What People Watching Taught Me About Cultural Change

One of the weird things I’ve encountered living here in the UK for awhile is how manners work in a coffee shop. I know coffee shops well, as a customer. In my local one in Sioux Falls, they provide small shallow buckets for customers to place their dishes in and trashcans nearby. This form of bussing is common – you get rid of your own trash, your own dishes, and you ensure that you leave a table open for the next customer.

This isn’t how it happens in the UK. When you leave a coffee shop, you just leave everything sitting on the table – dishes, napkins, unfinished food, half congealed coffees. Sometimes it can be as long as fifteen or twenty minutes before one of the employees gets around to picking up the dishes, especially during busy times. I’ve taken to getting the non-environmentally friendly takeaway cups because I’m so deeply uncomfortable with this cultural process of just leaving your stuff there. There is something deep within me that simply cannot leave my mess in a shop for someone else to clean up.

But if you actually take your cup and hand it to the barista, they will look at you like you’ve grown an extra head and stare at the empty cup like you’ve just handed them a box and explained that a dragon egg is inside.

Okay, maybe it’s not that bad.

But there’s definite fleeting confusion, and as I’m sitting in this coffee shop, I’m staring around at all the empty mugs near equally empty chairs and I have to wonder what it would take to effect a cultural change to make people bus their own tables. It would be impossible to make it feel natural, at least not for awhile. Just as I do not feel natural leaving things on my table, a similar reaction would happen if baristas starting putting out the bussing bins for the customers to use. I imagine a Facebook group would pop up protesting the change. We might even see petitions. It would be hard.

And it strikes me that if we would face pushback on this idea – if effecting a cultural change that would require large swaths of people to feel differently about their responsibilities toward something as basic as dishes – then it’s no surprise that we see massive pushback on things that are heated topics.

“That’s the way we’ve always done it” gains weight when the thing is a cultural norm. There’s awkwardness associated with change. The routine becomes different. The little bit of extra work that you need to bus your own dishes or to go through multiple background checks to get a gun or to change how we talk and write about sexual assault and rape or to change larger systemic oppressions is always going to be a barrier. We’re always going to hit up against the idea of tradition, against the idea that this is how it’s always been – even if how it’s always been is markedly inefficient and poor.

I don’t have an answer for how we overcome that. I don’t know how we can make that difference. But I also believe that cultural change is possible if we can manage to push past those moments of resistance, that cleaving to tradition, that realization that we do more harm to ourselves by staying in our same path than we do if we change.

At some point when you’re lost, you need to stop and find a new direction to go. When it comes to vast, societal issues concerning women, we’ve been lost for quite a while. We argue that rape victims somehow deserved it. We argue that women’s bodies are up for grabs. We argue that gender is set instead of fluid. And we’ve gotten lost in the woods, stubbornly insisting that if we just keep pushing on the same old paths, we’ll find our way out. But there are people standing just a few meters off the path, telling us they know the way out, and we need to make the effort to step off, to brave a new world, to see how things could be.

We need to start picking up our own trash.