Paradigm mixing

I like my hot beverages at instantly sip-able temperature – above warm, below hot. Yet I do not want to add calories to each hot drink I take, so milk is not an option. When I make my own coffee, I know what to do. But when I work in an office that has a coffee shop but no DIY coffee station, I am forced to develop a request interface to convey my need to a barista. I began by asking for ice cubes in my coffee. 8 ice cubes in a large cup. 8 ice cubes. That got more eye rolls and comments than I expected. The same baristas that are happy to make you an iced tea or coffee roll their eyes when you ask for a cup of hot coffee with 8 ice cubes in it. Why?

I thought – ok, 8 is a neurotic sounding number, perhaps rounding it up to 10 would appease the baristas. It did, marginally. 10 was better than 8 but I was still getting the annoyed facial expressions.

I was not giving up. 8 was too weird, 10 was too specific-sounding, – I reasoned, – so maybe asking for “a few” ice cubes – taking a precise number out of the request – would help matters. It did not. The baristas were less annoyed, but I was still not getting a desired result. A few apparently means 2-4 and several means 4-6. My coffee was never going to be just right.

There is no right way to ask for a hot coffee with some ice cubes and get exactly what you want – without agreeing to be viewed as a “strange guy”. It just seemed like a manifestation of a general human trait rather than bad customer service.

We like things to be familiar. We like patterns. We feel safe when everything around us makes sense. There are concepts we grow accustomed to, for better or worse, and any deviation from them puts us at unease. To apply these generalities to my coffee problem, I was trying to mix two paradigms that usually live in their separate worlds. There is Hot Coffee (would you like some room for cream? – they ask). There is Iced Coffee (fill the cup with ice, that’s right, all the way to the brim, then pour hot coffee). Hot coffee with 10 ice cubes is a mutant. It is a paradigm mix and anybody asking for such a thing must be an alien.

It has been a common experience for me to get a “nobody has ever asked for this before” remark.

Paradigm mixing belongs in the world of heroes. It is the world inhabited by the paralympian legless runner, the 100-year old marathoner, trucker-turn-Elvis, one-handed violinist. It belongs in the news and in the movies. But taken to its trivial level, paradigm mix scares us. That is one of the main reasons most people find it so difficult to come up with an original idea. An original idea is very often about taking two things that exist separately and making them into one and very often it is about enablement.

Think about it. There have always been people who lost limbs or eyesight. The history of sports competitions go back millennia. Yet somehow, until recently, nobody thought of putting the two separately existing things together and making a truly remarkable human and business venture of it.

Self-publishing, the phenomenal success of YouTube, social networks becoming huge financial successes are all testimony to the idea that people are as diverse and creative as the environment allows them to be. Give people tools to express themselves and the society will benefit.

How does this relate to my perfect cup of coffee problem? Simple. The modern coffee shop is stuck in a rigid model of yesteryears and is not willing to become creative. Give people tools, put a little fun into getting coffee and the business will be booming, I am sure of it.

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