October 18, 2011

Debating Semantics

Some of my most successful days - if we're measuring by won/loss records - were spent in an ill fitting blazer, talking too rapidly about abstract foreign policy issues. I cited sources, but mostly, feigned the kind of authority it seemed I'd need to win. Usually, it worked. In the cases that it didn't, the other team blustered more convincingly than I. Such is the (comical, in hindsight) world of high school debate.

"Judge," I'd say, making sure to address the middle aged volunteer by their customary title, "We're debating semantics." Well of course, one might say. That's what you do in debate. But my point was this: We're spending time stressing over words rather than issues. There are child soldiers in Africa who depend on my plan passing. And also, I need another medal.

The plea seemed to work, fairly often. I'd lobby that the judge ignore the technical shortcomings of our plan, "Strip away the semantics", and do the right thing. It worked, not because I was a brilliant or hard-working debater, but because I had targeted a straw-man. People hate semantics; or at least, they think they do.

Despite that, I knowingly spend too much time emphasizing semantics. "Which is the darkest?" a customer will ask. "Well," I respond, "That's really not a very useful dichotomy. None of our single-origin beans are roasted dark, so as to preserved their unique characteristics. Given that, it's really a matter of what you prefer, in terms of body, acidity, and general flavor profile."

They blink, more confused than when they asked the question. It's not for the acquisition of bad information; everything I said was true. But it's useless to them. They want the information they asked for, as simply as possible. "Judge, the barista is debating semantics."

And I am; and I have; and I will. I like words, and I like coffee. Those things combined - along with my general love for trivia - lead me to over-share, and often enough, to avoid really answering the question they asked. I say pretty things, skirt the issue, and cast a "Oh you didn't know that? Well consider yourself learned" glance at the customer.

I really should stop doing that. Which is, as much as anything, why I'm writing this. I spend an awful lot of time talking about the things I do right, and the things I think are positive about the coffee bar experience. But sometimes, I do the wrong thing. Sometimes, I create a less-than-rosy experience. Sometimes - too often, honestly - I focus on semantics, and not the child soldiers in Africa.

So, which one is the darker roast? The sumatra.

No comments:

Post a Comment