A few years ago, when our main annual conference was held in Toronto, I walked into a Starbucks downtown, on my way to the convention centre (yes, that’s how Canadians spell it — deal with it). Apart from the curious (though once familiar) experience of all of us standing in a single line and then moving to one of the three open registers each in our turn (instead of my experience here in Tuscaloosa, where it’s each consumer for him/herself once a cashier opens), there was another moment in which the practical conditions of day-to-day life in TO (yeah, that’s what people in the know call it) made evident that a rather different sense of the the subject — of the individual-in-relation-to-the-group — was in operation north of the border.
For when I got to the counter I said “Grande, regular” in reply to the barista’s query about what I’d have. That’s how I’d ordered my medium-sized Starbucks coffee in Tuscaloosa for about a decade (and yes, I wish I could just say “medium” but then I’d spoil the illusion of the Starbucks experience, so I play along, coz it’s easier that way). And when I do they just pour me a cup of coffee.
It’s an uncomplicated transaction.
But instead of just turning around to get my coffee that morning in Toronto, and letting me be on my way, the woman behind the counter replied: “What’s regular for you?”
While I wouldn’t want to generalize too much from the epiphany I had when I was unexpectedly put in the position of recognizing that the rhetoric of “regular” — much like “natural,” “common,” “routine,” or “typical,” not to mention “normal” — was, in fact, complicated, highly variable, relative, and thus situationally-specific, it did prompt me to think a little about the sociology of individualism and the broad differences between Canada and the U.S. (despite similarities that are hard to get past, sometimes) — as well as wonder what those baristas in Tuscaloosa had been serving me for all those years, deciding for themselves what counted as my regular.
Now? I order “Grande, mild” — despite not having any idea how its all that different from the bold. But at least I feel like I’m taking a stand by making a choice and marking my turf.