Coffee and Etiquette with Kelsey

Cafe - Kelsey Dillom

Most of us think of etiquette as a set of rules for social situations, like which fork to use during a formal dinner. Did you know that étiquette is actually French for “label”? The way we present ourselves to the world affects how others label us, whether we like it or not.

Every community has a labeling system that is relevant to its history and customs, which may be different from our own. That means the rules of etiquette change when we study abroad, too—and we have to learn them. Students abroad have an opportunity to understand how people different from them live and interact, insight that is hard enough to gain without sticking out like a sore thumb (or an American exchange student!).

I learned social etiquette on an exchange program during my semester in France by people-watching at cafes. Here is my three-step “coffee and etiquette” plan that I think will help you abroad no matter where you go.

  1. Find your spot – If you want to live like a local, an American-style cafe in the touristic part of town is probably not your best bet. Look for a place where you hear the local language, somewhere people in the community meet, shop, eat and hang out. My favorite place was an outdoor cafe in the courtyard outside city hall. The courtyard had a fountain, a newsstand, a stationery shop, and a flower market held two mornings per week, and always local people just living their lives.
  2. Know your coffee – As the second-most traded good worldwide¹, coffee is something we all have in common, yet we all “do” coffee differently. For example, simply ordering a café in France will get you a shot of espresso… strong, dark, and delicious, but maybe not what you were expecting. Know how to order before you sit down and you’ll have a more authentic experience! With some practice, your server may even start to treat you like a local rather than a tourist.
  3. Watch and listen – Asking questions, sharing your own point of view? That’s great. Sometimes you learn even better by blending in. See how people interact. Do they speak loudly or softly? Interrupt each other? Are they sitting close together or far apart? How long do people stay at their tables? Do they negotiate prices, or not? How do the kids act (children are learning the rules of society, too)? When you can’t figure it out just by watching, find out how people ask questions politely, then ask.

Mairie - Kelsey Dillon

Of course, sympathetic locals understand if you don’t know all the rules. A long coffee break and a little awareness of your surroundings can earn you more sympathy, and more valuable insight into your temporary home. So grab a cup o’ joe (and a maybe a field notebook) and look around. You might surprise yourself with what you learn!

¹InvestorGuide Staff Writers and Editors. What Are the Most Commonly Traded Commodities? Accessed 29 August 2015.

Photos courtesy of Sunay Cagabey.


Kelsey Dillon is senior at the University of Kentucky studying Anthropology and French. Kelsey participated in the ISEP Exchange-Aix-Marseille Universite program in Spring 2015.