Butter or cheese? No, thanks

A bagel order caused an argument in a New York Starbucks.

Last Sunday morning, three New York police officers removed a college English professor from a Starbucks after she started a shouting match with the barista who took her order for a bagel. The New York Post reported that the outburst was caused by a dispute over semantics, but I think the actual problem stems from a basic failure of communication.

My theory is that the English professor, predisposed for a conflict, inferred the barista’s original inquiry as a restricted choice limited by some Starbucks policy she was prepared to fight against with proper grammar.

Doesn’t everything come down to effective communication? The customer, who earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University, admitted that she has a history of conflicts with Starbucks for refusing to use its special branding lingo when ordering coffee. The Post article reported, “Instead, she insists on making a pest of herself by ordering a ‘small’ or ‘large’ cup of joe.” So she was probably already hot before she ordered the multigrain bagel.

The quarrel began when customer refused to answer the original question, “Do you want butter or cheese.” But it erupted when the barista said that she wouldn’t take the order unless the teacher indicated whether she wanted “butter, cheese or neither”—a normal kind of question in food service.

My theory is that the English professor, predisposed for a conflict, inferred the barista’s original inquiry as a restricted choice limited by some Starbucks policy she was prepared to fight against with proper grammar.

Doesn’t everything come down to effective communication?

I investigated by recreating the scene at a Starbucks closer to me in the Financial District. After requesting the last bagel under the glass, the barista kindly asked, “Do you want butter or cheese?” I responded, “No, thanks,” gave him a dollar, and he put it in a bag.

His syntax was clear, and we communicated concisely and effectively. Simple courtesy and manners are often more effective than proper linguistics. Surprisingly, the barista wasn’t even aware of the incident at the other Starbucks.

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