Tuesday, November 18, 2008

On the desireability of learning

I'm sure some of you have been in a Starbucks at some point, desiring some refreshing drink. It happened to me, some years ago; I reached the counter, requested a "large coffee", and received a blank stare in return. That was my introduction to what's become known as "Starbonics": the specialised jargon used for ordering at Starbucks. After that introduction, I naturally resent it; in fact, I refuse to use it. I will order in English, and complain mightily if my (simple) order is incorrect. The trouble is, although Starbonics would be simple to learn, I resent the enforced usage of it. Think how much you hated history lessons at school; anything you're forced to do is unpleasant.

Now, let me compare and contrast with another specialised ordering jargon: In-N-Out Burger's "secret language". I willingly learned this, and will always order in it, because it's not compulsory. You can order in plain English at any In-N-Out, and receive what you wanted. However, the plain English for my "usual" (in a rather loose sense, because it's around six months since I last ate In-N-Out) is rather less wieldy than "Two by one no tomato no onion, protein-style, fries well, medium soda". The only part of that that's equivalent is the soda, in fact; all the rest is custom-ordered. To explain: "two-by-one" means that I want two patties, one slice of cheese, and any combination up to four-by-four is valid; the lack of tomato and onion is self-explanatory; "protein-style" means that I don't want the bun, but rather the burger should be wrapped in lettuce; "fries well" means I want the fries left in the oil for a little longer than normal, as I prefer them crispier. I can give that order at any In-N-Out and know exactly what I'll get. This is the point of ordering jargons, Starbonics included, and is a good idea. However, enforcing a jargon is a good way to a) keep existing customers and b) reject new customers.

Starbonics has the sense of a secret club that you're not a member of, and the existing members don't want you in. You get dirty looks for not knowing things, even though you don't know them because nobody told you. In-N-Out, on the other hand, makes you feel like you're a member of the secret club, and yet allows non-members the same privileges as members, just as long as they ask. The key point is that you don't HAVE to use their jargon. It's helpful if you do, but you can get by without it for years. I hated history lessons at school, but since leaving, have avidly read history.

Of course, Starbucks does suffer quite a lot from being the largest player in the market; everyone loves to bash the 900lb gorilla. Sadly, biggest players seldom manage to do themselves many favours.

And while researching this post, I discovered that I have in fact been regularly patronising a Starbucks in plain covers; Seattle's Best Coffee is actually a Starbucks subsidiary.


  1. People who use Starbucks jargon to order somewhere other than Starbucks do not deserve their drinks. Despite knowing what they meant, I'd always feign ignorance until they ordered in English.

  2. Order hot chocolate instead. It's just about the same world wide, hot and chocolatey. The most complicated it gets is if you want cream on top or not, and should you forget this minor point you can always mix the cream into the drink...

    OK time to stop procrastinating and reading blogs


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