Should You Accept a Coffee at a Meeting or Interview?

A person on Quora asks Should you accept an offer of either tea or coffee in a serious meeting or a job interview?. Most say yes. I say no. Here’s my answer:

As an encyclopedia salesperson, (yes—a long time ago), I was taught that you should decline an offer of coffee. Here’s why. Suppose you spend 20 minutes talking with someone about encyclopedias. At the end of your pitch, you have given them your time and wisdom and people feel a need to reciprocate—they feel a little bit guilty that if they don’t buy, your time was wasted—so the need to reciprocate inclines them towards buying. But, if they have given you coffee, then there was an exchange, a quid pro quo, your time for their coffee, and since an exchange was made and your time wasn’t wasted they feel less need to buy.


And I thought that Prof. Cowen was the truly cynical one of the pair, but clearly it is time to reconsider.

Though still a distinctively Prof. Tabarrok post, as he seems to miss the point of your prospective employer evaluating your ability to handle various social interactions in private, before being associated with the prospective the employer in public. Whether you say no or yes is less important than how you handle the offer, basically.

For example, if I punch him at the nose because my religion (suppose I am a Mormon) forbids coffee (tea too, right?), it is bad for my job prospects right? Unless it is a front company for the Mormons and they were testing my faith and commitment to my principles. Also, if I start running in circles and yelling that he is in cahoots with my cat and Donald Trump to poison me (OK, this one I don't think is a Mormon thing), it is bad, right? But let's suppose I am Jewish or Muslim or a Jehovah's Witness and I am offered pork in a job interciew. Does politely refusing kills my prospects? Is it possible to show I was a victim of religious discrimination?

Strangely, I was thinking of a normal office setting, where one is dressed properly for a job interview. Where a prospective employer is simply gaining an impression if the prospective employee has an adequate amount of what used to be quaintly called social graces.

Where the specific answer is less important than the impression provided handling what one would have assumed, before your extremely entertaining exegesis of what had been written, was mundane reality.

In the case of a job interview, both parties play the role of saleperson and the prospective customer after all.

"I was thinking of a normal office setting, where one is dressed properly for a job interview. "
Well, when I imagined myself as a Mormon job seeker, I was thinking of a suit dressed FBI agents sans gun or maybe a door-to-door missionary wearing white T-shirt , buttoned up. Would Quaker garb make a better first impression?

Such a fixation on the religious. But the idea of a buttoned up white t-shirt has a certain dadaist appeal, to be honest.

Religious reason are among the most common ones for deviation from common dressing rules and dietary codes. I am trying to diferentiate myself, getting noticed. What if I say my religion forbids slacking, asking for raises, vacation and lunch time?

'Religious reason are among the most common ones for deviation from common dressing rules and dietary codes.'

If you say so.

'What if I say my religion forbids slacking, asking for raises, vacation and lunch time?'

People would wonder at that answer after being asked if you would like a cup of coffee, which is where this whole diversion started. And careful, there are millions of people who think that a diversion is a detour (though it works either way) even if the reason for their belief has nothing to do with religion.

I could say my religion doesn't allow me to abuse someone's hospitality, too.

" But let’s suppose I am Jewish or Muslim or a Jehovah’s Witness and I am offered pork in a job interciew. Does politely refusing kills my prospects?"

When being interviewed by the inquisition that is a problem.

But let's suppose I say I have just eaten or I have been traumatized by seem my father slain by pigs or that I have a bad stomachache.

Dear Tom, judging from your scenarios you seem to be quite an imaginative fellow.

Thank you. Sometimes I can not sleep because I think what would happen if I punched on the nose the job imterviewer offering me coffee.

Another Thiago alert. When banned posters pretend to be new people, at least they tone it down some.

So that is what my "time and wisdom" is valued at in a quid pro quo... a cup of tea. After that, it is goodbye and good luck.
Also, how often are company interviewers guilt tripped into giving someone a job?

That is a fascinating observation, but does it really make sense for a job interview? Declining coffee could make one look less socially skilled and thus less desirable to hire.

It would vary by job description. The scientist should be like "what? no!" while the salesman should smoothly guide the conversation through coffee and to the destination.

It tends to be people selling me things who offer coffee these days, and I am "what? no!"

Or conversely, the interviewer might not think anything of it.

What is you don't drink coffee? Is accepting water instead a social faux pas?

It could make it look as if one doesn't really want to work there, but was just dragged there for the interview against their will. :)

And as we all know, interviewers often hand out jobs based on a feeling of obligatory quid pro quo.

Yes, precisely. For the same reason the shopkeep charges a $1.99, he wants a termination protocol, he wants to return a penny.

I had a boss once, and after a sales meeting I forgot, and left some materials with the customer.
"Oh, well. It gives me an excuse to go back and see the customer', I said.
'Exactly', said my boss.

I protocol theory, this is an acknowledgement with timeout, an essential condition to prove stable exchange conditions under arbitrary congestion.

The person making the decision usually isn't the one offering me coffee.

Should I tell it to their face? Would they value my sagacity?

When a startup founded by 20somethings is bringing in a 47 year old engineer who they would never consider hiring just so that they can have him do a research project to present at a second pseudo-interview, he might as well just take the coffee.

OK, you lost me at the second pseudi-interview.

Who does research projects just to present at interviews?

They're not giving you coffee or tea. They are bringing it to you, creating a master/servant dynamic.

I've seen the same argument with respect to buying a car -- don't accept coffee or a piece of candy while sitting at the salesperson's desk lest you feel a friendly obligation to buy (or to negotiate less aggressively).

serving beverages at a meeting openly signals that it is a somewhat informal discussion -- not a serious meeting dealing with a serious subject. Skip the drinks if you want to be taken seriously -- and keep the meeting short and concise

For an interview -- exactly the opposite. If anything, building rapport through a more casual feeling is helpful for one's job prospects. That said, this probably only matters a very tiny bit on the margins. If it seems like no trouble and I want coffee that day, I will accept a cup. If I'm not thirsty or already caffeinated, I will decline.

"Insights" like this make me wonder what the average IQ really is (can it be below zero?). Next up: tip your mail carrier or they might lose your mail next year.

How naive. No mention of the Benjamin Franklin effect.

Walmart was (is?) famous for a gift policy that states that employees (with particular importance for buyers) can't accept even a cup of coffee from outside contacts (with particular importance for suppliers). The rationale is similar to Tyler's: If you personally accept something of value from a supplier then you are more likely to give them Walmart's business.

But Walmart is the exception. The fact remains that virtually every other employer in the US has some "reasonability" criterion, you are allowed to accept gifts up to a certain value or of a certain character. And almost all believe that a cup of coffee is just not substantial enough to color your judgment in either way.

This is covered in detail in the first Cialdini book, which by now everyone has read. Because everyone knows this it is not clear that is an effective strategy anymore, except with people who buy encyclopedias sold by door to door salesmen, i.e. aren't familiar with the strategy. Those familiar with the strategy may find it rude or manipulative.

In India, it's considered impolite to refuse tea/coffee when offered, so much so, that I was severely reprimanded over this when I was visiting customers with my boss. There were days when we'd have 6-7 calls and drink milky tea at all of them. Added up to a lot of calories.

Now that I am my own boss, I ask for green tea (at customers) or refuse (at suppliers).

Is it also considered impolite to ask to use the bathroom?

If so, the offer, assuming mandatory acceptance, may be a way to get rid of you quickly.

What about the fact that accepting the coffee helps break the ice, so you get off on a more friendly tone? A lot of job interviews also evaluate things like personability - whether you're going to be a nice person to work with. Lots of people get jobs because the employer decides they *like* them better, as a person. Refusing coffee may make you come across as unfriendly. Also, people don't like feeling guilty and any feeling of guilt over making someone take the time to show up for an interview is going to negatively color the interviewers feelings ultimately.

I don't think most prospective employers will think much of it either way, but to the extent it might matter a bit I think this is the correct interpretation.

"Refusing coffee may make you come across as unfriendly."

I offer people a beverage in case they are thirsty. They say no all the time. Never once have I thought them unfriendly. In fact it's an imposition to have the beverage brought so I prefer if they don't want it.

I really have to wonder about anyone who thinks it's unfriendly to say no to anything ever.

Hah. Well, women are sort of acculturated to be more congenial.
However, there are obviously some thing's it's okay to refuse. The recent Louis CK scandel being a good example of when it's OK to say "no".

I treat the question as one of risk analysis. If I drink coffee/tea at an interview there is a significant non-zero possibility that I may spill it or commit some other social faux pas, which can be avoided by declining politely with an explanation such as "No thank you, I just finished a cup." But see above comments (e.g. @Ankur on India) for certain cultural considerations where refusal would be the greater faux pas.

Door to door sales (I've done it) isn't the same as a job interview. They are a different dynamic. Furthermore, the drink offer during an interview might well be a formality that the person offering doesn't want you to accept, but they feel obligated to offer.

This is contextually sensitive and there is no always correct Yes or No answer.

I would always counter with a question, and ask the person offering if they were going to be partaking. If they said yes, then sure I'll take a cup, if not then I'll pass too. But I'd also have to think, is this going to push my bladder to the limit and require me to take a bath room break if the interview goes long? If so, maybe I'll request water instead.

More evidence of behavioral economics creep. At MR no less!

Significantly, if you use the rest room for an extended time, they will immediately buy the product just to get you out of their house ASAP.

Just act naturally. If you are in the mood for a coffee, graciously accept it. If not, graciously decline. There is nothing worse than putting on a false face either way. An astute interviewer, like an astute customer, will pick up on this easily (If they can't, you don't want to work for them or have them discover later that what they bought was not what they were sold).

It really puts me off when people give advice on how to pretend how not to be who you really are in order to play the game of getting what you think you want.

I also come from this view.

What about ordering wine during an interview over dinner with the hiring manager, when the hiring manager orders a glass of wine first? I've always refused to drink during interviews, even when the hiring manager insisted, and my excuse was always tomorrow (the all-day interview) is going to be a long day and I want to get a good night's sleep and be well rested...something to that effect.

It's well known that one should accept the offer of coffee and ask for a drinking straw too.

I was traveling to Chicago and knew a company would have some potential positions open. So, I arranged a lunch with the recruiting manager (not HR - even as a neophyte I knew that would be useless).

The lunch was going well and I wanted to prolong it. So, when they asked for coffee refills I kept saying yes. The manager excused himself a bit, then returned and asked if I minded talking to a few other people. He'd excused himself to set up an interview schedule.

This was my first set of interviews, and was also an unanticipated set. My bladder ached from all that coffee and I wasn't sure I could make it through the second interview without accident. But it ended and I was able to ask for brief rest room break before the next interview. I declined all further offers of coffee or water that afternoon.

I left with a job offer and an appreciation for the need to control my liquid intake in a business context.

This is a great anecdote. When I read Alex's post, I thought, "By that logic, not only should you not accept coffee, you should bring some in for them to amplify your effect."

I was going to make that comment, but I thought it would come off as being sarcastic. Your anecdote provides a real-world application of it! Thanks! :)

here's an alternative reason to decline: it will make you have to pee, and (especially if it's coffee), it will make you more anxious. having to mind your bladder is a huge distraction when trying to stay focused on answering questions intelligently and empathetically. being anxious can make you fumble your words badly or even inadvertently blurt out something really stupid or unappealing which you ought not to say in an interview.

Research suggests actually having a full bladder make better decisions,

I disagree. I think the psychology of a job interview is that you're a social equal who is a guest for the day. Serving beverages can be a conversational gambit to signal a less formal stage of the interview.

For some of my interviews, I was flown in, put up in a hotel for the night, gave a talk to the department, had three or four hour long talks with selected people, and went out for at least one meal. Once an employer is that invested in you, I don't think they care about whether you accepted a coffee. In fact, seeming standoffish might signal that you're not invested enough in them.

Agree with this. The coffee indicates that the interviewer wants to set a less formal tone. That means you made it past the point where they think you're qualified and they want to get to know who you are as a person.

This is stupid. At least at my company, we do not make decisions about whether to hire someone on the basis of cryptic signals. At least in tech, you hire someone if they can do the job, seem like a fit for the company culture, are self-motivated, don't falsely claim knowledge, and show that they can learn. If your employment prospects hinge on whether or not you ask for coffee, you're probably interviewing for the wrong job.

You mention company culture, that's what matters.

In some organizations the coffee question may be important while not for others.

It would be funny if you're calling your clients stupid.

If the company culture means they won't hire someone because they do or don't accept a cup of coffee, it's pretty likely they really are stupid.

The point is not that people will consciously make a judgement like "he drank some coffee, we don't hire people like that". Its that there are a lot of unconscious things that affect people's judgements. Sure, you'll say that one candidate is better or smarter or whatever - but what is actually making you think that (especially when you have a lot of candidates who are very close in abilities?)

I thought Scott Adams had proved to everyone over the last couple years that we are not as rational as we think we are?

While looking for a job last year I attended a 1 day course with a job hunting coach. The guy decided which people hire in a pharma company.

The issue here is that Alex forgets to mention how culture specific is the question. In my case, the coach said HR will probably assess how new hires handle spoons, forks, conversation topic or simply let others talk during coffee or lunch. I applied to an engineering consulting company and I had lunch with my new boss just as expected.

But, this varies from among countries and education levels. I doubt the salesperson Alex quotes works in an international setting.

I’ve always said No purely because it introduces risk (I’m clumsy) and subtracts time from the task at hand. The same goes for eating at networking events.

I will say I only interview people over lunch and while the jobs may not qualify as "serious", whatever that means, they pay six figures, offer tenure, and a pension. I always order a alcoholic drink and openly imply they should to. I don't hire people that don't unless they explicitly decline and give a reasonable reason such as religion, medical, recovering, or a teatotaller. Sorry but I have no interest in working with people that can't respect social niceties, culture, or tradition nor handle their liquor.

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