The Best Way to Understand Human Nature is to Offer a Human Coffee For Free

It wouldn’t seem this way but Free is amazingly complicated. At first thought, it really shouldn’t be. Free is free is free is FREE. That’s all (you’d think) you really need to know. Yet humans, in their randomly mutated glory, overthink Free as much as anything else they’ll encounter. I witness this first hand. freecoffee

I hand out free Starbucks coffee from 7am to 2pm. The job is straightforward. 12 or so “Brand Ambassadors” and I converge at a predetermined spot in Midtown Manhattan and proceed to hand out free cups of Starbucks Blonde Roast coffee. We do this in two ways: one from our “mobile cafe” and by using 30 pound “jetbacks” to dispense coffee in the surrounding area. We provide milk, sugar, Splenda, stirrers. You can have the coffee in regular form or in vanilla. Every reasonable effort is made to ensure that the coffee is flavorful, warm, free of contaminates. All in all, it is a very novel, but legitimate setup.

I’ve done a lot of promotional beverage campaigns before but none should be easier than this one. It’s January. New Yorkers drink seven times more coffee than the average American city. Starbucks is the most recognizable coffee brand in New York. And, guess what, it’s all free? What’s there to say no to? Apparently, plenty.

If I had to guess, I’d say that only five percent of people actually take the coffee. I’ve lost my voice explaining to my fellow New Yorkers that I’ve coffee. And it’s free! But on they walk. Some decline with a hand, others decline with a “no, thank you”, others ignore me all together.

Now, there are very reasonable explanations for not wanting free coffee. 1. They don’t like coffee. 2. They have already had their morning coffee. 3. They would rather not drink coffee from a guy wearing a suit from “Ghostbusters” (We hear this joke every day, all day.) 4. They don’t want coffee from a random black dude who is losing his voice at 7am. All these are fine and I don’t worry if someone does not take it. One of the essential qualities of being a BA is not to take it personally. They aren’t rejecting me. They are rejecting the coffee. If I truly believed that I was being rejected, I’d face more rejection in a day than all of the woman on the Bachelor combined.

As hard as I try, I can’t come up with a pattern of who says yes and who says no. I’ve handed out coffee to New Yorkers wearing suits worth more than my whole networth while being rejected by a homeless. Some BAs are convinced Joseph Gordon Levitt came to the booth while I can’t give away coffee to a migrant worker. It isn’t a money thing or a racial thing. Some people just want the coffee while others don’t.

More amazingly than our rejectors are those who feel weirdly entitled to having something for free. People want soy milk. Hot chocolate. Half and Half. Black coffee. Chai Tea.  Lattes. More milk. More coupons. It’s as if because something didn’t cost them anything, they can have it in endless supply.

Even funnier than the rejectors and the entitleders are those who don’t want to admit they want the coffee until they do! I can walk to a stoplight and have a whole crowd try to act uninterested. Yet once the first person agrees to try the coffee, more than a few who’d only given me a side glance then line up in single file. As if they don’t want to miss out. Or because someone else did it, it’s all right to follow suit. Of course they wanted it all along. They just didn’t want to say so with people watching.

Others proceed to hear my invitation and go on two minute diatribes on how much they hate Starbucks coffee. One particular angry man detailed a night we couldn’t sleep after having Starbucks three years ago. “I wouldn’t drink Starbucks coffee if you gave it to me for FREE!” “Well, sir”, I explained, “I am giving it away for free.”

All of these types might make this job seem tedious or discourage. In reality, it is very fun. It is wonderful to see people’s reaction to getting something for free. They don’t overthink anything at all. They just say yes. Upon getting a coffee and then a free coupon, a lovely woman yesterday went on a poignant soliloquy on how miracles can be found in unexpected places, and I, in a certain new age way, was her oracle for the day. A French man kissed me on the cheek and I, being secretly French, kissed his cheek back. Never have I heard my favorite phrase “That’s what’s up!” more than since starting this job. We pose for pictures with tourists. We get others to tell their coworkers and friends where we are. Who knew Free was so exciting?

These are the people I love. I don’t mind skeptics. I don’t mind people who know better than to take things from strangers. But I’m honored to live in a City where people’s instincts, despite all the hastles and obligations and fears and skepticism of life in New York, are still to simply say “Yes!” and say “Thank you.”

I used to believe that everything good came with a price. That because something cost us something, that’s how we know it truly is important. That if a friendship or a lover or a job or a passion or a talent came easily, it doesn’t matter as much. But I’m not sure I agree with that anymore. The coffee you pay two dollars for and the coffee I give you ultimately is the same coffee. If you need the feeling that you worked for the coffee and that you earned the coffee, feel free to live life that way. Plus, everyone in the world can find a reasonably intelligent reason to always say “no”. Whatever the situation and whatever the offer, there’s always a good enough excuse and there’s always a good enough reason to decline. But saying no isn’t to your credit.

There’s another kind of satisfaction knowing that in a lifetime of buying coffee and wondering if you can pay for coffee, sometimes, you can stumble upon it. There’s no reason to pride yourself on being above Free if it doesn’t take you closer to the things you want. Stop finding a reason to say no. The coffee is yours. Take it.

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