Am I calling up a lazy stereotype when I say that Britain’s a nation of tea drinkers? I know: This isn’t the most important question you’ll face today, but stay with me. I’ll make it worth your time (she said rashly).
A while back, someone read part of an as yet unposted blog entry I’d written about tea and told me I was indulging in stereotypes. She mentioned beer (people do drink a lot of beer here; I’ll give her that), and Starbucks, and the country’s changing habits. She urged me to go deeper into the culture. She didn’t mention Starbucks’ untaxed profits, and I admit they’re not what everyone’s mind would race to in this context, but if you want to go deeper into the culture, they’re sitting there like the Titanic’s iceberg and I can’t type the company’s name without mentioning them. And don’t even get me started on Amazon.
She signed off by saying her husband had just made her a cup of tea, which either means she has a sense of humor (she hadn’t noticed mine, so I did wonder) or undercuts her argument, or possibly both. Either way, she left me thinking about stereotypes. Because they’re hard to resist if you’re trying to be funny—and the longer I work on this blog, the better I understand how deeply trying and funny dislike each other.
But I don’t want to stereotype stereotypes. They’re not all the same. Off the top of my head I can break them into two categories. And as soon as you say something like that, someone else comes along and breaks them into seven categories, and someone else comes up with forty-three. Settle down, everyone. It’s not a competition. All we need for this discussion are the harmful kind and the harmless kind. Think of them the way you’d think of spiders, or snakes: Some of them are venomous and some of them aren’t. Remember at the start of the Iraq War, when the French said, Guys, I don’t think this is an entirely good idea, and suddenly the geniuses who (as it turns out) helped destabilize the Middle East were calling them cheese-eating surrender monkeys? That’s not only a very weird stereotype, implying, among other things, that Americans think there’s something suspect about eating cheese, but it’s ugly. (I know, it started ironically, on The Simpsons, but by the time I’m talking about it had cut its ironic moorings and was loose in the world, untethered.) It’s not the most harmful stereotype I ever heard, but it’s surely one of the stranger ones in its category.
Now compare that to the claim that Britain’s a nation of tea drinkers. They’re different, aren’t they?
Is Britain a nation of tea drinkers? We have two cafes in our village, and both have invested in coffee machines. You know the kind. Huge silvery things. You stand behind them and you might as well be piloting a spaceship.
“Potential customer on the road, Captain.”
“Deploy the tractor beam, Lieutenant.”
So customers are tractored in, and they’re grateful. They order lattes and americanos and mocha half-decaf double skim vaguely Italian-sounding whatsaccinos, and they sit at tables in (if they’re lucky) the sun and sip them. But what they’re sipping are indulgences—the kind of thing people will invest in and think, I really needed this, or, Isn’t this nice, sitting here with a coffee? because it’s something special. Follow them home, though, and most of them will drink tea. If they have coffee in the house, it’ll be instant. How do I know? By what people offer me in their homes. By what they choose when they’re in mine.
But forget the cafes. Go to a village event—the kind the village has been holding since caffeine first came to these shores, raising money for the hospices, or the air ambulance, or the church—and you’ll have a choice of tea or coffee. And the coffee will be instant. Because that’s how it’s always been done and that’s how it’s still done. Any place has a tea pot. Any place can boil water. Not every place has a coffee pot.
What happens in the U.S.? Park yourself at the counter of any greasy spoon in the country and ask for coffee. The waitron will turn, grab a pot from a coffeemaker and pour. It’s already made, it’s waiting for you, and most of the time it’s no older than you are, so it’ll taste—well, it’ll taste like coffee. Whether that’s good is a matter of opinion. But it doesn’t matter. They go through enough of it to keep a pot on hand.
Two pots, actually: regular with a black (or is that brown?) handle and decaf with an orange one.
Ask for tea, though, and the waitron will have to check with the boss, because it’s been six years since anyone ordered a cup. I worked in a place like that. The boss probably kept a box of teabags stashed somewhere, but I never had a reason to ask about it.
That’s what life’s like in a nation of coffee drinkers.
But I hate being called superficial, so let’s consider countervailing trends: Before I left the U.S., I’d begun to worry about the younger generation’s moral fiber, because so many of them were getting their caffeine from soft drinks and energy drinks and cold bottled coffees or (yes, I admit it) teas with vacation-sounding names and enough sugar to fill a bathtub, condensed somehow into a fist-sized drink. This struck me as childish—self-indulgent, even. Adulthood involves learning to drink things that don’t taste good, and then learning to like them, and teaching other people to like them, and judging people on the basis of whether they like them. Weren’t these kids ever going to grow up? And more to the point, when it came time to give them house-warming presents, was I ever going to be able to give them coffee mugs?
I should probably pause here and say that I’d stopped drinking coffee by the time I passed this judgment on an entire generation, but I didn’t get my caffeine from cold, sugary drinks, so it was different. And I had once been a coffee drinker, so whatever I did after that was okay, because I’d survived the initiation.
I never claimed that this made sense. What I’m trying to do is make a point, which is, defensively, that I’m capable of going deeper into a culture. And still exaggerating. Which is the essence of stereotype. And the essence of humor. Or, yeah, I’m exaggerating again. It’s the essence of some humor.
If you go deep enough into any culture, you’ll find something to laugh at. Without dismissing it or being ugly.