinct is whatever fraction of your food and drinks you usually would tip.

As far as the shop's obligation to you, the flip side of the implicit contract is that they will offer you Wi-Fi ("Wait", I hear you object, "why should you even think they have Wi-Fi, let alone rely on it?" That seems simple: some coffee shops advertise it and even in shops which don't many if not most of the customers are regulars and so know it's provided and often went to the shop explicitly to work.). Obviously, that doesn't mean it needs to work perfectly, but if they know it's hosed they should probably tell you before you've plonked down your money.