Office Coffee: Its Image and Implications

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Are heavy office coffee drinkers more likely to be Type-A, go-getter, impatient, heart attack-prone types? Do espresso drinkers really tend to be moodier? Is that latte in hand a calculated personal display?

Like any other entrenched habit, coffee drinking may be expected to reveal something about personality, character, brain chemistry, culture, attitudes, unconscious forces, health, values or lifestyle.

When it spills over, so to speak, into the office, the coffee habit becomes an office habit, with various implications, associated social/professional images and health correlations.

These are the focus of what follows.

Before that, it should be noted that the stronger the habit (if not the coffee), the likelier its impact on, at and from work. For example, consider caffeine-addicted staff in an office without coffee or at a job with long and late hours that only reinforce the habit.

But beyond such obvious mutual impacts between workplace and coffee, it is worth asking what else we can infer about employees, employers, jobs and workplaces from the (un)importance of coffee to them—including, as shall be explored below, the image coffee drinkers (want to) project..

Coffee Motivations and Correlations

Start with the basic motivation to drink coffee at work (and at home). Like coffee, the motivation is often very strong. No worker is going to spend, on average, $1,000 per year on coffee without some serious motivation to do so (the figure recently reported as the average drinker’s expenditure in a 2011 survey, “Employed Americans at Work”, by Accountants Principals).

Additional evidence of the allure and scope of workplace coffee is not hard to find: According to another 2011 survey on U.S. workers and their coffee habits conducted by Alterra Coffee Roasters (and reported on in this article.)

  • 65 percent of workers drink coffee at work.
  • The average worker consumes three cups of coffee per day.
  • 38 percent of workers say they wouldn’t make it through a typical workday without coffee.
  • 30 percent report drinking coffee in the workplace because it helps them focus and increase productivity.
  • More than one in five office workers admit the quality of their work would suffer if they didn’t have coffee.
  • Two in five office coffee drinkers say they have had interesting or helpful talks with colleagues or bosses while near the coffee maker.

Surely, given that intense feelings about any one thing correlate with other things, e.g., correlations between loving being a recruiter and doing the job well, it is reasonable to imagine that a (dis)taste for coffee correlates with some work-related personal traits, states, feelings, approaches or performance—and perhaps in very subtle ways.

The question is, “Correlate with what?”—and, in particular, correlate with what workplace traits, attitudes, status or lifestyles?

The Pop-Science Coffee-Personality Connection

Consider the “coffee personality”. There are about as many circulating classifications of coffee-drinker personalities and attitudes as there are coffees on a Starbucks menu. Unfortunately, most are about as compelling as the vague, arbitrary, predictively useless and overlapping daily horoscopes written by an overworked young newspaper intern ordered to concoct them. In a questionable attempt to correlate coffee (non-)drinking with work style, ethic, traits and attitudes, some writing about this suggests rather implausibly rigid and/or sloppy categories.

For example, in 2010, the Sydney Morning Herald cited the book The You Code, by Judi James and James Moore, for its coffee-drinker typology: “Espresso drinkers tend to be moody, hard-bitten and hard working. They are into leadership and fast goals. They don’t suffer fools but are hard living and prone to ‘night-time shenanigans’.”  The same article, citing the same book, reports that black-coffee drinkers, on the other hand (or is it the same hand?) “can be quiet andmoody but prone to brief bursts of extroversion.”  (Italics mine.)

That is an example of the kind of overlapping, counter-intuitive characterizations that make it hard to take them seriously, much as Myers-Briggs types and daily horoscopes are.

Offsetting such overly broad and overlapping characterizations of coffee drinkers are the overly and implausibly narrow ones: For example, and another citation of The You Code in the SMH article, “A latte drinking boss will use a baby voice to tell you off.” Really? No, or only rare exceptions?

And does “baby voice” mean soft and sweet cooing or, instead, incomprehensible tantrum-triggered sputtering, screaming and drooling? (To be fair to the book’s authors, the muddle could be merely the result of second-hand summarizing by journalists.)

Donald Trump said in a 2003 Esquire interview, “I’ve never had a glass of alcohol. I won’t even drink a cup of coffee.” So, since he neither drinks latte (or any coffee at all) nor gently fires apprentices, can we conclude that all or mostcoffee-shunning bosses will rant, roar or bellow their displeasure? That would be a very risky conjecture, at best—much as many other coffee personality-speculations seem to be.

Real Science, Personality and Coffee

Even sober, large-scale scientific studies seem flawed in the same way. One such study of 12,467 subjects, titled “Traits of Persons Who Drink Decaffeinated Coffee” (School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley, 2003) concluded, “These data suggest that decaffeinated coffee use is related to illness in some persons but to a healthy lifestyle in others.” Great. The weather forecast for tomorrow is “rain, except where or when none.” This bet-hedging is useful only in making it clear that one thing can correlate with opposite things, making prediction virtually impossible without more research on more variables.

Another study, “Factors Associated with Caffeine Consumption”, conducted at Cardiff University in 2002, offered an even less inspiring inference about the psychology of caffeinated-coffee drinkers: “There is, however, very little evidence to suggest that psychological characteristics such as personality traits or psychosocial factors are important in influencing caffeine consumption.”

As for the impact of coffee and tea on job performance, one 2011 University of South Australia study, “Relationships between Tea and Other Beverage Consumption to Work Performance and Mood”, offered a bad-news conclusion for “caffiends” (caffeine addicts): “…tea and other caffeinated beverages were found to enhance the negative effects of evening recovery and morning mood on mindfulness during the day.”

Given the unreliability and uselessness of unsubstantiated pop-psychology coffee-drinker classifications, the inconclusiveness of large-scale scientific studies and the negative implications of other research, my guess is that my own commonsense speculating on coffee-drinker profiles and correlations may add something positive to the debate or at least not further muddy it.

Of course, my speculations and observations that follow are subject to the personal limitation that I don’t drink coffee, because I discovered years ago that it immediately upsets my stomach (and also because to me it tastes awful without some serious, unhealthful sugaring up).

Coffee and Type-A Personalities

Consider what is perhaps the most obvious conjecture: that heavy coffee-drinking is somehow related to “Type-A” personalities—variously described as competitive, aggressive, clock-chasing, impatient, bad-tempered, ambitious, workaholic go-getters. In terms of popular stereotypes and iconic images of time-pressed young professionals juggling a coffee while racing back to the office or to a high-powered meeting, it would make sense that coffee is their high-octane gasoline.

After all, if you are a Type-A rat-race workaholic constantly setting and battling deadlines and new challenges, working long hours and spending sleep-deprived nights, strong coffee (and lots of it) is likely to be the second most precious fluid in your life—your racing blood being the first, but only as one of Mother Nature’s default settings that you can’t tinker with and sacrifice for work.

In fact, one medical study indirectly suggests a connection between coffee and Type-A behavior:

“Eleven morbid conditions with a prevalence of 1% or more, coffee consumption, heavy alcohol consumption, and Framingham Type-A behaviour pattern were associated with a higher risk of sleep problems.” (“Correlates of Sleep Problems among Men: the Vietnam Era Twin Registry”, J Sleep Res.  1997; 6(1):50-6)

But then there’s The Donald—arguably an archetypal Type-A, but also a coffee abstainer. Perhaps the ultra Type-A personality is too busy to even stop to sip, much less smell the coffee (although in Trump’s case, the aversion is, he has said, related to his distrust of stimulants).

The Visual Impact of Coffee: Images Projected and Perceived

One possible link between coffee drinking and Type-A behavior I can imagine is what I will call the “Yuppie Cup’pa Coffee Syndrome”: a paradoxical professional fusion of work and play, self-discipline and self-indulgence, necessity and luxury, stress and relaxation, and professional elitism and working-stiff egalitarianism.

Visualize an ordinary office coffee break or an Armani-clad broker or power-dressed Prada bag-lady on their way up in a business-tower elevator, each caressing a steaming high-end, $50-per-cup Kopi Luwak grande—the world’s most expensive coffee, reportedly made from Indonesian coffee beans eaten, semi-digested and excreted by the common palm civet, which looks like a wolverine runt.

What’s the visual message?

  • Blend of work and play: Think of the office coffee break. Is it work or play, if the gang talks shop over their coffees? It communicates to the boss and colleagues a very positive dual-message—that even while joking around and laughing on a coffee break, work is still a priority. That’s my guess as to how Type-A personalities allow themselves to have and be seen having a coffee break.

(Note: Providing employees that work-play break can be a smart move:Investing in fresh, good-tasting coffee at the office obviously pays off for employers in the long run—saving employees cash while keeping them closer to tasks at hand. This small investment produces large returns, boosting employee productivity and satisfaction.” (

  • Spartan self-discipline, but with a touch of confident self-indulgence: Clearly if someone is carrying, rather than drinking a coffee, (s)he doesn’t have time to stop and sip, and is therefore probably a diligent, self-disciplined professional or somebody’s client en route to a meeting. Either way, (s)he is very likely to be someone doing something very important or, better yet, is someone important.

That’s an eye-catching blend of extreme psychological opposites—a self-disciplined and self-indulgent professional—that  suggests coffee is to be seen as well as smelled and tasted. The image blend suggests someone like a CEO, who is able, willing and required to work hard and sacrifice for high goals, but who is also free-spirited and independent enough to indulge little whims of the moment. How could you not admire someone like that?

  • Grasp of necessity and taste for luxury: Correlating with being a harried on-the-go Type-A, the image of coffee as a necessity to make it through the day wins respect and sympathy. On the other hand, and especially if a deluxe blend, the same cup of coffee suffuses itself and its bearer with an aura of luxury and elegance,in one more way garnering commiseration and respect for the caffeind, the respect being won in the form of envy and admiration for cultivated and expensive good taste.
  • High stress levels, great stress management skills: Equally visually iconic is the image of a stressed-out professional desperately in need of a cup of warm relief. As a symbol of relief and relaxation, the same cup of coffee subliminally reinforces the impression of the drinker as being responsible enough to accept career and associated job stress, yet smart enough to know how to manage it—by wisely reaching for a coffee as and when needed. That’s bagging a win-win double (latte).
  • Elitism and egalitarianism:  Nothing sounds more regular-guy or gal , ordinary Joe, and equalitarian than a regular “cup of Joe”, as a synonym for a cup of coffee (reportedly and eponymously derived from the name of the U.S. Secretary of the Navy in 1914,  Josephus Daniels, who banned alcohol on Navy ships, forcing sailors to resort to Plan B—coffee—for stimulation and relaxation).

Likewise, the commonplace invitation to have a cup of coffee—offered or accepted—adds a nice common touch, making one seem socially and emotionally accessible. On the other hand, making that coffee a pricey Starbucks brew stakes out and crosses class lines, into penetrated and exclusive elitist territory. Result: you look like a regular, yet classy guy or gal. Nice maneuver.

All Those Coffees and Health

If the psychological, professional and social correlates of coffee drinking matter to you less than its health implications, consider the mixed medical reviews it gets.

“Many research investigations, epidemiological studies, and meta-analyses regarding coffee consumption revealed its inverse correlation with that of diabetes mellitus, various cancer lines, Parkinsonism, and Alzheimer’s disease… On the other hand, their higher levels raise serum cholesterol, posing a possible threat to coronary health, for example, myocardial and cerebral infarction, insomnia, and cardiovascular complications. Caffeine also affects adenosine receptors and its withdrawal is accompanied with muscle fatigue and allied problems in those addicted to coffee.” (“Coffee and Its Consumption: Benefits and Risks”,National Institute of Food Science and Technology, University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, Pakistan, 2011,).

Strangely, this mixed medical message seems to perfectly mirror the mixed visual professional messages that coffee conveys. On top of being both good and bad for your health, it is socially and physiologically both stimulating and relaxing, a tool of work and play, a perceived necessity and luxury, an icon of stress and relaxation, a sign of self-discipline and self-indulgence, and a mark of high and ordinary status.

It makes me wonder whether there is a comparable mixed professional message I’m communicating in not drinking coffee at all. I can think of at least one.

I probably look like I don’t need it and can’t afford it.


Image: COFFEE: A SWIRL OF MEANING / Michael Moffa

By Michael Moffa