The coffee break.
First day at work: new job, new office space, new boss, new colleagues... How will I get to know the people? How will I get to learn the so called “unwritten rules”?
In France, Spain or Brazil, the coffee break is the way to go. The concept is simple: you share a bit about yourself, your hobbies, your previous experience… you basically put your best smile to entertain a nice conversation around a cup of coffee and, in exchange, you obtain a fastpass to all the past and present corporate gossips. So useful! In the US, coffee breaks simply do not exist as they exist in other countries. The coffee machine is relegated to its most basic function: to provide caffeine to the workforce in order to increase productivity. So simple, so effective, so american. But, how do people socialize ? why don't they do coffee break ?
Let's dig a bit
How do coworkers get to know each other without coffee breaks?
To provide an answer to this question, we should first ask ourselves: ‘do people really care about getting to know their coworkers in the US?’. I’ve come to the conclusion that people care... but not that much. They know that they will get to know their coworkers as projects or other business activities move forward. No need to rush the process. No need for coffee breaks. Five minutes before and after the never ending regular boring meetings should be enough.
Why coffee breaks are not seen as an efficient way for coworkers to get to know each other?
My first guess was that their coffee is just not good enough to build this important social process around it. Who wants to share a nice moment around a cup of ‘free diluted caffeine’?
Second barrier that I identified : the coffee size. It is simply way too big : how do you want to drink a almost 24 oz. (700ml) cup of coffee in a 10-15min break ? Not to mention that usually the coffee is boiling hot.
There is also this “time is money” rule in the US where, simply put, spending time around the coffee machine will automatically put you in the “look at the lazy new employee” category. And of course, you are a valuable and productive resource. So you stay away from the coffee machine.
Final and important aspect I found out doing some research : the coffee break has been invested in america. I could not believe it but yes this is true. Apparently in the 20th century, two New York companies would start providing coffee break as a part of the social labor regulation improvement. Later in 1952, the pan-american coffee bureau did an ad campaign to promote the coffee break : in the end, this was a huge opportunity for the coffee industry to sell more coffee ! Unions started incorporating it as a standard in their schedule clauses and it got popular. Then I guess the productivity took priority again and the culture of time is money took precedence again and now we can see article here and there on the coffee break benefits. Fun.
So based on that
Do you need to socialize ? understand company background information ?
Be patient and don’t rush the process. Forget about coffee breaks as you have enjoyed them before moving to the US. Instead, use the official networking events, talk to your team members, ask them questions before and after the meetings.
Still want a coffee break ?
Try to find these few rare employees who are interested in the european coffee break concept. In some cases, these employees might even hide an ‘private’ espresso machine in their office. Pay close attention to unusual coffee smells when you walk down the office corridors, that might give you a good hint.