the perfidy of the barista

Tim Harford has a piece on Slate reporting on a new study claiming that women are discriminated against by male workers at coffee shops: on average, “Men get their coffee 20 seconds earlier than do women.” And this remains true even when you account for the fact that women tend to order more complicated drinks than men.

Harford comments, “It is not clear whether women were held up by male staff because the men viewed them with contempt or because the male staff members were flirting furiously.” These are the only two possible explanations he, following the authors of the study, considers, which means that he apparently does not imagine any others. But there’s a way of accounting for the discrepancy that, given my extensive experience waiting in lines at coffee shops, strikes me as far more likely than either of the ones mentioned by Harford: men are, on average, considerably more impatient than women.

In the coffee-shop lines that I know, women tend to be more relaxed, less in a hurry, more likely to be with friends and therefore in conversation. They’re more likely to have to be told twice that their drinks are ready.

Men, on the other hand, are more likely to give off every possible signal that they’re in a hurry. They stand closer to the people in line in front of them, they have their payment ready before it’s asked for, they plant themselves as near as possible to the barista and in some cases stare down the poor coffee-craftsperson until their drinks are ready, at which point they snatch up the cups and bolt from the store.

It seems to me that baristas, then, might be responding to these signals by hustling to serve the obviously impatient men, and relaxing a bit when they’re making drinks for women. And it also seems likely that male baristas would be more sensitive to the signals given off by their fellow men, more eager to show them that they share their emphasis on speed.

Maybe I have misobserved; maybe coffee-shop behavior is different in Chicagoland than in the Boston area, where the study was conducted. We can’t know, because the research seems to have paid attention to the behavior only of the employees, not the customers (whose gender alone was considered relevant).

The title of the study is “Ladies First? A Field Study of Discrimination in Coffee Shops.” The assumption that difference always equals discrimination seems in this case to have limited the investigation’s terms unnecessarily, and to exclude certain relevant factors from its view.