Adventures in the Land of Primate Brains

So yesterday I told you guys about training for my new job at Great Lakes. I was mostly focused on the whole gist of the experience, but I also want to tell you about my favorite moment of the whole training. On and off all night there were these awkward moments where someone would walk up to the counter and make eye contact with me. David (my boss, the guy I was shadowing) would be making coffee or dealing with some other business and the other baristas would have just magically disappeared.

Which would leave me, standing there, making eye contact with a new customer, completely unsure what to do.

Sometimes I would just smile and make my best "I'm-new-here-I'm-doing-training-I-can't-actually-help-you" face. Sometimes I would frantically look around for another barista, sometimes I would try and get David's attention.

This time, though, I decided to ask the woman what she would like.

She was holding her coffee and a metal pitcher of cream, and wondering if maybe the cream had gone bad.

I called David over, he checked the date on the cream (it was fine). Then we rinsed out the old cream, put new cream in it, and I handed it back to the woman to taste it.

She looked at me, looked at the cream.

Looked back up at me.

Her eyes said, "I'm confused, you don't want me to drink out of this communal pitcher, do you?".

She even mumbled, saying something like, "I can't drink out of this, though ...".

And at this point, I am totally paralyzed.

I have no idea what to do.

I'm way off book.

I've been trained to do a couple very specific tasks: clear dished, make pour over coffee, restock pre-measured beans.

Managing disgruntled customers?

Nope, no training.

Transferring cream to a paper cup for said disgruntled customer?

Nope, no training.

I wasn't confident doing anything other than precisely what I had been instructed to do.

Which why, in that moment, I felt like such a bad ass when I reached six inches to my left, picked up a paper cup and poured some cream into it for her to taste.



I felt like I had just stepped out into the sunlight.

Exposing myself to all sorts of risk and vulnerability.

Giving away a paper cup for free, a cup she didn't ask for, a cup that I wasn't authorized to give away, a cup I wasn't trained to give away - it's mind blowing how brave and bold that felt.

My little primate brain was surging.

In this new situation, my brain had shrunk down into complete obedience, and I was pushing it back out into "make a difference".

I was in "don't f*** up" mode, a mode that does not allow for new ideas or risk taking.

By pouring the cream, I had pushed it back out into, "be a bad a**" mode.


Now cream is poured, tasted, confirmed that it tastes just fine.

New challenge.

She's standing there with her ruined, bad-cream-filled coffee.

"Don't f*** up" mode has kicked back in and I'm not sure if I'm allowed to offer her a new cup.

By this time, the other barista has magically reappeared and so, on top of everything else, it's now unclear who's job it is to finish this transaction.

A couple clumsy moments later I confirmed with David that I could make her a new coffee and took responsibility for making it.

That, after all, is one thing I've been explicitly trained to do.

A pour over takes about 2 minutes to prepare and the next 2 minutes - those were my favorite of the whole evening.

For these 2 minutes, I'm totally in my element.

I'm doing something I've been trained to do.

And I'm doing it for someone who needs support.

You see, by now her crazy primate brain has kicked in, and she's starting to regret having come up, feeling bad about me making her a new cup.

I know what to do with a human being suffering under social anxiety.

I gave her the biggest smile I could muster. I made eye contact. I asked her how her day was going, how she was liking the coffee shop.

The first 200 words that tumbled out of her mouth, of course, had nothing to do with my question.

They were random, mixed up confused apologies for making me brew another cup.

This phase, I always think of it as decompression.

All of her anxiety and fear and insecurities just started tumbling out. "Oh, I'm having a good day. I mean, yeah. Oh, geez, I'm just so sorry about making you do this. My husband, you know, he says I'm too timid, that I should do this more often. But me, you know, I just feel so bad ..."

And I'm there, smiling, loving her, listening to her.

It's my favorite feeling, connecting to a human being.

Connecting to her, assuring her. Assuring her with my voice, my words, my smile.

When I'm connecting to someone this way, listening to them, supporting them - I swear, I can feel their anxiety melting away. I can feel the difference I'm making, it's as real to me as if I was giving them a back rub. I can feel the difference it makes.

The decompression only took 30 seconds or so, and then we got to have a nice chat.

She told me this was her first time in the shop, that she and her husband had ridden by on their bikes a couple times and wanted to check it out.

So as it turns out, my nice human moment was also a good business moment. Treating her well means she's much more likely to come back, more likely to say nice things about us, more likely to stick around long enough to try more coffee, more food, more of the stuff that we love to make.

Looking back, of course, I wish I would have been even more supportive. I wish I would have thanked her for pointing out the bad cream and immediately offered her a new cup. I wish I would have taken accountability sooner, stepped right up instead of asking permission first.

Even with all that, though, it was still my favorite part of the night.

If I get a chance to make a connection like that even once or twice a shift, I think I'm really going to like this job.