A Mug’s Game

This is just a fun story… something to read while you take your coffee break… don’t take it too seriously!

Most of us drink, in the west, drink coffee. In the US for instance, more than 80 per cent of adults consume it every day or most days. The figure is somewhat lower in the UK due to our traditional love of tea, but even here more than half of us drink coffee, even if not every day. And with the flood of high street coffee chains over the past couple of decades, combined with increasingly long working hours that often seem to call for a shot of caffeine in the mornings and then again throughout the day, that figure is only increasing.

A mug’s game *

Not only do most of us drink coffee, but many of us have a favourite coffee cup or mug. This is partly because coffee breaks are often a moment of calm in the busy day, a short period of reflection and of pleasure. The comfort derived from drinking coffee from your usual cup can be likened to the familiarity and recognition we all feel – without consciously registering – when slipping into an old pair of jeans, or even putting on our shoes. And having to drink from someone else’s mug can be as jarring as wearing someone else’s jeans or shoes.

Office politics *

People in offices can get quite tetchy if someone else uses “their” mug. It’s not uncommon for rather terse emails to fly across the office intranet, along the lines of:

Has anyone seen my mug? It’s the blue one with the sunflowers on. Please return to the kitchen immediately. Thanks – Beryl

While such emails often attract a few tuts and sniggers, it is not just a case of someone being possessive about a cup. There is strong evidence that the colour and shape of cups, plates and utensils actually affects how we perceive food tastes. Some genuine examples from academic studies:

  • People who ate desserts using a black spoon found them less sweet than the same desserts eaten with a white spoon

  • Likewise, a dessert using a large spoon tasted less sweet than the identical dessert eaten with a very small spoon

  • A piece of cheese eaten from a fork or toothpick is perceived as being less salty than one eaten from the end of a knife

Top chefs and restauranteurs are well aware of this. There is a reason why good restaurants very rarely stray from serving main courses on simple, round, white plates. Not only does the white background tend to enhance the aesthetics of the food, but diners generally rate food eaten from white, round plates as being more intense in flavour and higher in overall quality. Interestingly, small black plates score quite highly too.

As an aside, it is not just our sense of sight that influences how food tastes – our sense of hearing plays a part too. The music played in good restaurants is carefully chosen. Food eaten to a background of Vivaldi will taste qualitatively different to that eaten while listening to Motorhead.

Coffee cacophony *

It is not just food this affected in this way. This interplay between appearance and taste applies strongly to drinks as well.

For example, when subjects were given hot chocolate from five different coloured cups and asked to rank the experience, a large majority rated the hot chocolate in the red cup as being richer, better balanced and of the highest quality. It was then revealed that it had been an identical beverage in each cup. This experiment can be repeated time and again with the same results. Try it yourself on your friends.

The vessel the coffee is made in will affect our perception of taste too. Coffee from a traditional stovetop espresso maker will seem different to that from a cafetiere, or an Aeropress® coffee maker, or a vending machine. Even after the drink has been made up into a latte or a cappuccino, if subjects saw it being poured from one of the above mentioned devices, they would describe the taste differently – even when the drinks are all in fact identical. It is fascinating stuff.

A matter of taste *

So with all this in mind, is it any wonder that people get so precious about their coffee cups? Not only is there the comfort and familiarity as discussed above, but given what we’ve learned about how colour and shape affects taste, the coffee will actually taste different from someone else’s cup.

While red cups do indeed appear to make drinks taste subjectively better, when people have a coffee in the office or other workaday situation, they are often not seeking the subjectively best taste experience – rather they are seeking a familiar one. Hence the annoyance and irritability when “their” cup goes walkabout.

It is for this reason that it is not unknown for people in offices who’ve had a falling out, say after a heated argument at a meeting, or a perceived romantic betrayal, to “accidentally” drop their colleague’s mug on to the hard kitchen floor. Sure, this is an act of petty revenge, but it’s a damned effective one. Even if the fall only breaks the handle off, the cup’s appearance has forever changed: for the entire rest of the victim’s life, their coffee will never, ever taste quite the same again. A truly chilling thought…

What your cup says about you *

So now that we’ve looked at some of the science and psychology behind why people prefer “their” cup, and how it is not just petty materialism but there are actual legitimate reasons why the particular cup influences the coffee-drinking experience, let’s now look at why people choose that particular cup in the first place.

After all, we’ve already seen that in several, well conducted academic studies, time and again most subjects rate beverages in red cups as scoring higher in most areas – flavour, richness, balance and so on. So why doesn’t everybody just choose a red cup in the first place? Clearly there is more to all this than just our sense of taste.

Cups – a complex interplay of conscious and unconscious *

People’s choice of favourite cup does tells us something about them, or at least some people think it can do, anyway. Their choice is part subconscious – what they involuntarily drifted towards when they first went to pick up a cup and settled on that one.

But it is also part conscious – it tells us something about how they want to be seen by the world. A macho “lad” type is unlikely to want to be seen drinking from a pink, daisy-embossed mug. Unless of course he is an “ironic” lad type – and he is trying to let everyone know how ironic he can be. Ironically enough, this will likely indicate that actually, he doesn’t really get irony at all, and is far less funny than he thinks he is.

And if you ever see a politician drinking coffee, they will rarely if ever be seen drinking from a cup with a picture or pattern on. They tend to favour strong, bold colours or classic whites – but not a picture or pattern, which might make them look frivolous or indecisive.

Just a bit of fun? *

So let’s look more deeply into what our choice of cup says about us. Do bear in mind though that some critics say that “coffee cup-based personality diagnosis”, as we might call it, isn’t very scientific, and should be treated in the same way as astrology or palm reading – that is, just a bit of fun without any basis in fact.

However, others argue that unlike astrology and palm reading, which try to divine aspects

Of our personalities from things over which we have no control – that is, the stars and the lines on our hands – coffee cup-based personality diagnosis does at least base its findings on something that we do actually consciously or unconsciously decide upon.

It could therefore be argued that trying to discern somebody’s personality from their choice of coffee cup, even if it is basically nonsense, is considerably more rational than astrology. And given the amount of column inches that horoscopes fill in national newspapers, and the amount of money paid for bogus “birth charts”, it seems inconsistent to reject out of hand a personality test that is no more or less proven than astrology. This article hopes in some small way to redress that balance.

So, whether you treat it “merely as a bit of fun” or whether you think there is something more revealing to coffee cup-based personality diagnosis, let’s take a look at what people’s choice of coffee cup might say about them:

Red *

People who choose red cups tend to be – or want to be seen as – bold, assertive and confident. They might be business leaders or Tupperware party organisers. There is a school of thought that people who choose red cups or more likely to be angry or have short fuses, but there is little evidence to support this theory.

Even if there were any truth to the theory that people who have a favourite red coffee cup are bold, assertive or angry – and there probably isn’t – it might only tell us about their state of mind when they first selected that cup. Someone in an office, say, might have the same favourite cup for years. So if someone has a red cup it might mean that they were feeling particularly bold one Tuesday two years ago. How they are feeling now, two years down the line, may be completely different.

They may have been through a divorce, for example, or been diagnosed with an illness that has shaken their confidence. The question then arises: if you picked a coffee cup based on a particular mood, state of mind or personality trait, and then something substantial changes in your life, do you keep using the same cup out of habit, or would it eventually be so jarring with your actual feelings that you feel the need to switch to something more appropriate?

Even this can tell us something about people’s personalities, however. For the sheer doggedness with which somebody clings to a coffee cup that no longer suits their personality and outlook is itself quite revealing. As can you may be starting to realise, the theory behind coffee cup-based personality diagnosis can get extremely complex, and this article can really only scratch the surface of it.

Notable people who might choose a RED coffee cup: *

  • Barrack Obama

  • Timmy Mallet

  • Christine Hamilton

  • Charles Bronson (the infamous British prisoner, not the famous American actor)

Blue *

Blue is a tricky one, as so much depends on the shade. A very pale blue might indicate an inner calmness or even serenity. It is not difficult to imagine the Dalai Lama for instance sipping his coffee from a pale, eggshell blue cup. Although as a Tibetan monk it is more likely that he is in fact a tea drinker – it is slightly difficult to picture him operating an Aeropress Coffee Maker. Interestingly, monks in Tibet often mix their tea with yak butter and, inspired by this practice, attempts have recently been made to a bring to the UK market a Tibetan inspired butter coffee.

A slightly darker, more mid-shade blue could suggest a certain wistfulness in a person. Perhaps they spend their time daydreaming about childhood holidays, or dreaming of holidays they’d like to have. Martin Clunes, for example, could well favour a mid-range shade of blue cup – although he most likely prefers a nice chunky rustic-style mug, rather than a cup, as he likes to wear jumpers and is known to drive a Range Rover and enjoy country walks with his pet Labradors.

You could very much picture Martin coming back from one his long walks and – after he has taken off his green waxed jacket and given the dog a bowl of water and maybe a treat – making himself a cup of coffee using a classically designed cafetiere, then pushing the plunger slowly down while smiling to himself in a self-satisfied kind of way, then pouring it into that chunky, mid-shade blue mug.

Finally, Martin would sink back into his favourite armchair, perhaps in front of a gently flickering fire, put on his reading glasses and begin to browse the newspaper while sipping his delicious coffee.

In the navy *

So if pale blue can indicate serenity and mid-shade blue may suggest wistfulness, what of the darker hues? Here again, the picture can be more complicated than you might imagine. A good strong navy may simply indicate a fondness for things that are blue – such as the sea ­– or even that somebody is quite literally in the navy: sometimes, the picture can be less complicated than you might imagine. As Roy Walker would advise, “say what you see” – and this advice can be as true to coffee cups as it is to daytime quiz shows.

That is not to say that somebody who drinks their coffee from a navy blue cup is definitely in the navy – but they certainly could be. Coffee cup reading is of course not an exact science, more of a guide, or even – like tea leaf reading or tarot cards – just a meaningless and essentially random pattern that creates a forum for reflection, musing and discussion.

Amusingly, although Roy Walker may have advised “say what you see” with reference to navy blue coffee cups and people being in the navy, he himself, as a game show host, may well have chosen a more light-hearted type of coffee cup, such as one that said “World’s greatest golfer”, for example, to reflect his fun, mirthful personality.

It is important to add here that there is no evidence to support the claim, made by some, that people who favour blue coffee cups are cold and unfeeling. Such notions no longer hold much credibility, if indeed they ever did.

Notable people who might choose a BLUE coffee cup *

  • The Dalai Lama

  • Martin Clunes

  • Alan Bennett

  • Ellen MacArthur

Green *

You might think that people who prefer green coffee cups tend to be lovers of the environment and fans of recycling – and in this instance, the stereotype may actually have some truth to it. It is not unknown for people who drink from green mugs to favour eco-friendly holidays and to be in favour of tighter controls on carbon emissions. Nor is it unheard of for such people to scoff at so-called climate change deniers.

People who care deeply about the environment often have related sets of ethical values, and they may well donate money to Water Aid, for example, and be prepared to pay a bit more for their clothes rather than to buy them from a shop that may have links with third world sweatshops.

So with all this in mind you would not be surprised if, while on a day trip to Brighton, you happened to see Caroline Lucas – the UK’s first ever Green Party MP– drinking her coffee from a green cup. Nor would you be surprised if someone told you that the coffee she was drinking was Fair Trade, and the milk was soya milk. All of these reflect some of the values that some fans of green coffee cups share.

Beans and the Bard *

This is not though to suggest that everyone who favours a green coffee cup is some kind of “do gooder”. Far from it – for green is also the colour of jealousy.

In Othello, we find sly Iago telling his supposed friend:

Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.

The irony being of course that the real monster was in fact Iago, who was intensely jealous of the Moor’s success and so was planting jealousy in his friend’s mind even while warning him against it. This would ultimately go on to lead to (spoiler alert) catastrophic consequences. Would Iago have chosen a green coffee cup? We can only speculate. Although – Othello being the Moor of Venice and Venetians being the earliest European adopters of coffee-drinking culture, actually at around the time Shakespeare was writing – it is certainly likely that he would have drunk the stuff, so he would have needed a cup of some description. Shakespeare is of course not here to confirm the colour if Iago’s cup, so we will never know for sure – but for some students of his works believe there is little doubt it would have been green.

On the ball *

So it’s not just environmentalists who might be attracted to green coffee cups – those of a jealous disposition sometimes are too.

One celebrity example might perhaps be Real Madrid footballer and known coffee lover Christiano Ronaldo, who has only once been the winner of the Ballon D’Or, while his arch rival, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi has collected no less than three of the prestigious gongs – twice pipping Ronaldo himself into second place.

The ex-Manchester United ace is favourite to win the award for a second time this year, but nevertheless, he is known to have become increasingly frustrated after spending several years being considered merely the second best player in the world. This frustration is exacerbated by the fact that he himself, and many of his fans, believe him to be the best and the whole award system to be a bit dubious.

As he sits in a fashionable Madrid cafe, musing on his diminutive nemesis up in Barcelona, might Ronaldo find himself requesting from the Aeropress-operating barista that his espresso is served in a green cup? And if he did, would that tell us something revealing about the demons of envy that may or may not plague his mind? Maybe, maybe not – but one thing’s for sure: as we’ve learned from the issues discussed above, the coffee cup you choose can reveal rather more about you than most people probably realise.

Notable people who might choose a GREEN coffee cup *

  • Caroline Lucas MP

  • Prince Charles

  • Christiano Ronaldo

  • Alan Titchmarsh

A complex subject *

As we can see from all this, the study of the psychology of coffee cup selection is a fascinating subject. Part science, part art, part “just a bit of fun”, as a method of making exact diagnoses of people’s personalities, it can probably never be 100 per cent accurate. But as discussed above, it has more scientific basis than astrology, for instance, and as many people do take astrology seriously it would surely be irrational to not treat coffee cup-based personality analysis with the same (or more) respect.

As well as being a fascinating subject, it is also an extraordinarily complex one too; we have only really been able to scratch the surface of it here. Nevertheless it is hoped this article has provided a useful introduction to an exciting new tool to help us in our understanding both of human nature, and of coffee cups.