Remote Worker Cafe Etiquette: A Guide for Digital Nomads

Escaping the office is positive for your sanity, creativity, and (with a few tricks to manage your environment) productivity. But as anyone who’s broken out of the office long-term – or who spends a lot of time working in public places – will tell you, it’s not without its own set of challenges.

For the uninitiated, and those who’ve grown a little too comfortable in their cafe-working ways, it pays to refresh the rules every so often. It’s estimated* that over 80% of the world’s time is wasted in line at coffee shops – and 80% of that time waste is caused by people who don’t know how to be regular, polite, sane members of society. We asked a veteran cafe rat, self-described digital nomad and remote worker, Herp Derpington** to break down cafe etiquette for us step-by-step:

Take it away, Herp….


Be Patient

What’s Fonzie like? He’s cool. And that’s what you’re gonna be, right? Like Fonzie… cool.

Good coffee takes a bit of skill to do right. Just relax. You’re not at the office today and you don’t have to be there for a few hours at least. So, be cool.

Hang Up the Phone

Jeff The Intern is a great guy to talk to in almost any other situation(“Dude. Fantasy football. Also, being a nomad. I’m a seamless blend of old-school corporate distraction AND millennial trailblazer…duuude.”), but if you’re in line at a cafe, he’s a reckless saboteur of your social status. Don’t let Jeff make you the clueless jerk in line by debating imaginary draft picks while you wait. Jeff will slowly ruin your life.

Formulate a Plan

It’s remarkable how many people reach the front of the line without deciding what they’re going to order. The chance of this happening in front of you is directly correlated with how much of a hurry you’re in.

He only had one job… you think to yourself, as the guy in front of you falters at the words “What can I get for you today?” But no. He had earbuds in and was swiping, was that… Tinder at 7:53AM? Multitasking is a lie. No one is good at it. Not him. Not even you.

She swiped left anyway.

Now’s your chance to look up at the big board and commit to a cafe au lait. Or maybe you’ll go with the iced americano…. hmm… Hey! Don’t get lost in that whimsical chalk art up there. Find your drink.

Focus. Decide. Proceed.

Weapon at the Ready

You’ve made your choice. Now it’s almost time to order. Are you paying with a card, an app or the NFC chip in your phone? Is your cash at the ready? Have that in hand. As a hardcore traveler, your wallet’s probably crowded with foreign bills. Yes, they’re impressive – those Hong Kong dollars with the lions on the back are totally badass. We’re all stoked that you were just somewhere insanely cool and exotic like, only acouple of days before you arrived here in this very line… now forget about being a money peacock and make sure you’ve got the right currency, in a reasonabledenomination, ready to roll – for your own safety. People split wigs for caffeine.

Split Wigs Definition – Urban Dictionary

Screenshot: UrbanDictionary


At last, it’s your turn to order. You’ve earned the respect of all those behind you with your diligent preparation. Sure, you could turn back right now and collect half a dozen silent nods, but that’d ruin the image of stoic preparedness you’ve so carefully crafted. Stay on target.


Don’t forget to start your order with this simple magic trick: “Hi.”

Yes. Say it. For bonus points, get the language right. And read your barista’s name tag.

How to Say Hello in 100 Languages

Screenshot: How to Say Hello in 100 Languages 

Say ‘Hi,’ to Cynthia, Sven, Thuy, Pierre and Chikelu because they’ve been here since 4:30AM and they earn minimum wage and have unfathomable student loans to pay, and their cats are all sick (it’s a universal ailment), yet here they stand: smiling, cheerful and ready to take your order and prepare your drugs.

“Hej, Cynthia. Hvordan har du det?”

Press Pause

That’s good, but wait. Are you listening to a podcast right now? Pause.Yes, pause the podcast but also pause a moment to reflect on your life. You’ve come so far. You’ve waited patiently, avoided an obnoxious conversation with Jeff The Intern, planned your order and prepared your cash. You’re practically destined to have a delicious beverage in hand but… this?

Take the earbuds out of your ears. Leaving one to dangle won’t do. Not even with the sound off.

Remember, Cynthia is a human person.

Look into her eyes. Demonstrate that you are one too. You are the person who has just said “Hi,” to her, as two humans are inclined to do when they greet each other.

Look, don’t gaze. Because…

Hitting on Staff

…gazing at 7:56 in the morning is Creepsville and the people in line behind you just want their coffee. If you choose this moment to gaze,you’ll set off a cascade of eye rolling, several sighs and at least a few huffs. The eye-rollers behind you are just waiting for an opportunity to make this moment incredibly awkward, probably by filming you getting shot down by your barista and uploading it with a bunch of very hurtful hashtags. Don’t give them the satisfaction.

If you thought you maybe felt a ‘spark’ or something, wait until the cafe quiets down and the eye rollers are happily sipping away at their seats. Then, strike up a discreet conversation to see if Cyn felt ac onnection too (‘Cyn’? Really?!). To be honest, asking someone out in their workplace is risky and uncomfortable at best, and using pet names as you hit on them for the first time is a slick move destined for heartbreak.

Don’t get ahead of yourself.

There’ll be plenty of time to figure out how to slip her your number after your order’s been completed. For now, look her in the face and state your order in a calm, clear voice.

This is no problem for you. You are a vision of stoic preparedness.

Call Me! Phone Number on Napkin





Get Into Position

Slide down the bar. Keep it tight so people can still shuffle past, and speak when you’re spoken to. Except by Jeff.

Let the Maestro Work

Remember that Seth Rogen movie you saw on the weekend? That was hilarious, and now’s the perfect time to tell no-one about it.

Things can get hectic behind the bar. Sure, Pierre’s a pro barista and he can probably handle nodding along to a rundown of whatever slapstick buddy comedy rehash you recently sat through, while managing several drinks at different stages of completion. But… leave that to him to decide. For all you know, he needs total concentration at this very moment to perfect a latte art rendition of a pirate ship coming out of a cave on a foggy Dominican dawn.

Have a chat if the maestro is feeling chatty. Otherwise, watch him work.

Maestro Creating Latte Art

Photo by: GoToVan via Creative Commons

Ears Up

Your job at the counter isn’t done. Earbuds down, chin high, and ready to grab the right drink (aim for the one with your name scrawled on it in black marker) as it comes off the bar.

And don’t forget to take one last look at that latte art before it’s gone forever.


No Squatting

Dropping your gear to save a seat before you’ve ordered is straight up fightin’ dirty. When times get tough and everybody else seems to be doing it, the temptation is strong. We’ve all been there, at a busy cafe in a big city, elbows up, half-ready to pull hair or bite down – whatever it takes. But in the end, squatting a prime seat is just as dishonorable as cutting in line.

It’s true, the comfy chair by the window right next to an outlet is open, and you could totally get it too if you just kinda let your bag sit there unattended for a few minutes. But you’re not going to do that, because it’s crowded today and if you did decide to squat that prime seat, someone’s elderly mother who actually arrived well ahead of you would get stuck standing next to the trash can by the bathrooms. That wouldn’t be right, would it?

Would it?

Consider of the Size of the Party

This sounds simple, but is so often ignored: grab a seat that’s suited to your party size. If you’re rolling solo, consider a counter seat or a spot at a shared table.

You love your bag. I understand. I really dig mine too, but your bag doesn’t need its own chair. If someone asks to join you, welcome them. They are (slightly)more engaging than your bag.

Except Jeff. Your bag is more engaging than Jeff.


Divine the Password

“What’s the WIFI password?” is a phrase you’ll basically never need to use at all, ever. It’s posted there to the left of the register and written in red up on the big chalkboard. It’s pinned to the cork board next to photos of the staff posing with their pets as well, and written, somewhat disturbingly, in grease pen on the bathroom mirror and on the shop window, though you’ll have to read that in reverse. You can also pretty much make it out if you look through the window…see, there? It’s on the sign on the sidewalk, down at the bottom. And there it is too on the napkin holder, sitting on your table: “123456789.”

Now you can get down to business.

Tip Jar with Wifi Password

Photo by: Cory Doctorow via CreativeCommons

No Tripwires

You’ve got your drink in hand. You lost out on the comfy chair, but you found a modestly-sized table for your group of… well, today it’s just you. And most importantly, you’ve plugged into a wall outlet without dangling any white brick tripwires around the shop.

Porn, Really?

It’s time to start your regular, everyday internet usage, during which you would of course never torrent, stream movies, download illegally or watch anything that could be construed as porn. Even porn-ish. Anime counts if it gets weird.

Hold up. If you were just now about to ask for a more specific definition of ‘weird,’ stop. It’s that. That’s weird.


Go Silent Mode

Go ahead and take the call… with your headphones on. At no time should your computer or phone make noise that is not for your ears only. Whether it’s music, reminders to pick up dental floss, or incoming calls– it’s silent mode and headphones all the way.

Luckily, the attached headphone mic hangs about 3 inches from your mouth, so you won’t have to holler down the line like Grandpa used to, when he thought he was ‘calling’ you from actual Montana with his actual voice box.

Take Responsibility for the Setting

Part of working remotely is managing constant change.

If you’ve got a ‘do-or-die’ call coming up (hopefully not literally, because, uh, Skype isn’t that reliable), don’t make it hard on yourself. Find a quiet corner ahead of the call and keep calm whether or not tech cooperates. Keeping calm can include such bald-faced lies as‘ I’m headed through a tunnel” and “It’s definitely your end”.


No Outside Food

Is that a durian-and-tuna-salad sandwich in your bag? Perfect! Take it to the park.

Outside food is frowned upon everywhere, if it’s not strictly forbidden.Bringing in outside food that reeks of fish (or just is fish)? Even worse.

Tuna Salad Sandwich Close Up

Photo by: Lara604via Creative Commons

Creativity is highest at an ambient noise level of around 70 decibels, which happens to correspond to the volume of your average cafe. Such an environment is lively but not distracting. However, when you’re getting yelled at by the staff for eating disgusting smelling food you didn’t even buy at their cafe, noise levels can top 80 and spike over 85 decibels. Above 85 decibels, productivity plummets. So you might as well get some fresh air and a little bit of exercise.


Nobody Camps in the City

Dense urban environments are less likely to appreciate ‘cafe campers’who don’t drink or eat much. Ordering something every couple of hours works as a general rule, but city mileage may vary.

In Hong Kong, many cafes offer just 15-30min of free wifi and have bolted their outlets shut to discourage long stays (hello, Macbook Air battery life!). Instead, you have to seek out chains in less trafficked areas, privately-owned cafes, or make use of co-working spaces. Tethering– or using a dedicated mobile wifi device – are options as well. But if you’re tethering at a busy cafe with a strict wi-fi limit, chances are you’re overstaying your welcome – you’ll be able to tell from the manager’s involuntary eyebrow twitch every time they look over at you.

In Ho Chi Minh, on the other hand, every seat seems to have a dedicated outlet. It’s not uncommon to see someone order a single ca phe da and then sip complimentary jasmine tea all day as they soak up free wi-fi.

In Paris, cafes tend to tolerate you for as long as you like, but a quick espresso standing at the bar will cost you much less than having the same seated at a table. And a table inside, costs less than a prime spot on the terrace.

As much as coffee is a common thread, every country has its quirks. And even Herp Derpington hasn’t been everywhere yet, so…


Where have you been, and what are the cafe rules and regulations for digital nomads and remote working types? Has Herp gone too far? Not far enough?  What are your pet peeves, or tips to help polish up the ‘coffice’ atmosphere?

**Estimated by me. Source: me.*

**Not his real name (obvs). But if you ***do*** know a person named Herp Derpington, we’re dropping everything to come meet him.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published