14 Polite Habits Baristas Secretly Hate, According to Starbucks Employees
You mean well, but some of the things you do in an attempt to be polite at the coffee shop may actually cause problems. Here's how to fix that.
Coffee (etiquette) talk
Americans drink about 491 million cups of coffee daily, and when the National Coffee Association asked adults when they last sipped some java, 65% said they’d drank it in the past day. As a recent study from the association reports, more than a third of them grabbed the beverage while out of the house—and a whopping 91% of people buy coffee away from home at least once a week. That’s a lot of customers going through coffee shops, and baristas are on the front lines every day.
Most of the time, the system runs like clockwork, and we all get our caffeine fix—as we do our best to avoid rude coffee shop habits and follow etiquette rules, especially coffee shop etiquette. But one of the things Starbucks employees won’t tell you is that in addition to avoiding rude behavior, there are some specific “polite habits” that aren’t quite as courteous as you might think.
“I had an elderly gentleman who came in every day over summer break and was so kind but never tipped me. At the end of the summer, he asked to shake my hand and then slipped some money into my palm,” says Grace M., 20, a barista and university student in Salt Lake City. “He told me to put it toward my studies, and I could tell that it meant a lot to him to give it to me.” The catch? “It was $5. For a whole summer’s work. I said thanks, but it was a little hard to keep the smile on my face.”
Of course, you wouldn’t do that, but it’s easy to make polite mistakes. So we talked to baristas from all over the country to get the scoop on which “polite” habits actually drive them nuts or get in the way of them doing their jobs—and what to do instead. From how to order at Starbucks to what to do if you show up at closing time, here’s what you need to know before you stop in for your next caffeine fix.
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Tipping one person specifically
The official Starbucks policy is that all tips are pooled and split between hourly workers. Once a week, baristas total the tips and then allocate them based on how many hours each person worked. That may be the case at your local cafe too. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of confusion about tipping among customers, which leads to some polite mistakes. For instance, there isn’t a way to ensure that your tip goes directly to the person who served you, no matter how awesome you may think they are.
“Sometimes I get people who try to hand cash directly to me or write a tip on the receipt and add my name to it, saying they want me to get the whole tip because I did such a great job,” Grace says. “I appreciate it—I really do—but we work as a team. It really isn’t just me making your drink, and so I do have to split that tip.”
Do this instead: If you received great service, offer a tip either by placing cash in the jar by the register or adding it when you pay by card. Not sure of the right amount? Here’s how much to tip.
Bringing your pup in for a “puppuccino”
Starbucks, along with many other coffee shops, offers “puppuccinos”—a dollop of whipped cream in a cup for your dog. So it’s understandable that you’d want to bring your pup in for the treat … and perhaps some belly rubs. But Starbucks doesn’t allow pets inside its stores unless they are service dogs.
“I love dogs more than anyone, and I wish I could meet your dog, but if you bring them in, I will have to ask you to take them out,” Grace says.
Do this instead: If you’re out walking your dog, use the mobile app to place your order and then leave your dog tied up outside while you quickly pick up your coffee and a puppuccino from the Starbucks secret menu. Eating out with your dog? Make sure you follow the etiquette rules for dining out with dogs.
Asking for your favorite barista’s schedule
Skilled baristas are worth their weight in gold—especially if you’re a true coffee aficionado—so it’s understandable that you like to visit when they’re working. But there’s a fine line between complimentary and creepy, and asking baristas for their schedule (or asking a co-worker when someone else is working) is a big no-no.
“I’ve been here long enough that I definitely have some customers who are very loyal to me, and recently one of my regulars came in and, when they saw I wasn’t in, asked my co-worker what my schedule was so they could come back then,” says Kirsten P., 22, a barista in Seattle. “I love that I’m their favorite! And I know they weren’t trying to be creepy. But we can’t give out co-workers’ schedules, and you shouldn’t ask for anyone’s schedule because that puts us in a really uncomfortable position.”
Do this instead: This is really a safety issue, so respect that boundary. And if you’ve made the mistake of asking, simply apologize and don’t do it again. If you want to show your favorite barista how much they matter, tell them that they do a great job and what you like about their work. An extra tip doesn’t hurt either!
Ordering a “regular macchiato”
There are so many memes about people ordering overly complicated drinks at Starbucks that you may feel like it’s more polite to keep your order simple and stick to basic coffee drinks like a regular macchiato. But that’s not as straightforward as you might think. “That order is more complicated at Starbucks, so I always ask a bunch of follow-up questions,” Kirsten says. “Sometimes this annoys people because this confusion is what they were trying to avoid in the first place.”
The issue is that a traditional, Italian-style macchiato is a single shot of espresso with a dollop of foam on top that comes in a very small cup (about 1 to 3 ounces). The Starbucks macchiato or caramel macchiato is “freshly steamed milk with vanilla-flavored syrup marked with espresso and topped with a caramel drizzle”—closer to a caramel latte. Most people ordering a macchiato at Starbucks want the Starbucks version … except for those who actually want it Italian-style. See the confusion?
Do this instead: If you want a traditional style, order the “espresso macchiato” (and be patient when the barista asks you if you’re really sure about that). If you want the Starbucks version, specify that or say “caramel macchiato.” If you’re ever unsure about what’s in a drink, feel free to ask; your barista will be happy to figure out what you’re looking for, Kirsten adds. And if you’re sipping that traditional macchiato at an Italian eatery, make sure you know proper Italian restaurant etiquette.
Using your indoor voice when it’s loud
Speaking quietly indoors is normally polite, but some coffee shops can get pretty noisy, especially if they’re crowded or if music is playing. Your barista’s priority is to get your order correct, so you might need to speak up or even yell a little, says Tanner S., a barista in San Jose, California.
“It’s the worst when I can’t hear the customer and I have to keep asking them to repeat themselves,” he says. “I know they’re trying to be polite and not yell at me, but honestly, I’d rather you just raise your voice. Otherwise, I have to lean way over the counter, which is uncomfortable.”
Do this instead: If your barista can’t hear you, don’t be afraid to be loud. If the noise bothers you or you’re uncomfortable speaking up, this is the perfect time to use the mobile app. You can also write your order on a piece of paper and hand it to the cashier, Tanner says.
Not speaking up if you get the wrong drink
We get it: You don’t want to be a “Karen” and be seen as entitled or demanding, but it isn’t rude to make sure you get the drink you ordered and paid for.
“I’ve had customers just take a drink that isn’t what they ordered because they want to be easygoing,” Tanner says. “The problem is that more often than not, they accidentally jumped the line and took someone else’s drink, and now there are two people unhappy.” He adds that this is why they write people’s names on the cups, and it’s surprising how many people don’t check the name, especially on printed tickets from mobile orders.
Do this instead: First, always check the name on your cup to make sure it’s yours. Then, if there is a mistake, politely bring it to the barista’s attention. You’re not being annoying! Remember: There’s a way to complain politely and get what you want without offending your favorite barista. “If you’re nice about it, there’s a good chance we’ll just remake it for free, and you can keep both,” he says. “We want you to be a happy customer!”
Asking for “two creams”
Unlike other ingredients, the cream in your coffee isn’t measured out. Baristas don’t use prepackaged creamer cups; they just pour out a bit from a jug. So while you are being polite by getting specific with your order, asking for one, two or three “creams” doesn’t mean much at Starbucks, Grace says. The same may be true at your local coffee shop.
“Amount of cream is one of the things that can really change the taste and texture of your drink, so I want to make sure I get it right,” she says. “Some people say they want a ‘blop’ or a ‘tad’ or a ‘bit,’ but that’s not super helpful either.”
Do this instead: Instead of focusing on the amount of cream, tell the barista what color you want your cup of joe to be in the end, Grace says. For instance, if you want a lot of cream, tell them you’d like your drink to be a light, milky brown. If you like a small amount, ask for “coffee with a hint of cream—I still want it to look dark brown.” You can even point to something, like a wood countertop, to illustrate the color.
Asking a lot of personal questions
Lots of people have friendly relationships with their baristas, and that’s a good thing—as long as you remember that being nice to you is part of their job. Respect that your relationship with them is professional.
“When you see people every day for years, you definitely feel friendly with them, and it’s normal to ask about their kids or job or whatever. But stick to friendly, surface-y stuff. Don’t try to get too deep,” Kirsten says. Things she doesn’t like being asked about? “Don’t ask who I’m dating, how old I am, where I live, my religion or political party—that kind of thing,” she says, adding that this is also bad restaurant etiquette.
Do this instead: The key is to remember that you’re friendly, not friends. Stick to small talk like the weather, local events and coffee recommendations.
Ordering “the usual”
You may think you’re saving time for both you and the barista by ordering “the usual” instead of a specific type of coffee, but that can actually cause more confusion and work—not to mention the fact that it can put your barista on the spot.
“We get a lot of repeat customers, and I do often remember their usual order, but sometimes I get it wrong or they want something different, so it’s best if you just tell me,” Grace says. The key to having a “usual” order is to be patient and keep a sense of humor about it, she says.
Do this instead: Say something like, “I’d like my usual, a double espresso. Thanks!” The barista may bring it up themselves. “If I remember, sometimes I’ll say, ‘Hey, Jack. Want your usual espresso?'” she says. “If I get it right, they feel special, and if I get it wrong, we can have a laugh about it. But please don’t feel bad if I don’t remember it! I see a lot of customers.”
Offering to teach the barista new tricks
If you’re an expert when it comes to making coffee, chances are that you do know more about coffee than the person working the counter—and you may think it’s kind to offer to teach them some new things.
“There’s a lot of artistry that goes into making coffee, and every once in a while, I’ll have a customer who either used to be a barista or just loves coffee and wants to show me a cool trick, usually with the foam,” Tanner says. “I think it’s cool, and I definitely can’t do that stuff, but I can’t let you come behind the counter, and honestly I don’t have the time anyhow.”
Do this instead: If you want to help out the barista, place your order and let them do their job. If you want to offer a tip or trick you’ve learned, you can ask them if they’re interested in hearing you describe it, but be prepared to accept a “no, thanks.” And never try to go behind the counter.
Helping close up
Being the last customer of the day can feel a little awkward, especially if you came in at the last minute. One way to show your thanks to the barista for letting you slide in is to help them clean while waiting for your drink, right? “I appreciate the offer, but I can’t let you bring in the patio furniture or mop or take out the trash,” Grace says. “It’s a liability issue.”
She adds that sometimes people will hang out and chat with her while she cleans up to “keep her company.” But she prefers to focus on her work. “I have my ‘customer face’ on all shift, and that gets exhausting. By the end, I just want to put in my AirPods and mop in peace,” she says.
Do this instead: The kindest thing you can do as the last customer is to place your order quickly and succinctly and then leave as soon as you get it. Be sure to say thank you and consider leaving a generous tip.
Saying “Surprise me!” for your order
Ordering “just a coffee” or saying “surprise me with something good” may seem polite—you’re trusting the barista’s educated opinion, after all—but coffee preferences are so individual that all this does is make the barista uncomfortable, says Dean K., 39, a barista in Atlanta.
“Every single time I’ve actually done this, the customer has not been happy with their drink, so I just refuse to do it anymore,” he says. “Now I just try to offer suggestions to narrow down the type of drink they like.” (This kind of vague order is also one of the “polite” habits bartenders dislike.)
Do this instead: If you need a suggestion, be specific about your taste preferences, and volunteer what kind of roast or flavors you like. Dean adds that “just coffee” means “black coffee,” so if you want cream or a shot of syrup (or anything extra), you need to say that—and pay for it.
Grabbing things from behind the counter
Need an extra shot of syrup or another lid? If you don’t want to bug the barista, it can be tempting to reach around the counter, especially if the syrup bottles are displayed right at the front. Resist that temptation, Tanner says. “It rarely is faster than just asking me to hand it to you, and people knock stuff over all the time,” he says. And, he adds, extras do cost extra money. The barista may give you an extra pump of syrup for free if you ask nicely, but don’t expect freebies.
Do this instead: Politely get the barista’s attention by waving your hand or saying “Excuse me.” Then ask for what you need. (Similarly, grabbing what you need from a server station is one of the top habits restaurant servers dislike.)
Telling the same jokes over and over again
It’s rush hour, and you can see the staff is harried, so it’s natural to want to tell a little joke to lighten the mood. But this is one of the so-called polite habits most people dislike on the job. And it really only works if it isn’t a joke they’ve heard a million times, Dean says.
“I know they’re just trying to make me smile, but I swear if I hear ‘There’s no price? Guess that means it’s free’ or ‘Working hard or hardly working?’ or ‘I like my coffee how I like my women: hot,’ I’ll lose my mind,” he says. “I appreciate the effort, but usually if we’re that rushed, I’m just tired and don’t want to make small talk.”
He adds that sometimes when he doesn’t laugh, people will cajole him, telling him to “lighten up” or “smile a little,” which just makes him feel less like laughing.
Do this instead: It’s OK to interject a little dad-joke humor, but keep it short and don’t make it personal, racist, political or religious. If the barista doesn’t laugh, just move on.
- National Coffee Association: “Coffee continues reign as America’s favorite beverage: Spring 2023 National Coffee Data Trends report”
- Grace M., barista and university student in Salt Lake City
- Kirsten P., barista in Seattle
- Tanner S., barista in San Jose, California
- Dean K., barista in Atlanta