A cuppa and a natter

Getting back to normal?

One of the little adaptations to office life to keep us safe from the coronavirus: don’t make cups of tea for each other.

Fair enough but it has made me think of what ‘a cuppa’ means to me from a language & social communication perspective:

A cuppa is part of a predictable ritualistic behaviour: a hot drink is generally offered and accepted when we visit someone’s home. The offer of a refreshment is a social expectation.

The offer of a cuppa can be withheld if the person is not that welcome or the visit is more formal. Not offering can signal displeasure or set boundaries for the relationships.

A cuppa can be used for turn taking: it is my turn to put the kettle on. Do you fancy a brew?

A cuppa can be the vehicle for a friendly heated debate about how to ‘make a proper cup of tea’ (add milk before or after hot water???). It is a way of developing arguments or participating in non-threatening banter.

A cuppa can pave the way for sharing stories or anecdotes: On my holiday to x, I was gasping for a proper hot brew and all I got was…‘.

A cuppa in a seasonal vessel (e.g. a Christmas mug in September) can spark conversations about what we think about the Christmas season (arguments for or against Christmas parties always welcome).

A cuppa can be used to check on spoken and practical sequencing skills.

A cuppa can be used to practice vocabulary for everything tea related. It can also teach time concepts and vocabulary.

And whatever does this mean to anyone unfamiliar with the British brew: milk, two sugars, please?! Inferential processing at its best!

When I work in clinic environments I always offer to make a drink.

(Autism) diagnostic assessments: the ‘cuppa exchange’ shows me something about how the person reacts to the offer and interacts during the tea making process. Chatting side by side (not direct eye contact) can help along the interaction. It is a perfect opportunity to observe small talk skills.

The funny thing is that I have had to explain (thankfully only to a few) why I make clients a cuppa in a proper cup and why I don’t just use the reception vending machine. The inference is that I am doing too much or ‘acting the servant‘.

My thinking is that it is one kind gesture I can do for my clients, patients and service users (and their families). They frequently share personal information about their difficulties and vulnerabilities. At least I can show a bit of compassion and nurturing by making a brew.

This is where the emotional communication comes in. Looking after each other by serving a nice cup of tea can signal compassion to a person who feels really anxious or exhausted by their situation.

Cups of tea build relationships some might say but we all knew that, didn’t we?