With a small jingle, she opens the café door. She has so many things to talk about with a friend who she has not seen for quite a long time. As soon as they get the drinks they ordered, they start to chat with excitement—how they have been, how their school lives are, and whether they are going out with anyone or not. After a few minutes, she feels a touch on her shoulder. She finds a woman standing next to her with a frown, who proceeds to say, “Excuse me, would you please keep it down? Everyone here except you two are studying.”
It is easy in Korea to observe people going to cafés to study rather than to just enjoy a cup of coffee. Only a few of the customers converse with each other; most come alone with their laptops and books, shutting themselves off from the outside world. The muted atmosphere in many cafés resembles that of a reading room. As a result, cafés find it necessary to install Wi-Fi routers on each floor and wall sockets for each seat in order to attract customers who are looking for a convenient place to study without any distractions.
However, a new trend is stirring among café owners. Some cafés in other countries are going against their customers’ needs and preventing them from using their laptops. Laptop-free cafés ask people to concentrate on talking to each other rather than staring intently at a small monitor. They are getting rid of their free Wi-Fi, changing their Wi-Fi password every two to three hours, and removing sockets to prevent people from charging their laptops and mobile devices.
From the perspective of café owners, this new strategy is very profitable because there are so many customers who occupy a seat for hours while only purchasing a single cup of coffee, thus reducing the seat turnover rate. Although people say in jest that the customer is king, customers still need to pay a reasonable sum in order to claim this right. For cafés to remain in business and prosper, seat turnover is crucial, and for the turnover rate to be increased, the movement to establish a laptop-free environment should not be discouraged.
Besides the financial aspect, a horde of people looking at small screens while not saying a single word does not match the expectations of cafés as warm and inviting places. With most urban scenes and places becoming compartmentalized and individualized these days, should silence and indifference spread to cafés, where we seek respite by conversing with friends? The decision to keep laptops away will contribute to the transformation of cafés into intimate refuges.
In fact, the adaption of this new trend is a bold move for café owners, who risk a significant loss of customers in the short term. However, overseas cafés have reported an increase in their long-term margins, not only through an increase in their seat turnover rate, but also because those who enjoyed the gleeful din of the cafés of old have become regular customers again. If this change can reestablish a healthy café culture and at the same time turn a profit, it will be a worthwhile investment for all.
For a long time, cafés were a symbol of a place where one could relax and communicate. It is undeniable that individuals can exercise their freedom when choosing what to do at a café. However, if one seeks to seize the opportunity to communicate with others, it would be wise to have cafés return to their bustling nature. What we need now is not another place enveloped in stifling silence, but a place to meet friends without being asked to quieten down.