Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | October 20, 2012

To Buy a Friend a Coffee: Acquiring a new Social Skill

First off, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who has commented on my 100th post – I really appreciate every single one of you, and thank you so much for reaching out. And if you haven’t yet, please do! 🙂 Now, on to today’s post…


I drove a friend to something early this morning. This friend has helped me take my kitty to the vet a couple of times, and she’s not a morning person, so I thought I’d try to do something nice for her, and bring her coffee early in the morning. I asked her if she would appreciate and accept such a thing yesterday, and she said yes. So I asked her what she’d like. “Latte, with the highest percentage of milkfat they have available” was the answer. Easy peasy. No problemo. I can do this.

Except that coffee is a lot more complex than I can figure out. As a non-coffee drinker (I prefer my mint tea and hot chocolate), I’m not familiar with all the things that coffee involves. I’m not familiar with what the difference between a mocha and a latte and an espresso and a cappuccino and a regular coffee is. I’m not familiar with all the different components and questions that the baristas (I think that’s the word?) might ask to clarify the order. I’ve never ordered coffee before.

But I wanted to make this work. I made the offer fully aware of the confusion I knew I would face, and was happy to do so. In addition to being something nice I could do for my friend, this was a controlled chance to expand my abilities. So I spent an hour last night researching how coffee works. Trying to figure out what exactly it was that makes a latte. I made a list of potential questions that the barista might ask me to clarify the order. I figured out all the answers for them. I practiced scripting the conversation, so that I would know what to say and how to say it and when. All so I could bring my friend coffee.

Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to use my newly practiced skills – I realized belatedly, as I was busy practicing the social situation in my head, that the offer for coffee kind of fails, because I couldn’t carry it (still on crutches = hands occupied = not carrying anything that could possibly spill, especially not scalding hot things that stain). So I’ll have to wait and get her coffee at some later time. (Thankfully, my friend is of the understanding type.) But that’s not the point of this post. This post is yet another example of how something someone might take completely for granted: like walking into a coffee shop and ordering a drink, is not something that is trivial for everyone.

When I’m tasked with a new social situation, I need time to prepare. I need time to think about it, to script about it, to try and figure out what exactly I need to think about in advance so that I can function properly in the situation. For me, every single social situation like this is new. If I have to go into a store (even a store I’ve been in hundreds of times) to find something new, I need to practice my scripts beforehand, so that I know exactly how and what to say if I need to ask someone (or if one of those “helpful” employees comes up to me and talks to me – something I do NOT appreciate, because they’re interrupting my patterns of movement and thought.) This period of “pre-planning” is very important in my abilities to cope with new situations and old alike. I don’t like surprises, so practicing ahead of time to minimize them is super important. I imagine this is the purpose of “social stories” that are a common thing I hear about for autistic kids these days.

When I’m shoved into a new social situation suddenly, this is one of the reasons I can shut down. My brain instantly generates about 200 new questions, instantly, that I don’t know the answers to, that I don’t have any time to figure out the answers to, but that my brain is trying like mad to parse and develop the answers to. Add that to likely being in sensory overload and having people trying to talk to me, and I’m in trouble. If I’m already a little off-balance from previous events that day, it can be even worse, and just continue to compound. Is it any wonder that sudden new social situations have the potential to cause a meltdown?

And this isn’t to say that buying my friend coffee would’ve caused a meltdown. In fact, it wouldn’t have, I don’t think. I had time to prepare. Time to practice. Time to think. And time to acquire a brand new skill. Plus, the plan was to go into the coffee shop (that I’ve been in twice before) at 7:15am on a Saturday – quiet time. Sometimes I can generalize, like asking where something in a store is, but some things, like ordering coffee, which requires specialized information, don’t generalize for me. But I was able to trouble shoot and figure out what I’d need to know in advance. For me, that’s how these things build and develop. Now, if only I have the opportunity to use this new skill. 🙂 Some time when I’ve regained the ability to walk with my feet instead of my hands.



  1. You can carry coffee with crutches! Ask for a carrier with a handle, and for the cup to be “double lidded” (the top lid covers the hole in the bottom lid, to prevent spillage). With luck the carrier won’t be a bag, but a folded cardboard thing that the cup sits in snuggly, with the handle above. It’s still tricky with crutches, I concede, but doable.

    And if you ever want guidance on ordering coffee (specially in Costa in the UK ;o), just give me a shout!

    • 🙂 I’m actually pretty good at carrying things short distances… just scalding hot. I will try next time 🙂

  2. Science to the rescue!

    A 2012 Ig Nobel price winner, no less. 🙂

    • And that should be “prize”, of course, damn my non-English brain. 🙂

    • that’s fantastic. 😛 thanks for sharing!!

  3. I had this exact conversation with my friend yesterday. I was trying to explain why ordering drinks at a bar is so tough for me. I have no experience with it and so don’t have enough reference data on my “hard drive”. This is compounded by the fact that my brain and body are totally unable to work together to allow me to carry drinks on a tray.

    • Oh god, drinks on a tray, that sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. 😉

  4. I am a huge coffee fan – but I don’t get those skinny, mocha, half-fat instructions at all. Keep it simple: dark roast – with cream.

    Might I suggest you show her your appreciation by considering a gift card to the coffee shop. It is spill-proof and then she can order her own mysteriously complicated beverage.

    The social aspect for me is that when I get a gift card, I can’t help but feel appreciated. When I finally use it to get my drink/treat – I think about the person who gave me the card – and I know that they were thinking about me. That’s the kind of ‘social’ that can perhaps time-travel 🙂

  5. I give you another tip. You are in a PhD program now. If you are friends with someone who is below you in your program (masters, undergrad, or prospective students), sometimes you got to do that, too.

    I say that because now that I am an OT professional- I have learned a few things.

    1. If I am with an OT student nowadays, I have to at least offer to pay the bill for him/her if we were at a restaurant.

    2. If I am with a professional at a restaurant, this can get tricky. Sometimes we pay for our own respective bills. Sometimes I pay the bill, and sometimes the other person pays the bill (if I am with this person rarely). Sometimes we take turns paying the bill (if I am with someone often).

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