24/02/2015 8:00 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Of Cafe Small Talk, Power Outlets And The Future Of Civilisation


The cafe is packed. I had slept in, and I had arrived at the start of peak hour. I'm never going to get a seat with an outlet, I bemoan to myself. There are a few people in queue ahead of me, their laptop bags strapped around shoulders aggressively hunched towards vacant seats: they're ready to pounce like a pack of cheetahs once they order their morning safari energy boost. I'm too demoralised at this point to get out of line and claim a spot only to risk returning to a larger queue and a longer wait for my coffee. I'm going to have to content myself with my on-hand battery life for now, which isn't much considering my battery is on the fritz.

I place my order. The barista cheerfully informs me that my friend is around the corner. I luck out! I know who she means without her having to tell me. There's only one figure I know whose territory spans the far reaches of "Around the Corner" land. The locale is aptly tagged for its sneaky design that obscures the nook leading to another six or seven tables. My friend typically stakes his claim on one of the best pieces of real estate in the house - a medium-sized, stand-alone table with three chairs complemented by the coveted power outlet. I'm guaranteed a spot. Morning pre-coffee problem solved.

Stories like mine are probably more common than I know. How many thousands of us out there rely on seat buddies whom we actually met at a cafe or some other public space? More interestingly, how did our relationships develop from stranger to seat buddy, or from a seat buddy to a friend?

Unsurprisingly, many cafe squatters using computers and phones are forced to develop brief but meaningful dialogues with complete strangers in order to plug in. It's like establishing diplomatic relations with a foreign country's ambassador. Of mutual interest is, of course, the power outlet. But what's really at stake is time. "I'm almost out power. Do you mind if I plug in for a few minutes?"

Inevitably, the time baton must be passed. "Hey, I gotta plug back in. It says I've got 20 minutes, but I don't want to wait until the last moment." The conversation evolves as needs change, a limited trust is established. Time is negotiated for one person to use the restroom or to take a phone call outside. Occasionally, interactions pleasantly digress into full-blown conversations. Seat-buddyship is established. A new contact is born. Next thing you know, you're drinking and dining with someone you had only spoken to half-a-dozen times. You're getting new gigs because several hidden doors have opened up. And because you're a decent person, you're offering up your knowledge and contacts for others to benefit from, too.

After making several seat buddies, contacts and friends over several years, I've learned not to disregard cafe small talk, especially when bartering for time with an electrical outlet. I've come to view haggling over an electrical outlet as the modern-day equivalent of grunting cavemen sitting around the fire, working things out. A little "primitive" communication went a long way, didn't it? Without fire, we would have not developed civilisation. Electricity may even serve to unlock a profoundly different and beneficial existence for future generations if our plethora of charged gadgets doesn't turn us all into screen-dazed zombies. Communication is so vital, and it may be our specie's one saving grace - apart from going to almost any sociable length to get plugged in for the purely antisocial sake of tuning out the world around us. Having a sense of humour about one of life's truly bizarre ironies doesn't hurt either.