Can I have a white coffee please?
Being a Brit, asking for a white coffee is not such a big deal at home. In fact it is a fairly standard request when you are offered a cup of tea or coffee.
The phrase “Two nations divided by a common language” is often cited as relating to the UK and US. The origin of the phrase divides opinion also, was it Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill? I suppose like me they all used it from time to time.
When it comes to the UK with North America and the US in particular, this phrase applies very strongly, especially when it comes to white coffee.
In the UK when you ask for a “white coffee” you receive a coffee with milk. Hence it is not a “Black coffee”. It seems logical to me that the alternative to black is white. If we want our coffee black we’ll ask for it as such. The same applies for white, we say white coffee.
On recent trips to the US I’ve encountered issues with this phrase which I never noticed before. This maybe because I’ve drunk coffee more than before.
Earlier this year I was on a domestic Delta flight within the US. As the drinks trolley was passing the air stewardess asked what drink would I like? “Can I have a white coffee please?” was my response.
Her eyes glazed over then she responded with “You what?”
So I repeated the request, just in case she didn’t hear me the first time, “Can I have a white coffee please?”. This was greeted with a “You want what now?”
Recalling a not so distant trip to a Tim Hortons in Canada I remembered to rephrase my request. So I did. Instead of saying “white coffee” I said “A coffee with milk please.”
To which I was shocked and quite offended to find the air stewardess burst into fits of laughter. It wasn’t laughter with me either, it was at me.
At times I find air stewardesses’ rude, especially American ones. This occasion was definitely up there. It surprised me that she was unaware of this phrase since she is someone who tenders to passengers on a daily basis. Her reaction though was very over the top for my liking.
In the end though I did get my white coffee (that is a coffee with milk).
Just for the record, I stopped asking for hot tea on airlines years ago. I often find it too weak as well as too milky. Everyone likes their tea a certain way and nobody else can make it the way you like it. If I do have tea I tend to opt for herbal or fruit tea.
This language difference is quite a challenge at times when you slip into a relaxed mode. You are yourself and use terms which you (incorrectly) assume are universal.
Searching on Google there are roughly 110,000 searches a month for “white coffee” so it can’t be that rare, can it? For some bizarre reason over 18,000 of those searches are from Malaysia. Maybe I should order my coffee in Kuala Lumpur? From a little bit of further research I see that the term applies to a leading coffee manufacturer in the country.
Further research also led me to Wikipedia. On this fountain of all knowledge which confirms my use of the phrase:-
“In many English-speaking countries, “white coffee” is used to refer to regular black coffee that has had milk, cream or some other “whitener” added to it”
Yet it also emphasises that the term is rarely heard in the US. In fact in NYC they use the term “light coffee”.
It all strikes me as very strange.
The Americans love their coffee. Although an Australian colleague of mine contends that the US coffee is very poor in quality and not a patch on that Down Under.
In North America there is a whole industry geared around things to whiten your coffee. It is rare to find the quint essential English tradition of adding milk. The best you’ll often find is “Half &Half” (half milk and half cream). Although Americans often prefer to add cream, which can’t be good for the calories!
Even still adding cream makes a white coffee so many Americans drink it everyday.
There are also a wide range of powdered whiteners or creamers. I dread to think what goes in them and only use them if there is no other option (frequently the case in the hotel rooms).
Coffee-mate makes a whole host of flavoured creamers to add to your coffee; including numerous variations on vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon, crème brule, almond, hazelnut…need I go on!
For goodness sake just give me a coffee! I want to taste coffee not mess around with the flavour and drink something else. If I wanted crème brule I’ll eat one. If I want to taste almonds I’ll go and buy some, just give me a coffee! Please! And make it a white coffee.
I mentioned above about my trip to Tim Hortons. To those unfamiliar this is the big coffee shop chain in Canada, you can find them almost everywhere.
One morning I was in a Hortons buying breakfast. On requesting a “white coffee” I was greeted with “Would you like milk and sugar?” Ahhh, I give up!
This all reminds me of one of the funniest TV adverts I’ve seen in over a decade. This is courtesy of the Australian version of McCafe.
The scene is set with a British guy (not too dissimilar to me, smart, handsome, affluent, I digress) who enters the store and requests a “Coffee”.
The trained server behind the counter is keen to share the options. She asks if he would like a Latte, Mocha, Caramel Mocha, Cappuccino, Premium Roast, Iced Latte, Flat White Coffee, Frappe Mocha, Frappe Caramel and so on.
Clearly dazed, the customer looking bewildered and slightly frustrated responds “No, just a coffee.”
I often feel like that Englishman in Australia. I’ve stopped asking for a “white coffee” now when I’m abroad. Just a coffee with milk will do.
Please leave a comment below. Did you know what white coffee is? Are there any phrases you use at home which don’t travel well?