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Universality

There’s something about offering another person a cup of coffee that has a universality to it.

No matter what cultural background you come from (in my experience thus far, at least), the gesture of offering a caffeinated beverage transcends gulfs of any size.

I’ve seen violent, physical arguments brought to a halt due to the introduction of tiny ceramic cups of coffee. I’ve seen incommunicative chasms bridged when one person offers another a mug. It’s a gesture that says, “I don’t care who you are, where you come from, what you believe, or where you’re going. What matters right now is our shared humanity. And to honor this connection we have, please let’s enjoy a drink together.”

We may not always think about it this way, but that’s the deeper implication. Whether we’re sharing our coffee, with its stimulants, or alcohol, with its inebriating properties, we’re sharing a universally understood object that acknowledges the things we have in common; even if that list begins and ends with, “We’re both human.”

I like that. I like indulging in that shared bit of humanity whenever possible. Because something else I’ve learned while on the road these past five years is that very few of us actually wish for there to be divisions between cultures and groups. Organizations and governments might, but the people on the ground? Seldom.

With our labels removed, we’re all essentially the same. We have different musical tastes and opinions about the afterlife, and in some cases wildly conflicting views on just about everything. But so what? It’s the people up top, those who are largely safe from the consequences of putting human beings at each others’ throats, who encourage us to care about such frivolities. It’s they who want us to be divided and consequently easier to rule.

The rest of us, though, we’re people who enjoy a shared beverage and other social bridges, whatever form they might take.

We’re people who cherish the moment when, looking into a stranger’s eyes, wondering about their intentions, they show themselves to be a friend through their body language, a warm smile, or a shared cup of coffee.

Update: April 16, 2017

The impact of the distribution of the daily ‘cuppa’ in Kolkata was amazing and sometimes dramatic. Being out and about in the afternoon, you’d see the entirety of the neighborhood stop what they’re doing as children with giant, steaming kettles hauled them around, pouring out tiny ceramic cups full of strong, milky coffee. Arguments ceased, folks stopped walking and started chatting. Even the children, who typically didn’t partake below a certain age, seemed calmed by this.

It makes me wonder if such cultural norms might be shared with other cultures while maintaining some of the original integrity. This custom, I believe, was derived from the British tea culture, so it was already a custom derived from another custom. The consequence of it is what I think would be interesting to bring elsewhere, though; that moment of pause, of social stasis. It’s something you don’t see much in the United States in particular, and I wonder what might bring about something like that here.