Why I think Starbucks could be the key to destroying the high school clique system

What do preppies, yuppies, basics, hipsters — basically every label and stereotype — have in common?

They all go to Starbucks.

I first had this epiphany during homecoming week. For both “Hipster” AND “Basic” Day, people showed their school pride by dressing to the theme and for both of these days, that meant bringing Starbucks coffee. People’s perceived stereotypes of both Basic and Hipster cliques involved Starbucks. Several arguments were had over which group was truly a Starbucks type, each with valid points. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that any subculture/stereotype could fit in at a Starbucks, in theory, even those that don’t inherently seem like a Starbucks-loving group. Who knows? Goths could want a caramel macchiato every once in a while.

It’s one thing that people’s perceived impressions of these stereotypes involved Starbucks, but my gradually-building theory lacked real-life evidence. Starbucks, for my fellow high schoolers (and, I’d imagine, for most high schoolers) is an incredibly popular hangout. After school, on one of my many pilgrimages to the local Starbucks, I decided to pay a little more attention to my surroundings than to my vanilla frap. And I noticed that there were tons of people surrounding me — practically my whole graduating class and then some — from all walks of life. There were basis, goths, band geeks, and cheerleaders, but, as a whole, none of us could fit into one subculture or stereotype. We just had one thing in common — we were all spending our after-school hours in Starbucks.

That being said, the same groups that came together stuck together. Even though we all had a common love (the delicious caffeine delivery systems Starbucks sells), there wasn’t a whole lot of mingling between cliques. The more I thought about it, I realized what I was seeing was almost the perfect illustration of the ultimate torture of being a teenager: the conundrum of standing out or fitting in.

It seems that my classmates’ solution to this was to stay within the borders of their friends, asserting their individuality, whilst still being a part of a clique. I now understood why the Starbucks discussion during Homecoming had become so volatile and passionate: Each group was intent upon claiming Starbucks as their turf, something that sets them apart from all the other teenage posses. This Starbucks was housing a miraculous number of teenagers, all of whom refused to look past the faces a few feet in front of them, despite already having a common interest with the other groups, for the sake of being “unique.” Starbucks managed to bring them together, but could not yet make them set aside personal vanities in order to connect. They didn’t seem to be ignoring the other groups around them, so much as they didn’t seem to realize the world outside of their clique even existed.

The book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam stresses the importance of rebuilding declining social capital in the United States. In it, Putnam discusses the concept of bonding versus bridging, by which he means obligatory, obvious connection versus unexpected, new connection. In other words, bonding is solidifying a connection you were already acquainted with whereas bridging, is familiarization or sharing between two unlike groups, creating a sort of “bridge” between the two respective cultures, usually by means of a community center, event, group, etc. He meant this in terms of adult society, but I find it very much applies to teen social hierarchies as well.

Bonding was happening at our local Starbucks; there were plenty of friends-since-second-grade groups chattering away, but bridging had yet to happen. It’s a real shame, too, because teenagers — and people in general — could benefit so much from community building. Perhaps if people just talked to each other, we could raise a generation that could avoid the painful stereotyping and oversights that have tarnished, if not defined, past decades. Starbucks could seem like an unlikely place to do the latter, but because of its appeal and accessibility, it just might be the community center we need, even if it’s a bit sad that a Starbucks has to stand in for a town square.

I, myself, am guilty of sticking with who I knew best, instead of bridging out to connect with others. It just so happens that, in my case, who I knew best was myself. In 7th grade, I firmly decided I was an outsider and had not strayed from the title for years, but now I may rethink this façade and approach other groups within my local Starbucks instead of always flying solo.

People could say that only a certain type of person hangs out at Starbucks, but the irony in this statement is that they could be referring to any multitude of stereotypes, or in other words, they could be referring to anyone. Sure, some stereotypes have closer ties to Starbucks than others, but Starbucks doesn’t discriminate. As teenagers, we’re particularly susceptible to labeling, by elders and peers alike. I can be classified as many different things — good or bad, even self-created — inside a day. In a time when you’re struggling to find yourself, people project multiple identities onto you, and you learn to do the same. The harmful stereotyping (that translates to real issues in later years) really begins when you’re a teenager, whether you’re the one doing it, or having it done to you.

Though it’s unlikely that I’ll ever have a Breakfast Club type moment, where everyone realizes that they’re basically the same and becomes friends, I still plan to do my part and try to build a few bridges between myself and my peers.

I’m not saying that Starbucks is putting an end to labeling, or even that it has built the bridges described in Bowling Alone, and I certainly don’t think that this inclusiveness is intentional, but if Starbucks is both a teen hangout and fits with any subculture, it’s starting to derail the stereotypes we enforce on each other in an unconventional way that other tactics couldn’t. And that should count for something. I guess what I’m trying say can be summed up with this bit of common after-school chatter:

“Hey, want to meet up at Starbucks?”

(Image via iStock.)