Do Cafés Create an Atmosphere of Trust?

I connected with the universe yesterday and got some great writing done at the Starbucks near my work. While manipulating events in my fantasy realm, I was sourly interrupted by biological necessities in the real world. Coffee and caffeine will do that to you.

Commonly, when I’m in these cafés, I see people leave all their belongings to use the restroom. That venture may only take a few minutes, but that’s just enough time for someone to swipe their computer or smart phone. In fact, I would say it’s odd for someone to bother taking their belongings with them to the restroom if they plan to stay at the café longer.

Hello, my name is TK and I’m awkward. When in a café, I gather up all my belongings and take them to the restroom when the need arises. Then, I sprawl it all out on the table again when I return, to the confusion of all strangers around me.

I’ve never understood how people can just leave their belongings behind like that. This computer cost me too much money for me to just leave behind. How do people trust strangers so readily? Is there something about coffee and caffeine that  magically prevents terrible people from swiping abandoned possessions?

This photo, “Ray’s Jazz Café” is copyright (c) 2014 Tony Hall and made available under an Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license

On rare occasions where there are few people (or no people) in the café, I’ll dare to leave my stuff behind. During those three minutes, I am on hyper alert trying to listen for the sounds of anyone entering the building. I am a ball of stress until I return to find my things undisturbed. On the flip side, I feel incredibly out-of-place when I pack my stuff up only to the same spot a few minutes later. I can’t help but wonder what the people around me think. Do they wonder if I am crazy for going back and forth? Are they upset that I didn’t trust them enough to leave my belongings there?

Someone needs to explain this to me. How can people be so quick to trust strangers? It’s one thing to leave your belongings and keep them in sight, but completely abandoning them for more than a few minutes seems like a huge risk. Certainly I can’t be the only one who values their expensive electronics.

I admit, for all my optimize, I’m a naturally paranoid person. Perhaps that’s the real reason behind my anxiety. In any other venue, my concern would be normal. Cafés seem to be exceptional places where precious belongings can be left unattended without fear (at least for a short period of time). I don’t even see that behavior in libraries.

What makes cafés so different. They have everything a person could ever need, coffee, music, community and creative atmosphere. When I fantasize about the study I want to have someday, I always plan to have coffee scented candles in an attempt to emulate that creative atmosphere in my own home.

I’m going to have to stop bouncing around and become a regular at one café before I’m perfectly comfortable abandoning my possessions when nature calls. Until then, I’m going to remain that odd, awkward person wasting time packing and unpacking.

Caffeine can be so cruel.

Do you abandon your possessions when nature calls at café? Why do you think people feel comfortable leaving their stuff alone for a few minutes in a café, but not anywhere else? What makes the atmosphere of a café so unique? I mean, it can’t just be the coffee, right?


76 thoughts on “Do Cafés Create an Atmosphere of Trust?”

  1. I think you’re just being sensible! I would never leave my stuff behind just sitting on a table, other than maybe my coat to reserve my seat. I can’t believe people are that trusting. Perhaps it’s just laziness?

    1. Maybe you’re right. The thing is, all my possessions are precious to me. I could leave my notebook there because it’s not worth much money, but it’s contents are worth a lot to me. It’s a huge hassle to pick it all up only to set it all out again a few minutes later, but I’d rather do that then lose any of it.

  2. I often leave my belongings in the library, including my laptop, sometimes for up to an hour at a time when I go for a walk. We are told not leave anything behind, not even for a few minutes but we all do it really. There are a few cameras dotted around the library but I don’t think that makes me feel much safer to be honest.

    I think it probably has more to do with the sense of community that we have. Some people ask others to look after their things but I’ve never really felt the need. It’s just an unspoken understanding that we have with the people seated near us that we will look out for each other for as long as we are there.

    1. that’s what I was wondering. Cafes must have a unique community where it’s just accepted people will look out for the belongings of others.

  3. I think it may be more a matter of folks’ willingness to leave their belongings unattended in places that, while public, nevertheless retain a high degree of supervision- both of you and of potential thieves. In a park, for instance, people would rarely leave a laptop on a bench, but parks are far more spacious than shops and therefore carry a lesser potential of someone watching. There’s also the socioeconomic factor of who the people in the immediate vicinity might be and how that, subconsciously or no, affects comfort levels.

    But back to the original tack: Foucault, with a nod to Bentham, wrote about “panopticism,” in which the mere possibility (not the reality) of being watched all the time renders subjects far more docile and predictable. It’s a model that many penal systems in both the East and West have adopted, with noticeable results; there are strong correlations between the adoption of more advanced surveillance methods and declines of violent crimes in both the private and public spheres for the last two decades. Of course, we’re now seeing the NSA and private vendors such as Google play a pronounced role in that.

    So while it’s possible that people are simply more trusting at coffee shops- they’re often from the same socioeconomic background, they have at least one shared purpose being there, the smell of coffee is indeed relaxing, so on and so forth- the alternative scenario remains that it’s simply the fact that everyone could be watching that dissuades those who would otherwise steal your belongings. In all likelihood the situation is too complex for a reduction such as this. And on that note, I’m going downstairs for a coffee.

    1. I wonder if stuff would be more likely to get stolen if there are few people in a cafe, then…. I’d also never considered the socieconomic background of the people around. I guess they are all about the same. You would think those would be the type of people who wouldn’t feel a motivation to steal. It’s not like they need the money. That still doesn’t make me comfortable leaving my stuff out, though.

  4. Another thoughtful post. I lived for 22 years smack dab in the middle of lovely, upper middle class town with an amazing coffee shop. (Local artwork on the walls, organic bakery, tons of regulars) There, I never though twice about leaving my stuff on the table. I would have appeared oddly untrusting to pack up my electronics for a bathroom break. After moving to a very different, larger town due to my husband’s job, my coffee shop behavior is much like yours. Though most of the people seem nice, there isn’t the same sense of community and general friendliness in my new area, as in my old.

    1. That makes sense. I used to leave my stuff all the time at my college library for a bathroom break. I didn’t think much of it because I was always there. Since I haven’t become a regular at any of the cafes I go to, I don’t know most of the common people who stop by so I don’t know if I can trust them.

  5. As a frequent patron of Starbucks in my neighborhood, I definitely feel at ease with the baristas. But whenever I have to go the restroom, I always get a trusted person need by to watch my stuff. But I’m also in the suburbs where local police are always near by.

    1. I’m in the same place, which is why I feel like my paranoia is a little odd. In the morning, there are police officers who frequent the cafes around here for morning coffee. It’s friendly enough of a place, so what am I afraid of?

  6. I’ve seen the same thing so often and actually I’m right with you on this one, I’ve always been at a loss to understand the logic of leaving a number of very expensive bits of tech out in the open unguarded. I’ve noticed people do this in libraries as well where they’re using a laptop connected to the wifi and will wander off for quite a while. Personally I’d never take the risk! Maybe they are just very trusting, or just haven’t fully thought through what they’re doing?

  7. I think a ceremony is involved before the actual act of leaving takes place. the looking around trying to figure out who is what and if they are a threat. Some might ask a neighbour to look after the items.
    it is not the coffee shop per-say.

    it is the risk assessment of the individual before acting.

    It also differs per person to decide how high the risk is. What risk is for one might be save for another.

    I even seen people do it in the McDonalds and leaving a baby. Sure she asked someone to look after the baby but it is still a risk assessment of the mother.
    We also somehow still like to rely on goodwill.

    Last but not least. to walk around with a laptop (work or not) phone or tablet. You could have just left it at home and enjoy the company of people. It is kind of a decider what happens at a coffee shop.
    It is weird how I find a coffee shop a workspace with to much detraction..

    1. I don’t think I’m sneaky enough to do a risk assessment without someone noticing. Plus, I don’t want to judge someone just because they look sketchy. It’s probably the innocent looking people who are the mostly likely to take something. It all just seems like such an unnecessary risk, but it seems like most people are happy to leave their stuff behind.

      1. Risk assessment is done within a blink of a:n eye. No need for being sneaky. For a thief it is pretty much the same. Well risk is different for everyone same as danger.

  8. I can see why you would pack up your stuff, like you say, some stuff is too valuable to trust to others. Most people are trustworthy and wouldn’t think of taking anything, but it only takes one. Great post 🙂

    1. Exactly. And I’m not made of money. I can’t really afford to buy a new computer on the fly. I had to save up my money to get this machine. I’m not just going to abandon it.

  9. I would say it largely depends on the location of the city/coffee shop and the audience that visits it. I live in a somewhat suburban town in southern California. I would have it in the back of my mind if I left to the bathroom, about my stuff. But I would ultimately have faith in humanity. Then again I have a pretty old laptop and I’m about to get a new Macbook next week… At which point I will probably carry it into the bathroom with me… Lol.

    1. Exactly. I just spent a pretty penny on this laptop not one year ago. There’s no way I’m just going to leave it around for someone to take, even if most people are trustworthy.

  10. I don’t often frequent cafes or coffee shops, I’m more of a ‘coffee on the go’ sort of guy, but one instance sticks in my memory. At a Starbucks, I was sitting and waiting for a friend to meet up with me for some work related business. I sat at a table while waiting, and next to me sat a man working on his laptop. After a few moments he leaned over. “Excuse me” he said- “Could you watch this for me while I use the men’s room?”
    I wondered about that the whole time he was gone. He was asking a complete stranger to keep an eye on his things- potentially to ward off OTHER STRANGERS….
    What makes people think that some individuals are more trustworthy than others? Maybe he didn’t trust me at all, but he said something to me when he got up sort of as a “I’ve got your number and face pal- don’t touch my stuff.”
    Maybe he did, in fact trust me, I will never know. Maybe he trusted everyone there, but felt as though he needed to say something, anything at all, to the person sitting next to him as he abandoned his computer to answer the call of nature. Who knows.
    I don’t leave things at the table, no matter where I am, even if its just to go back to the counter. To me its more of a sense of ownership of the loss itself if it managed to get taken. “Why did you leave your stuff on the table dummy? Who does that?” Yeah, someone would be pretty low to steal from another, but the way I figure it, if you don’t leave an opening, the opportunity and need to lament a loss wouldn’t exist.

    1. It think that’s part of my own motivation as well. It’s not the likelihood of my stuff getting stolen, it’s how dumb I’d feel for leaving it there if it does get stolen. Common sense says I should just take my stuff with me. It’s not that hard.

  11. I grew up in an area with a lot of crime. I am hard-wired, therefore, to not trust people – even though I know most people to be good, law-abiding and moral. So I too always pack up my belongings and take them with me just to nip to the restroom or even to go to the counter sometimes. The only exception is if I can see my table and the surrounding environment clearly at all times from the position of the sales counter. I would explode with anxiety otherwise.

    1. I do explode with anxiety those few times where I choose to leave it. That only happens in the morning when there’s hardly anyone in there. Nonetheless, I am always hyper aware of the sound of the door opening. Going to the counter is one thing, but going into a different room seems insane. Anything could happen while you’re away.

  12. I agree with Claire – you are being sensible!

    I don’t do that, though. The logistics of managing all my stuff AND attending to nature’s call are a bit too much for me. I usually just address the nearest random stranger – “Excuse me, would you mind watching my stuff for a minute or so while I use the restroom?” And make sure to smile and thank them when I get back.

    1. Thank you. It’s true, sometimes’s nature’s call is too strong. However, if I have the ability, it just makes sense to pick up all my stuff. Part of the problem might be that I would feel uncomfortable asking a stranger to watch my stuff.

  13. I don’t think you are paranoid, just sensible. Trust in the unknown is something we have to have sometimes but only when there is no other alternative…I take my things with me.

    1. I think I may look a bit comical when I pack up all my stuff, though. I have my purse, my laptop, my coffee and sometimes another bag for my notebooks…. but it’s still better than losing any of it.

  14. Once I was filling out a job application at a coffee place and this guy comes out of the restroom to find his laptop had been stolen. It was super sad! No one even noticed the person take it. After this experience I take my stuff with me…

    1. OMG! I wouldn’t ever be able to leave my stuff along if I saw that. It might be a one in a million chance, but it’s still not worth it to leave my stuff, even for a few minutes. I feel so bad for that guy.

  15. I never leave anything that can’t be stolen. But then, it’s easy to pack up my iPad, which is the only thing I ever take to coffeehouses.

    But I had never realized that so many people leave their expensive computers out. That actually makes me feel kind of good to know that that sort of trust is possible — like maybe we aren’t such a bad society after all.

    Speaking of my iPad, I was left it in the library at the college where I work and only realized I left it hours later. I came back and someone had taken it up to the front desk.

    Maybe the trust exists because of the type of clientele that’s expected to frequent coffee houses. Stereotypically, they just don’t seem like the crime-ridden type.

    From what I’ve read, we as a people actually are more trustworthy than you might think. Still, makes sense to pack up your computer when you use the ladies room.

    1. Maybe there is something about the type of people who go to coffee shops. I prefer to think people are good, but that doesn’t mean I have to leave my stuff for the minority of evil-doers out there.

  16. I think that most people do it because they believe that others are minding their own life and their own work while at the cafe, so they wouldn’t pay attention to unattended things. But I do agree with you, I would never leave my stuff behind. Great post!!

    1. That could be bad too. I mean, if everyone is absorbed in their work, will they notice if a random person walks in and steals something?

  17. I just couldn’t help but think of the scene in Kevin Smith’s Clerks where change is left unattended on the counter.
    “Theoretically, people see money on the counter and nobody around, they think they’re being watched.”

    Also, thanks for stopping by The Chronicles.

  18. I’m one of those people who will trust a stranger at the airport with my hand luggage, the stranger at the coffee shop with my computer/phone etc. and sometimes I’ll even trust a restaurant, in a new city, with my rucksack while I’m zipping around the mall. It isn’t about trusting the place or the cafe, I think when we ask the person sitting next to us to take care of something, we’re just trusting that people are good and trustworthy unless proven otherwise. I’ve often returned the gesture to fellow passengers and coffee lovers.

    While I may sound incredibly trusting, it has done me good for over two decades. I think it’s all about the “asking a person to look out for it than just leave it there” that makes a difference. 🙂

    1. That’s fine, and that’s how I think a lot of these people think. I’m not untrusting in any way, though. I just don’t think it wise to leave stuff unattended. Anything could happen in that time, from someone stealing it to someone accidentally bumping into it and breaking something.

      but then, I’m a bit paranoid ^_^

      1. I do paranoia in a whole different way. I guess it’s also to do with the aspects of how/where we were brought up. I’m far more paranoid of someone slipping something into my drink than worried about my stuff. Same goes for all my foodstuff. Where I’m from, stealing at cafes etc. is less prevalent than spiking a woman’s food stuff. That’s just how I feel 🙂
        I liked how you wrote the post.

        1. Yeah, now that you mention it… the bullies in grade school would often try to mess with my stuff. If I had to leave it, I’d often try to hide is somehow. Maybe that’s where my impulse comes from.

    1. I’ll have to look at that. This would make for a great experiment. I’d want to see why people don’t take stuff and I’d want to see how people react when they see someone else’s stuff get taken.

  19. Hi, yes I leave my handbag including wallet, iPhone etc. to ‘hold’ my seat or just to leave it there to go to the ladies.

    I also leave my preschool age child by himself too sometimes!!!

    I like to think the best of people and trust that there is still good in the world.

    Of course, common sense prevails.

    1. I think it’s best to trust people as well. I trust people until they give me a reason not to be trusted. However, that doesn’t mean I have to give them the opportunity to be untrustworthy ^_^

  20. Hey TK. Ok, now my reality is a bit different. I would be totally and completely nuts to do that in a cafe in Brazil. And, unfortunately, in the north-east, where I live, the cafe type of culture is not so prevalent. Don’t get me wrong. Coffee is very prevalent. However, the nice cafe, where people go to enjoy a nice special coffee, work on their lap top, socialize and all, is only for the elite here. So much so, that there are only a select few ‘cafes’. I love cafes though. I’m a Vancouververite at heart when it comes to cafes. I’ve gone to one here at the shopping mall close to my house and have used my laptop there to work, however, I would never leave it, just like you. I don’t trust people. Especially here. I personally think you’re being wise by taking all of your belogings with you. But then again, I have lived in Brazil for 12 years now.

  21. In many cases, I think this is the fear of awkwardness and/or the hassle of inconvenience overruling safety. Roll the dice – it’s better than being ‘that person’ who abandons the post, or the one who has to pack up all the shit. And so on.

    1. Haha, I guess I opt to be ‘that person’ then. I rarely care what people think of me when I walk about. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I’m just trying to prevent my stuff from getting stolen.

      1. No, you are correct. I find the whole rationale – albeit one I may have embodied more than once – to be foolish. Still, I think this is what’s at work in many cases; I’m willing to stake my people-watching credentials on that theory.

  22. I totally fo this. And up till reading this post, I have never even questioned why. I would never do it in a pub. I think it’s less about the smell of coffee, and more the sight of other similar people also tapping away on the macbooks. Maybe there’s an unwritten rule that if someone did try going for your things, all the other writers would pounce on them. I like to think that’s the case. I wonder if I will do the same next time I’m in Costa now that my odd behaviour has been pointed out to me.

    1. Yeah, but it’s not odd. If you look around, I bet you’ll see that most people just leave their stuff there while they go into a room for a few minutes. The people who seem out of place are the ones gathering up all their stuff only to return a few minutes later. And, if you do it all the time with no consequences, what would motivate you to stop? Maybe I just need to get to know the people who frequent coffee shops near me.

  23. Personally I think it’s because coffee shops are full of people who will have been sat in the same place the entire time you were gone, and if some of your stuff gets stolen the odds are very good that someone will have seen who took it. That means (in the places I go) that thievery is an extremely rare occurrence. It’s like everyone in a coffee shop keeps an eye on everyone else, which keeps everyone honest because if they aren’t, there will always be someone who will raise flags.
    The logic of asking a stranger goes like this: if you ask them to watch your stuff and they’re trustworthy, then all your stuff will remain safe. If not, and you get back and everything, along with the stranger, is gone, then you know who took it and can go straight to a police station.
    That’s my opinion anyway. It’s a really interesting post.

    1. Just giving the police a description isn’t always enough, though. From what I’ve seen other’s go through, once it’s gone, it’s gone. A smart thief will sell what they stole off as soon as possible.

      I see a lot of people looking down at their books or computers in coffee shops. I wonder if anyone would even notice if the wrong person took something away.

  24. I’m always super iffy about leaving my stuff, but then again my city has a pretty high crime rate. This would be an interesting social experiment to do.

  25. Okay, so funny. I don’t know why I do it, but I do. It’s just the culture or something. And the bathroom is like two steps from my regular spot at the cafe… and I sort of “know” the people around there (definitely the baristas) though they might translate that same “knowing” as “I’ve identified a great mark for my next theft.”

    In the past it seemed fairly normal to ask the stranger at a table over “hey, will you watch my stuff for a sec?” but I don’t think I’ve even seen that happen in a long time, really.

    All in all, I’m sure it’s a bad idea. And I should know better. I’ve had two– count them, TWO computers stolen from me. Plus a camera, several iPhones, at least two wallets… other things. I’m like a magnet for theft. So don’t ever take my advice. That is all.

    1. Dear lord! If I were you, I’d never be able to leave something unattended again. I’d be in a panic wondering if my stuff would still be waiting for me when I returned.

        1. My laziness effects different things… like how I don’t do my hair or put on makeup in the morning. I rarely even think about my clothes, so long as they seem clean. But when it comes to my expensive things…. I just can’t be lazy about that.

          1. Having to decide on clothes is the worst thing ever. If I’m doing what I want with my time, then yeah I’m a sucker for an outfit. But work? Kill. I’d like to buy 5 pair of black pants and 5 black button up shirts and call it a day/call me gothic Doug Funny.

  26. Beer festivals are like that, too. It’s funny, because you’d never leave your stuff behind in an ordinary bar, but once you get into an environment with other aficianados, suddenly no one’s worried anymore. Maybe it is the beverages…

    1. Really? Maybe there’s a common denominator between people who like fancy coffee and people who like fancy beer? (I’ve never been to a beer festival, so I’m just assuming the beer there is fancy. No offense intended)

  27. I work in a café. When someone leaves their stuff to use the facilities, we all keep a close eye on it. I consider it part of my job 🙂 your comfort is the most important thing!

    1. I never thought of that being a thing. Do you think it would be rude for me to walk up to a barista and ask them to watch my stuff for a few minutes. I don’t know why it is, but I’d have more trust in an employee in a coffee shop than in the patrons.

  28. Never leave anything behind that you can’t afford to replace. In the US we still have not evolved in our distrust of the world in the immediacy. We still think that the enemy or thief is recognizable and somewhere else, not in a public place such as an internet cafes, or libraries or even in a fancy restaurant. We Americans still hold to this notion it is safe to go off and leave something and it will be OK. Yet it is not just the theft of the item(s) but also what can be done to what you have left for a casual passer by who’s intent is to do harm at the expense of others. Unfortunately that is the society we have inherited or the one we have made. However it has come; it is here and we need to be aware the enemy lurks. He is there or she is waiting for us to be lured into a sense of false hope that it is OK to do such and such and think it will not happen for it to actually happen. For if we think that it can’t happen to one personally we do not take the necessary precautions to avoid it. I would love to live in a society where this is not the case yet we do not live in such a society any longer.

    I don’t think you are behind the times to feel afraid of the items you leave behind or take with you – I think you are ahead of the curve! Trust stays at home. Not because the world is changing to a darker world it is because we have more to lose now than just lost time replacing things and lost finances replacing lost items.

    Yet even in these cafes theft and mischievous individuals don’t have to wait till you leave to take it they can do so right under your nose and that is in the WI-FI if it is in the air they can grab it any an all data transmitted unless we take caution to keep it secure.

    1. I hardly think the world is becoming a darker place. That’s probably why so many people are comfortable leaving their stuff for a moment. They know the likelihood that someone will take anything is very low. It all comes down to value for me. Electronic devices have a lot more value than just their physical existence. Half our lives are stored on there these days. That’s a huge benefit when in your own hands… not so much in the hands of others.

  29. I puck up my expensive items, will leave things I won’t miss behind.

    Only because I’m too lazy to pack up everything to go for a quick bathroom break.

    1. There’s nothing I won’t miss! Maybe that’s my problem… my notebooks hold too much emotional value to me. I think I’d only leave the inexpensive stuff if I REALLY had to go.

  30. This has me laughing! The laptop/full bladder dilemma is serious business. I spend a fair amount of time in Starbucks and I am greedy for a good table and set up. I have taken to giving my neighbor the “will you be here for a quick sec? ” and I leave everything behind. There is a certain element of fear involved though.

    1. It is! The bladder calls but the computer is expensive! What now? The few times I have left my stuff behind, I’ve always been afraid. It’s just so uncomfortable and it goes against everything we’ve been taught. You’re not supposed to leave your stuff for strangers to take.

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