Skip to main content
E40: The Social Domain of Caffeine

You are listening to Seven Domains of Women's Health:

E40: The Social Domain of Caffeine

Jan 19, 2024

Caffeine makes you want to talk. For decades, all over the world, gathering with friends and sharing a cup of coffee or tea—often caffeinated—has been a universal way to bond and socialize.

In the social domain of caffeine, Dr. Kirtly Jones is joined by producer Chloé Nguyễn to discuss coffee shop meet-ups and tea ceremonies, and why these caffeinated beverages have become synonymous with fostering connections and creating social bonds.


    • Dr. Jones and producer Chloé explore the social domain of caffeine consumption, tracing its significance across cultures and generations. From childhood memories of neighborhood coffee gatherings to modern workplace rituals, they examine how caffeine serves as a catalyst for social interaction, fostering connections and conversations that transcend linguistic and cultural barriers. Through personal anecdotes and cultural insights, they underscore the universal role of caffeinated beverages in nurturing relationships and strengthening community bonds.

    Dr. Jones' Childhood Memories

    • Community Bonding: Dr. Jones reminisces about the close-knit community in her childhood neighborhood, where mothers gathered daily for coffee while children played freely. This ritual fostered social connections and provided a space for casual conversations and camaraderie.
    • Symbolism of Coffee: She reflects on the symbolic significance of coffee as a facilitator of social interaction, highlighting its role in bringing people together for meaningful discussions and fostering a sense of belonging within the community.

    Cultural Perspectives on Caffeine

    • Vietnamese Tradition: Chloé shares insights into Vietnamese culture, where tea holds significant cultural value, often without an explicit association with caffeine. She discusses the generational differences in understanding caffeine's effects and the traditional customs surrounding coffee consumption.
    • Social Rituals: Global social rituals centered around caffeinated beverages, from the European tea culture to the Arab tradition of serving strong, bitter coffee. Cultural practices shape social interactions and emphasize the universal role of hot beverages in fostering connection and conversation.

    The Social Significance of Caffeine

    • Office Culture: The integration of caffeine into workplace culture, from the traditional coffee break to modern office amenities like stocked tea rooms. Dr. Jones and Chloé reflect on the inclusive approach to providing beverage options and the role of caffeine in facilitating informal discussions and team bonding.
    • Symbolic Gestures: The symbolic gestures associated with offering coffee or tea as a sign of hospitality and welcome, transcending cultural boundaries. Whether in the workplace or at home, the act of sharing a hot beverage serves as a universal invitation to engage in meaningful dialogue and forge connections.

    Caffeine as a Social Catalyst

    • Psychological Associations: The psychological associations between caffeine consumption and social interaction, notably how holding a cup of coffee or tea can serve as a social prop and enhance perceived coolness or confidence.
    • Media Representations: Parallels between real-life social dynamics and media portrayals—examples from popular TV shows like "NCIS" and "Law & Order," where characters are often depicted with coffee as a symbol of routine and camaraderie.


    • Caffeine as a Universal Connector: Caffeine's remarkable ability to serve as a universal connector, bridging diverse cultural and social contexts. The simple act of sharing a cup of coffee or tea transcends language barriers and unites individuals in shared experiences and conversations.
    • The Power of Rituals: The enduring power of social rituals surrounding caffeine consumption, from the morning coffee break to intimate gatherings over tea. These rituals not only provide moments of respite but also foster a sense of belonging and camaraderie, reaffirming the importance of human connection in an increasingly interconnected world.

    This content was originally produced for audio. Certain elements such as tone, sound effects, and music, may not fully capture the intended experience in textual representation. Therefore, the following transcription has been modified for clarity. We recognize not everyone can access the audio podcast. However, for those who can, we encourage subscribing and listening to the original content for a more engaging and immersive experience.

    All thoughts and opinions expressed by hosts and guests are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views held by the institutions with which they are affiliated.



    Dr. Jones: Well, we're still working on the "7 Domains of Caffeine," and today we're going to work a little bit on the social domain.

    Dr. Jones' Childhood Memories

    I remember when I was growing up in a little street, in Denver, Colorado, with a lot of baby boomers. These were all prefab kinds of homes. Everybody had just left the Army. There were tons of baby boomer kids, and these were the days of big families. So I was one of four. Our neighbors, we had one of three. Somebody else had four. And our mothers every day would get together at somebody's house and have coffee. And maybe they would bring the newest baby. But the rest of us were feral. We were just running around like crazy kids all over the neighborhood. But the mothers would sit down and drink coffee and chitchat.

    Cultural Perspectives on Caffeine

    So it doesn't have to be coffee, but there's something about getting together to talk, or you want to do something with your hands. So when you say let's go get coffee or let's go for a coffee, that often means let's get together for a chitchat. But we don't say, "Oh, let's get together for a chitchat," because that's too intrusive. If you say coffee, and this is the social domain for caffeinated beverages. In England, it was always people would go for a cuppa, which is a cup of coffee, or a cup of tea. You would have the whole ritual around making, the teapot, and then heating the water, and this would all be done immediately. And then you'd get to see who's going to be mother, and that term in the British countries, "to be mother," who gets to pour.

    So the social domain is a big deal. And today in the studio with us is my producer, Chloé, who is my favorite millennial.

    Chloé: Aw.

    Dr. Jones: And she's going to talk to me about what it means not to be a boomer and think about the social domain of caffeine, but what does it mean within her culture and within her age group. What does it mean for caffeine? I never hear anybody say, "Hey, guys, let's go for a Red Bull." They do say, "Let's go for a beer." But I don't see anybody say, "Let's go for a Red Bull."

    So here we are and welcome, Chloé.

    Chloé: Oh, thank you.

    Dr. Jones: Let's talk about the social domain. Let's go back to your parents. Do your parents drink coffee or tea?

    Chloé: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. So I am of Vietnamese background. My parents grew up in Vietnam, and caffeine and tea are a big part of that culture. I don't think they ever realized it's caffeine, which is an interesting conversation because I had a conversation with my mother a few days ago. I was kind of up late, and I was drinking coffee to stay awake. She's like, "Why do you keep drinking coffee?" And I'm like, "Well, because it has caffeine." And she's like, "Well, what's caffeine?"

    Dr. Jones: Oh.

    Chloé: In Vietnam, the word "caffeine," I haven't had the chance to look it up yet, but I've never actually . . . I don't think in my 30-something years of speaking Vietnamese and being in that culture, I don't even know how the word "caffeine" is translated. It's always just coffee.

    Dr. Jones: Oh.

    Chloé: Yeah. When you think of caffeine, it's just coffee. It's not even tea.

    Dr. Jones: But tea has caffeine in it.

    Chloé: Right. But they don't know . . . I think the connection between the substance of caffeine . . .

    Dr. Jones: Right.

    Chloé: . . . the energy that it brings, and it being in a beverage, like coffee, like tea, that wasn't a connection that they made. If you want to be awake, you want to stay energetic, you've got to drink coffee, you've got to drink tea. But there wasn't really an understanding of why.

    Dr. Jones: Oh, right.

    Chloé: Caffeine being the reason.

    Dr. Jones: Well, I think it makes you want to talk. But that's the other thing. So people often, when you're caffeinated, you often get a little hyperverbal. People start to get a little chatty. My husband, when he wakes up, if I've had my cup of coffee, I've usually got 10 ideas on my mind, and I'm kind of a Chatty Cathy. So I think it's a natural thing for people to be activated when they drink their caffeinated beverage of choice. But that becomes a social thing. Certainly, some people drink their coffee solo. But when you say, "Let's go for a coffee," that usually means let's go get together. Let's go be social.

    Chloé: That's also how it is in Vietnam. And what's more interesting and what I've noticed is the biggest difference between coffee shops here and in Vietnam, in America, we kind of sit for maybe an hour, half an hour. In Vietnam, you literally sit there for half a day.

    Dr. Jones: Ooh.

    Chloé: It takes that long. It is like I don't even know. A few tablespoons of coffee and you just wait there because it's a drip coffee.

    Dr. Jones: Right.

    Chloé: The time it takes for it to complete the drip, that's half an hour of talking, of socializing.

    Dr. Jones: Right, right.

    Chloé: Then you've got to wait for the ice to melt to make the coffee.

    Dr. Jones: Oh.

    Chloé: When it drips down, it drips hot coffee. Then you've got to wait for it to cool. And then you sip it. And it's not like you sip it to finish it. It's like 1 sip for every 10 minutes. So you sit there, and it's a long process. But it happens all the time throughout the day. Coffee shops in Vietnam are always just packed.

    Dr. Jones: Yeah.

    Chloé: Regardless of the time of day, it's just packed of people, who I don't know if they have jobs, but they just sit there all day long and they socialize. But even when you go into people's houses, they always offer you tea. They don't really offer coffee when you go to people's houses. It's always tea.

    Dr. Jones: Oh. Well, here, it's usually, for me, I say, "Would you like a cup of coffee, or would you like some tea?" I offer one or the other. But there are people who don't want to be caffeinated, or it's after 2:00 in the afternoon.

    In the South, when you go visit people, they give you this cold sweet tea, which is an iced tea. It's a brewed tea with buckets of sugar in it, and that's a uniquely Southern thing that people offer you. When you sit down, it's hot and sweaty, and people offer you iced tea with lots of sugar in it. But it's the social thing to do. So when people walk, you offer them tea. All over Europe, people will offer you a tea or a coffee.

    In the Arab world, guys go for coffee, and these little teeny coffees, you have a little teeny coffee thing that's very, very dark and rich and bitter. And people sip it, but then they have another little tiny coffee. Whereas we tend to get a big cup. When I was visiting my brother, who's in the Peace Corps in Colombia in South America, you'd get up and there would be these little stalls. This is a very poor, little coastal town. But there are these little bush-covered stalls that had cups that were as big as a plate. And you'd have your café latte. There would be this enormous cup that was like a bowl, and it was really your breakfast. And you would kind of stand there. It was a real bowl. There wasn't any plastic or paper. You stand there and sip, or there would be a little table and you'd sip this coffee in this huge bowl cup.

    Chloé: Interesting.

    Dr. Jones: And it was wonderful.

    Chloé: Interesting.

    Dr. Jones: I don't remember where the potties were because usually if you drink that much coffee, then you've got to find a potty somewhere. But there you go.

    The Social Significance of Caffeine

    Well, I think this business about going for coffee and that's what I say even to my LDS friends who don't drink coffee, and they say, "Yeah, let's go get a cup of coffee." Even though they're not going to drink coffee, they'll find something else. But it's the concept of getting together, drinking something warm in your tummy, even if it's a hot day, sometimes maybe you'll have something cold, that's slightly stimulating so that you can get on with the real business of going for coffee, which is to bond. You're going to go chitchat.

    Chloé: You socialize. Yeah.

    Dr. Jones: You're going to socialize. And so I think that whatever, maybe not the caffeinated drinks, maybe not the energy drinks. You don't necessarily go for a Red Bull or something. Those just fuel your afternoon, or maybe they fuel your exercise. But I think hot drinks or something that's social provides the opportunities to just sit and chat all over the world. All over the world, it's a sign of when someone comes to your home, of your willingness to have them come in your home and stay a little while. If you don't offer them anything, that means you really want them out the door quite quickly. But if you say, "Can I get you some coffee or tea or water," that means you are welcome in my home and to stay a little while.

    Chloé: So then, Kirtly, then are we really talking about coffee and caffeine? It's inviting people to have a conversation. Does it have to be caffeine?

    Dr. Jones: No.

    Chloé: Because you said water too, right? Some of the coffee and some of the tea are decaf.

    Dr. Jones: Right. That's true. But I think that the concept of the coffee house or the tea shop that goes deeply into European culture, where people would meet . . .

    Chloé: That's where it originates from?

    Dr. Jones: Yeah. You know, of course, there's always the bar, but that's the kind of an after-five thing. But before five, in the morning particularly, when people would get together, it was often a caffeinated drink. But clearly, it's not necessary to be. I mean, I suppose you could go to the ice cream shop. But it's usually people go to a tea shop or they go to a coffee shop. Or maybe they go to a little restaurant where they get a cup of coffee and a little snack or tea. And it doesn't have to be caffeinated. But because these things, these substances came from so far and were relatively precious, and this is all over the world, the concept of going to someplace where someone made it for you and you sat around and chitchatted, it was often caffeinated but not necessarily.

    Caffeine as a Social Catalyst

    Chloé: I don't know if it's just me, Kirtly, but when I go outside, I have to have a cup of coffee in my hand.

    Dr. Jones: Oh.

    Chloé: Like you walk down the street or you walk to the office, I don't know why, but having that cup of coffee makes me look cooler and feel cooler. I don't even know. There's nobody around me to socialize with. I'm just by myself, but having a cup of coffee makes me feel cool.

    Dr. Jones: Makes you feel cool. Well, I don't know. There was a TV show that still is running. It's the longest-running TV show I think ever, called "NCIS." And it's with a team of guys, and Gibbs, who's the lead detective in this naval group of detectives, is always walking in with a cup of coffee.

    Chloé: Yeah, always.

    Dr. Jones: I'm sure it's always branded, you know, probably for the show to get some extra money. But they always are walking in with a cup of coffee. So they're walking in from the outside with a cup of coffee. Like they don't make it. They don't have something sitting on the pie, sitting on the roasting thing, some heater that makes coffee . . .

    Chloé: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

    Dr. Jones: . . . that's been sitting there all day and it's so disgusting. Well, we talk about it in the workplace as the coffee break.

    Chloé: Yeah.

    Dr. Jones: Even if you don't drink coffee, or if they drink tea, or maybe they're getting a cola, they say, "I'm going to go leave for a break," but often it's a coffee break. That was built into the workplace, and people would either go get a coffee or they'd go to the coffee room that was supplied by the employer and get a cup of coffee.

    Chloé: We have in our downtown office right now, Kirtly, I don't know who stocks it, but I'm so grateful because we have this whole wall-to-wall of all sorts of tea.

    Dr. Jones: Oh.

    Chloé: It's just tea, and it's just all the tea you can imagine, all the types. I don't know who stocks it, but whoever it is, thank you. It might be Vickie. Thank you, Vicki.

    Dr. Jones: It's usually a caffeine room, and then there's a fridge for people who like to drink their colas or something. I remember in our department, which had a lot of employees who were LDS and they felt like having a coffee room really only met the needs of people who would drink coffee, and that people who got their caffeine cold and could drink a cola were being discriminated against. So eventually we had tea, we had coffee, we had decaf, and we had colas, and people could go into this little break room and get whatever they particularly wanted. But it's usually a caffeinated beverage, often in the afternoon.

    But it's the social part. And I think you're right about holding something because if you go to sit with somebody to chitchat, people fiddle with stuff with their chitchatting. They fiddle with the spoon, or they fiddle with their cup or with their napkin. And just to sit down and chitchat without something in their hand, it feels a little odd.

    Chloé: I think I do this every single time we record, where I know that I'm obviously recording, and so I'm not going to be able to drink the coffee.

    Dr. Jones: Right.

    Chloé: But I still have to make sure I have it five minutes before it's time. I'm like, "Oh, I've got to go get myself a cup of coffee before we start." And then I just let it sit there the whole time. It's just habit, I guess. So in the show "Law & Order: SVU" . . .

    Dr. Jones: Oh, yeah.

    Chloé: . . . or just "Law & Order" in general, because it takes place in New York . . .

    Dr. Jones: Right.

    Chloé: . . . New York, I don't know if you notice, people in New York probably do, but they have their own coffee cup.

    Dr. Jones: Oh, they should.

    Chloé: Yeah. It's like the blue. It looks like it's Roman. I don't even know what it is. I don't know the root of it. But every single movie and TV show that takes place in New York, you'll see that cup, from "Spiderman" to "Law & Order." It's always that cup with like that blue looking like . . .

    Dr. Jones: Oh, right. Right, right. I don't know why that's . . . It's not a real cup. It's still a disposable cup. But it's blue with that little kind of . . .

    Chloé: They all have it.

    Dr. Jones: . . . Greek looking thing around . . .

    Chloé: Yeah. It's iconic.

    Dr. Jones: Yeah.

    Chloé: But I feel like Utah should have its own cup.


    Dr. Jones: I think people should bring their own cups, but that's a topic for another "7 Domains." So listen to the "7 Domains of Caffeine and the Environment." But in the end, it's often women, and not always women, but women who get together with their friends for a cup of coffee or for tea, and they have for hundreds of years. They go to each other's homes because many of them don't have enough money to go out for coffee. But it was a way for women in particular to socialize together, to chitchat about their days, to complain about their husbands, to whine about their kids, and have the fellowship of another person or several other persons while they drank something hot. It's a real treat, and it brings you together with your family, with your buds, and with the people in your neighborhood. I'd like to see more people coming over for coffee in their neighborhoods these days and having a great time together.

    See you around the coffee shop.

    Host: Kirtly Jones, MD

    Guest: Chloé Nguyễn

    Producer: Chloé Nguyễn

    Connect with '7 Domains of Women's Health'