Coffee Rites, and the Stories They Tell

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THE caffeine rituals of my co-workers are many and varied. In the morning, there are at least eight places where you can buy coffee on 40th Street in Manhattan between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, including the cart where the lady says "Hi, beautiful!" and puts your $1 cup in a brown paper bag with a little white napkin.

Here in the building, you can buy fancy coffee in the cafe or good-enough coffee in the cafeteria. At around 4:30 in the afternoon, a cry of "Coffee's up!" can be heard in the newsroom, signaling the arrival of a cart offering free coffee and hot water in metal urns. I'm among those who turn up their noses at the free coffee, preferring to pay 75 cents to use the machines in our floor's pantry that dispense single cups through a pouch.

A clique of reporters has gone in on a coffee maker, in which they brew Dean's Beans from Massachusetts. An editor has both a coffee maker and a hot water kettle at his desk, along with two tea infusers that he bought at the Museum of Modern Art.

I'm sure that workers at investment banks, tech companies, retailers, construction job sites and other locales have their own rituals, too. Caffeine tugs us into this kind of behavior because it is a drug -- almost never an addictive drug, though, but a potentially habit-forming one, said Stephen Braun, a medical writer based in Amherst, Mass., and author of "Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine."

"What caffeine is basically doing is putting a block of wood under your brake pedal," he said. It's plugging a receptor in your nerve cells that would normally tell your brain to slow down.

Caffeine has "insinuated itself into the workplace, and I don't see anything particularly wrong with that," Mr. Braun said. It used to be that it felt like a vice. But "the mass of research has failed to demonstrate that caffeine is bad for your health; it's just not there," he said.

That's if you consume it in small doses and don't have a health issue like high blood pressure. As the Mayo Clinic warns on its Web site, large doses of caffeine -- 500 to 600 milligrams, or roughly the equivalent of four or more cups of brewed coffee a day -- can lead to insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, irritability, stomach upset, fast heartbeat and muscle tremors.

But if it's used responsibly, caffeine may actually be good for you, according to some research. It has been shown to aid concentration and productivity, and to improve the performance of night workers, who are prone to fatigue.

Mr. Braun's coffee of choice is Major Dickason's Blend by Peet's. He rarely buys coffee at a cafe because he is a freelance writer with an uncertain income stream.

Your caffeine ritual can say a lot about your finances and your attitude toward money. People who do the math know that they can save hundreds of dollars a year by making their own coffee or tea. Personal finance experts -- or killjoys, as I call them -- often advise people to cut out that daily latte and put the savings toward their retirement.

For some people, though, that daily contact with a friendly store owner or cashier can tip the balance toward making their workday happier and maybe a little less lonely. That has value, too.

Loneliness has been linked to cognitive decline, so workers who banter with their barista or take coffee breaks together are actually doing a service to their organization. Social bonds that result from daily interactions among co-workers can lead to greater collaboration. Well-designed beverage areas in the workplace have actually been found to improve productivity.

Whether you buy a coffee at Starbucks, make one yourself or gather at the coffee urns, it's just plain good for your brain to take a break. Mental concentration is like a muscle, says John P. Trougakos, an assistant management professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management. It needs periods of rest the way weight lifters need to take breaks between repetitions.

BUT always remember that caffeine is a drug and as such can be misused, Mr. Braun said. "When you're using caffeine regularly, your brain tries to adjust," he said. "It will take more of the drug to get the same effect over time." That's why there are withdrawal symptoms like a headache if you quit too suddenly, he said.

Mr. Braun tries to take periodic "caffeine vacations" to counter this effect. And when he returns from one of those vacations, he said, that first cup of Major Dickason's Blend is amazing.

employment

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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