I heard it at the café

Of all the things I have missed during the pandemic, the one that tops the list is the morning’s coffee shop visit. Nothing is more soothing to me than going to my favourite café and getting a cappuccino and, if I’m feeling fancy, a croissant oozing with chocolate, while I settle down at a table pretending to read the paper or browse on my mobile. 

So, now that I am a few weeks past my second dose of Pfizer, it’s time to get back to my favourite hobby.

Over the years, I have come to believe that the daily coffee at the local is one of the best ways to know your home, note who’s there and what they care about, what they talk about, what pisses them off, what matters to them.   

And, what’s new under the sun? Samuel Pepys, for example, noted extensively in his diary the usefulness of his visits to the coffeehouse, where he was able to pick up gossip, listen to debates or simply make useful trade connections. By 1664 Pepys was visiting his favourite coffee-houses near London’s Royal Exchange more than three times each week (and often twice a day), usually to meet his friends or colleagues, or sometimes simply to overhear the stories of trade and politics told by strangers.

Like Pepys, professionals tend to keep regular hours at a particular coffee-house, knowing full well that their colleagues and clients could easily seek them out there. Frascati in Strait Street, for example, is the haunt of the capital’s legal trade, where lawyers gather eagerly each day in order to circulate information about their own particular trade. 

Some people choose their café not for the coffee but for what it tells people who see them there. So, if I want other people to think that I am sneaking in and out of Castille every day, I would make Café Castille my habitual. Or, if I want to be seen and noted as the guy who is too busy to sit down, then an espresso standing up at the counter at Caffe Cordina’s is a must. 

One would be astounded at how long sipping a cappuccino can take. The brand and the aroma have nothing to do with it. It is a direct function of the amount of gossip I can learn or impart. One simply cannot get certain information unless he spends a certain number of hours imbibing his coffee. The gossip could be completely useless, but it could also empower you.

The most dangerous of gossipers is, of course, the guy who seems to be on familiar terms with the high and mighty. He whispers into his friends’ ears (but careful not to whisper so lowly that people at other tables do not hear him), all sorts of stories and “news” about the high and mighty. He is the sort who seems to be on the circulation list of cabinet memos, is invited in to listen to the most confidential meetings between Robert Abela and his ministers, gets a daily telephone call from Bernard Grech, and hobnobs with all the poor guys who have yachts at Ta’ Xbiex.

This guy has made an art out of regurgitating all the latest gossip and rumours and skilfully turning them into “facts”. He will tell you all these facts on condition that you promise not to pass them on to others, knowing full well that, as soon as he leaves, you will spill the beans to your other friends. These “facts” will then reach the ear of some reporter who, being happily ignorant of the rule that all rumours need to be substantiated by credible evidence, simply publishes them and awaits the thousands of likes that will start pouring in.

Imagine how happy the guy will be when, a few hours later, his scurrilous rumours have reached Facebook and been converted into something that the population at large has seemingly accepted as the unadulterated truth. 

Journalistically speaking, you cannot accuse anyone of committing serious crimes, without providing a shred of evidence, but basing it on hearsay – ‘he said it at Legligin, when he was tipsy, and someone who heard him told me’. This is nothing more than gossip. Astonishingly, most people believe it, nobody asking for concrete evidence. Of course, now, criticising the Press for publishing all sorts of wild claims is seen as an attack on the freedom of the Press, and therefore to be condemned outright.

But, back to the gossiping at the café. Scientists from the University of Pavia have found that gossiping is good for you. They discovered that the brain releases a significantly greater proportion of oxytocin when engaged in gossip than any other form of conversation. Oxytocin is known as the pleasure hormone.

A study conducted by Harris Interactive, when more than 2,500 employed adults were asked to name their biggest issue in the workplace, showed that gossip topped the list at 60% of the responders.  Relationship experts estimate that 65-80% of our daily conversations are about other people. Wow. Think about that, 80 percent of a 12-hour day (assuming you sleep for 8) would be nearly 12.8 hours of that time. Insane if it is true.

Believe it or not, sometimes bad gossip can turn out positively. A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that a fear of being gossiped about caused people to be more likely to align their behaviour to the expected norm. This is done in an effort to avoid being the focus of gossip. This is only positive, of course, if the expected norm is positive!

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