When the culture of tea plugs into the lives we lead today with our always switched-on collection of gadgetry, is the tea drinking experience enhanced or marginalized? Lately, as the growth of tea houses follows the winding path that coffee houses have had a lot of experience in shaping, the matter of whether to have WiFi (“wireless fidelity, wireless internet”) Internet access has mostly been assumed a given. Your coffee shop, grocery store, baker, fast-food restaurant, library, hospital, and hotel all have WiFi Internet access, so how could your tea house not?
Drinking tea is almost always a companion activity – we drink it while we are doing something else. Tea enhances the other things we are doing and, perhaps to our loss, rarely gets our full attention. Like many other drinks we imbibe, tea either acts as a social elixir enjoyed with others in a communal setting or helps bring a monk-like focus to whatever is absorbing our interest. For those who have an historical interest in tea, reading accounts of the slower-paced habits of tea drinkers in the past brings on feelings of time-envy, the sheer luxury of experiencing a few uninterrupted hours with a couple of pots of tea. Can you imagine?
Maybe we romanticize historical associations with tea too much. Tea and reading a book or newspaper, engaging in something artistic, or writing the next novel have merit, but what about drinking tea while sitting at a computer (with free WiFi)? Is it just a passive distraction? What about reading a “book” on a laptop or tablet, or producing creative work on a computer while drinking tea? Yet shouldn’t there be a distinction between how we enjoy tea in public vs. in private that embraces the communal spirit of a tea house rather than tries to recreate our alone time at home? Frequently, WiFi is seen as one of the prime culprits in foiling a more social setting in tea and coffee houses in these connected times.
WiFi – always there, always on – is truly remarkable. Yet despite the promises of entire cities having free WiFi connectivity for all, those days do not appear to be on the horizon anytime soon for most communities. The WiFi providers outside the home or office have become individual establishments who provide WiFi connectivity for free because it supports their mission. During the past couple of years, many food and retail businesses, particularly coffee houses, have begun to question this assumption. Cyber squatters, who remain camped at tables for hours nursing a single cup of coffee or tea, have become problematic. In reaction, some coffee houses have begun pulling the plug on WiFi, partially or completely.
For some establishments, it is strictly a question of business economics – too many seats are being taken up by WiFi users and the number of sales per hour or table turn is too low to support the business, even though when you visit the shop it always seems full. Other shops are trying a more temperate approach, leaving the WiFi available during off-hours and switching it off during peak periods when seating is at a premium – a compromise that sounds good in theory, but can get tricky in practice. What if after completely or partially turning off the WiFi, customers are still lingering too long? Stop the use of smartphones? No tablet movie watching? No books more than 100 pages?
Although followed by only a few so far, there is also a third way. Some coffee and tea houses who used to offer WiFi, but now choose not to, have decided they want to provide a safe haven from a world that has become connected 24/7. Like the designated quiet car on some train services, these shops are deliberately trying to make their environment more attuned to drinking coffee and tea, to conversations, to the experience of the moment. New trend? Why not go with a friend to your local tea or coffee house and talk about it, face to face, uninterrupted, and then decide.