Coffee and Cocktail Conversations

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 43 seconds.

Long-time friends were over for dinner at our beach cottage a few nights ago, and as we enjoyed conversation and cocktails before the meal, we mentioned that coffee hour and cocktail hour conversations were non-negotiable for Gina and me. Our friend inquired, “Every day? That is hard to fathom in this day and age.” And we replied, “Every day without fail.”

“We spend sixty minutes or more in conversation during morning coffee and sixty to ninety minutes in the afternoon during cocktail hour—a minimum of two hours of dialogue each day.” She then asked, “What do you guys talk about?” As we explained, it occurred to me that I should write a post about our coffee and cocktail conversations—realizing it is a bit out of the norm for most people.

I tend to be an impromptu kind of person. My personality assessments reveal that my worst nightmare is repetitive and mundane tasks. So doing anything every day is a stretch for me. But the payoff is an intimate and growing relationship with the person I care most about in the world.

Let’s start by asking, “Why do people drink?” I paraphrase some intriguing new research by Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford.

She says humans are intensely social and have an innate need to commune and an awareness that food and drink act as facilitators. Companions rely on bondedness to maintain social coherence—this is where a shared coffee or cocktail play an influential role. The caffeine and alcohol trigger the endorphin system. Endorphins (the word is a contraction of “endogenous morphine”) are neurotransmitters that are intimately involved, through their opiate-like effects, in the management of pain.

That “all’s-well-with-the-world” effect seems to be crucial for establishing bonded relationships that allow companions to trust each other. Drinking, seen in this light, is a profound activity. It enables humans to open up their deepest selves, giving another twist to the ancient saying “in vino veritas.”

Gina and I feel one of the secrets to a happy life together is refusing to eat or drink with a screen of any kind present—we believe it is vital to take time out with the person next to you, the one you know best and talk to them face-to-face over a drink or two. There’s nothing quite like a pleasant morning and late afternoon wrapped around a drink to provide health, happiness, and camaraderie.

So let’s take the three words—coffee, cocktails, conversation—and look at each of them for a moment.

Coffee—We have probably heard the clichés, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” and “He was my cream, and I was his coffee—and when you poured us together, it was something.” And they are meaningful, but let’s explore a few different aspects of this morning ritual.

Our coffee hour is so essential to us that if we have morning appointments, we set the alarm to get up 90 minutes early. It is that important to us. There have been times we were up at 4 am to make sure we had plenty of time for our coffee hour.

We have established a few ground rules over the years:

—No planning or talking about “to-do’s” or upcoming tasks during the first cup.

—No talking about deep or intense topics during the first cup unless one of us asks permission.

—No digital devices of any kind are allowed.

—The location must be conducive to face-to-face dialogue. 

—Elaborate coffee preparations such as French press or pour-over are for weekends and special occasions—all other days we settle for the speed and convenience of the Keurig.

—If we wake up at different times, which happens often, the early riser does not drink too much to ensure coffee together later.

Cocktails—We are aware of the potential health risks of excessive alcohol consumption—but we believe there is more upside than down. And we limit our cocktail time to two drinks each on most days.

Ms. Dunbar’s studies suggest to me that we should devote 40-60% of our available social time (and the same proportion of our emotional capital) to a companion. That is a very substantial commitment and requires an average of about two hours a day. So it makes it all the more necessary that the time we spend with each other is fun. Otherwise, we won’t keep coming back for more.

Relationships work because they provide us with “a shoulder to cry on” when our world falls apart. Companionships have to be set up ahead of need if they are to work for us, and that means investing a lot of time in them.

And so every afternoon around five or six o’clock our minds turn toward cocktails.

The years have established a few aspects of a good cocktail hour for us:

—We almost always have an appetizer. If our schedule has been crazy, it may be a simple as a ramekin of nuts. Usually, it is a cheese tray, charcuterie, edamame, taquitos, egg rolls, caprese, or antipasto.

—One of us makes drinks while the other prepares the appetizer.

—For us, most days that means an Old Fashioned. We both happen to love whiskey and have evolved into an expectation that our house cocktail is an Old Fashioned. When we need variety, we will go with a Sazerac or a Manhattan. A few rare days for a change of pace we will have a vodka-based drink such as a dirty martini (me) or cosmopolitan (her).

—Weekends provide time for experimenting with new drink recipes.

—We begin the cocktail hour with a toast. It may be as simple as a clink of the glasses or as formal as a salutation or a few words of congratulation, good wishes, appreciation, or remembrance. But it always includes looking into each other’s right eye.

—No digital devices of any kind are allowed.

—The location must be conducive to face-to-face dialogue. 

—On the rarest of occasions when we are unable to have a cocktail hour together, when we finally settle in before bedtime, we will make sure we have a nightcap.

—We always recap the events of the day.

Conversation—The coffee and cocktail ritual is so critical to us that we created conversation areas (and designed our homes) to be conducive to conversation and aesthetics. At Rivendell (our farmhouse) we have six different areas to have coffee or cocktails to provide variety. At Cocomo (our beach cottage) we have four areas.

We have all seen the proverbial couple at the restaurant who sit and never utter a word to each other or the couple that surfs their respective cell phone the entire meal. No matter how long you have been together, it does not have to be that way.

Some folks are natural conversationalists and can talk to anyone about anything. And some people struggle to make small talk. But I believe most people can polish up communication skills and keep a good conversation going.

Fast Company’s Stephanie Vozza lists Six Habits of a Good Conversationalist:

  1. They Listen More Than They Talk
  2. They Don’t Always Interject Their Experiences
  3. They Admit What They Don’t Know
  4. They Are Well Read
  5. They Look For Cues
  6. They Let Go Of The Details

The years have established a few aspects of a good conversation time for us:

—We ask questions. They may be formal or informal, cute or philosophical but they are always sincere. For example, this evening our question is structured: “What do you consider your greatest personal accomplishment this past year?” It could be “What is your fondest memory at Thanksgiving and why?” Life always provides myriad opportunities for questions if we let it.

—We recap the day, particularly if we have been apart most of the time.

—We read to each other. Many times I read what I’ve written that day, and we discuss it. Also, we will read each other an interesting article we came across on social networks, etc. Or on rare occasions, we will read to one another from a book of poetry or a book that is very special to one of us.

—We discuss what we are currently reading or a series we are watching.

—We talk about varied topics such as spirituality, nature, the afterlife, philosophy, psychology, and politics.

—We talk about Gina’s family—her grandchildren, children, and Dad.

—We talk about dreams and goals: travel, food, and friends.

—We commiserate if one of us has had a bad day.

I hope this explains why we hold our daily coffee and cocktail hour sacred. It motivates and moves us. Through rituals such as this, we build relationships and camaraderie, we manage transitions and mark important events in our lives. We express ourselves in joy and sorrow, and perhaps, most importantly, we create and sustain our being.

While some may dismiss the practice as old-fashioned or unattainable in today’s face-paced and modern world, we firmly believe the act of ritual is an essential part of the human condition that should be a non-negotiable part of our life, simply, because it makes life worth living.

Created by Randy Elrod
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