Coffee for the Road: Your Cue to Go Home

Coffee means time to go homeHow do you know when it’s time to go home? As in before you wear out your welcome? Maneuvering the Emily Post of good dinner guesthood is challenging enough when you grow up with the rules. It gets downright tricky when you’re on someone else’s cultural turf.

We had dinner with friends the other night, and during the after-dinner tale-swapping (sobremesa, we call it here in Chile), one of the couples told about the years they lived in Costa Rica and how confused they were the first time they had guests for dinner and everyone left as soon as dessert was finished about 10 PM. With time they came to understand the culture of dining Costa Rica style, but they confess to spending quite some time scratching their heads over how they had managed to offend everyone so quickly.

“In Germany we invite people for dinner at 8:30, and then we spend hours chatting afterward,” they told us. In late-dining Costa Rica, however, everything happens before dinner, and dessert is the cue to go home!

Chileans would most likely have gotten up and left with the Costa Ricans, perhaps nodding that “Ah! so it IS true that Germans eat and go to bed early… Now what do we do with the REST of our Saturday evening?”

Here in Chile dinner happens late. 8:30 is pretty early for dinner–kind of like in the US inviting anyone under 60 to come at 5:00 PM. Most dinner invitations are for 9:30–or maybe 9:00, but guests are expected to make a night of it and hosts will be offended by anyone who makes a move for the door before midnight (which might still be considered on the verge of eat-and-run early).

Guests arrive–some on time, most a fashionably 10–15 minutes late, and some will straggle in up to an hour late (though we usually know who those are going to be–I don’t recommend you be one of those!).

Drinks will be served–wine and pisco sours will be offered, along with a picoteo (appetizers), and somewhere around 10 or 10:30, people will move to the table for a leisurely dinner that may well last until midnight or later.

In more formal situations, hosts may then ask their guests to move to the living room for after-dinner drinks–whisky often appears–or maybe dancing, depending on the crowd. In less formal situations, the hosts will clear the table and glasses are refilled for an extended conversation long into the night. This is my favorite–the conversation is always livelier and more intimate around a table than lounging in arm chairs.

So how do you know when it’s time to go home? In Chile the most typical clue is coffee. When the coffee comes out–often with chocolates, it’s time to take your cue. And don’t expect this much before 2 AM–and don’t be surprised if it’s later (age is a big factor here, but not always).

All of this is subject to personal variations of course. An offer of “el estribo,” for example, couldn’t be much clearer: one last drink for the road…

What’s your experience with “time to go home” cues?
Flip side of the question… what to do with guests who just don’t know when to go home?


24 responses to “Coffee for the Road: Your Cue to Go Home

  1. This is such a good topic! I never knew any of this before. I was aware that a lot of cultures ate really late, but now I want to go to Chile and spend a night out until 2 am or later! In America, we simply have verbal cues like “Well, it’s getting late” or “I’ve got to get up in the morning.” Or you run out of stuff to talk about and the conversation dies…that’s awkward. I haven’t really experienced the overdue guests, but I do find that some people aren’t as receptive as they should be when it comes to someone wanting to end a conversation. Love the post 🙂

  2. @Deletrius–haha- if you come to Chile you can easily stay out all night if you want to (at any age too)! There was a curfew here for many years and many people claim that’s the reason Chileans stay out so late–because in the past you had to stay wherever you were until morning! Not sure if I really believe that, but people here seem to.
    Glad you liked the post!

  3. I sometimes have the opposite problem. As a guest who’s not accustomed to staying out until the wee hours, I’m often ready to leave before anyone else. It’s hard to find the right moment to excuse myself and it always feels awkward when I’m the first to break up the party. I usually try to hang in there until someone else gets up, but if it’s a big family gathering where everyone is talking at once, I often spend the last hour or so completely zoned out, just “smiling and nodding.”

  4. I hear you there! that’s one of the reasons I prefer sobremesa at the table–when we move to a big comfy couch, where it tends to be a bit darker and the people are spaced farther apart, I have a really hard time staying awake! At one point we had a group of friends with 2 gringas and the others always laughed because she would collapse on one side of the couch and I on the other!

  5. I generally hang out with my husbands family, so luckily they know I go to bed early, and after 15 years together my husband is also early to bed. But sometimes his family has friends over and they can go on all night! One by one the family members creep off with excuse of checking on the kids and don’t come back. Sometimes people just fall asleep at the table…you would think the friends would take that as a hint!

    That is why I love family lunches. The “sobremesa” can go on until it is time for “onces” (tea time)!

  6. Yes, it’s pretty tricky when people don’t get the coffee hint and you just can’t nudge them toward the door! But I’d still rather do dinner than lunch because lunch often DOES go on all day, so by the time people leave (or it’s time to go home), I’m wiped out anyway.
    I’ve figured out that I’m good for about 4 hours tops (9-1, for example). Much of anything after that feels like overkill. Most people I know here are good for 6 or more.
    One way around this is to just go out to dinner with friends, then when the meal’s over everyone re-negotiates whether they want to go home or continue partying somewhere else.

  7. That is so funny, I have never thought of coffee as the cue to go home! Maybe because, since in our family there are several couples with small children, we usually do lunch (LONG!) rather than dinner so coffee is usually served to stay awake during that afternoon after-lunch lull… or maybe it is because I would never think to drink or even serve coffee at 1 or 2 in the morning. At the dinners I have been a guest, coffee is usually served with dessert and then we are moved to the living room for after dinner drinks. I ususally use others’ exits as the cue to leave… I have no idea what they use as cues 😉

    p.s. be forewarned that I always forget to serve coffee when I have guests, since I only drink it in the morning, I just never think of it and I find my guests in the kitchen heating their own water… how mal-educada!

  8. Hi Annje! Tanto tiempo pues! OK, so if I go to your house for dinner, I will ASK you for coffee–and then you’ll know I’m getting ready to go home!
    And I suppose that when you’re doing meals with kids, THEY provide the clues for when to go home!

  9. I never really noticed the coffee and you’re out rule, but I guess it makes sense. And I’m sure I haven’t done it correctly on many occasions! Even in Chile, I will eventually kick people out if I’m really tired, yawning, saying something to the effect of “thanks so much for coming!” but I usually don’t invite anyone other than very close friends over, and they know me well enough to know we’re in a bi-cultural relationship, and so I get a pass. I shall be attentive to people serving coffee, though. And then just getting out!

  10. Hm- interesting to know what other people are observing. I’m going to start paying even closer attention too!

  11. thanks for sharing an article about rites …

  12. So why is it they start serving coffee as soon as I show up? 😉
    I had never really thought about it until reading this post. Like Annje, we also have some small kids so we don’t often do the Dinner thing, more lunch.
    Off the top of my head I can recall two different situations of this coffee serving situation.
    1. In formal situations the coffee was often used as a step to wind up the evening (but only now realizing it such) and maybe a way of getting us out of the residence.
    2. Sometimes on informal occasions it was as a wake-up drink to continue with the fun evening. Other times given/needed to keep awake for the drive home.
    Maybe subconsciously it is offered as a way of saying… I have had to much (wine/pisco/insert whatever) to drink so I’m going to have coffee to wind down.

  13. @Kiwi Yes, it’s certainly not a hard & fast rule, of course, but I think the “wake up for the drive home” is right on…and of course if you’re thinking about the drive home, you’re already partly out the door!

  14. Hi Margaret, As always I look forward to checking in on your blog and finding an interesting topic and that’s just what happened tonight! I lived in Chile for a few years but never heard the coffee thing, maybe that’s because I’m usually in bed by 10:00. It is said here in Kyoto, the last bastion of “true Japanese spirit”, that the Japanese have over 150 ways of saying “no” without actually saying “no”. Intuition is everything, direct comments, statements; it’s all vague; no losing face. When it’s time to hit the road in Kyoto and a guest doesn’t seem to have gotten the message he or she will hear the offering “Ochazuke ikaga desu ka?” Ochazuke is a bowl of the scrapings of one’s plate mixed with tea; a dreary soup. This is often done at home with the family but never in the presence of someone outside the family. In the west It might be akin offering a guest a piece of bread to sop up the gravey on a plate.

  15. Hi John! Thanks yet again for another interesting bit of Japanese culture! I love cross-cultural comparisons–so many ways to accomplish the same things! Plate-scraping soup–now THAT seems like a pretty unsubtle way of saying “time to go!”
    I don’t think anyone every TOLD me about the coffee rule, just seemed to have observed it over the years. And the other night when our friends told about Costa Rica and I mentioned coffee, everyone else there seemed to agree.

  16. Excellent topic and one I wish some of dinner guests would read!
    We usually eat quite early so I invite people around 18.00 for predinner drinks. Dinner starts about 19.00 and continues until about 21.30. We will then chat around the table or sometimes move to more comfy chairs. Now’s the tricky bit. It’s coming on midnight our guests have drunk gallons and are settled for the night! I am tired as we have been on the go for 6hours.
    I’ve found the only way to get rid of them is not to replenish their glasses!
    MEan, but they eventually take the hint.

    We went to a BBQ party last week. We’d been there 6 hours and we were the first guests to leave! The hostess was really disapointed.

    PS I must remember “one for the road”

  17. Uggh! I hear you! What time do people invite you to their house?
    I knew someone (in the US) who used to put start and end times on her invitations, and when that time came, she just started distributing coats. It worked, but not a tactic many here in Chile would dare try! You’d end up on everyone’s social blacklist forever!

  18. Invitations are usually early. same sort of time. Perhaps its a British retiree practice! Lunch is more popular. the only thing I put a start and end time on, is predinner drinks. I usually say do you fancy popping round a for couple of hours for a pre-dinner drink and nibbles? there is then no further expectations Supper is just a one-pot meal, dinner is the works.

  19. I love this topic! It gets to be very, very tricky when you’re switching cultures as you switch dinner tables. Personally, I love how lunch and dinner with friends in Chile can turn into a 6-hour event. I once hosted a brunch at my apartment that started at 11am and the last couple to leave was catching a cab close to midnight – that is by far my record. However, I’ve gone to a few dinners more out of social obligation than anything else and those hours just drag along here in Chile when back in Virginia I could have been in and out within two hours and still have been considered polite.

    Something my grandmother used to do when she wanted guests to leave was turn the broom upside down in the kitchen. Her family was Puerto Rican and it was something her great aunt taught her to do. No one ever picked up on it at our house but it’s worth a shot if you’re in a bind.

    As a host, the only time I’ve wanted my guests to leave has been when I’m about to fall asleep at the table. Usually, people can see that without my having to say anything but I have had to be very direct (a no-no here!) and say, “I’m exhausted and need to go to bed now.”

  20. @Iz- this is exactly the problem. Sometimes the hours fly by and if everyone is on the same page, those mealtime marathons can be fun, for example, when spending the weekend at the beach or campo because then everyone is free to just slip off somewhere if they want…
    Broom upside down? Interesting! don’t think it would work in Chile though–kind of like a restaurant when they start stacking the chairs on the tables! haha

  21. As a Chilean I think that the coffee rule is ludicrous, unless you are talking about a second cup of coffee. Here you are served coffeee right after dessert. In a wedding, for example, you are not supposed to dance before coffee, and if you leave right after coffee the you can’t dance.

  22. Hola, hoy leí tu reportaje en LUN…..y solo accedí a tu blog para decirte que no puedo estar mas en desacuerdo. No se en que parte de gringolandia viviste pero yo puedo dar fé que tus coterráneas visten decaradamente ropas que dejan ver demasiado de su cuerpo…..sobre todo la obesidad que les afecta a un buen porcentaje de ellas.

  23. Hola-Hmmm, no estoy diciendo que ninguna gringa muestra más de la cuenta–hay de todos tipos en todas partes, pero por lo general, las gringas, por lo menos las que conozco yo, usamos ropa más suelta y, además, he escuchado más de una chilena criticando a las gringas por lo mismo. Y es cierto que hay mucha obesidad en USA. Siempre–siempre–me llama mucha la atención.

  24. Now I understand why a South American family in my apartment building, always begin to entertain visitors after 9 PM, then carry on until well after midnight. And that’s often during week days!
    Must say that they are not the most popular residents in the building, as here in Australia we entertain strictly on weekends only. We usually start early afternoon and by 10 PM, everyone has already gone home.
    This is mainly due to the work ethic which dictates tha during the week we must respect others’ peace as they must rest to go to work the following day.
    Now… what do we do about the South American family?
    Better make sure I have the local police station on speed dial.

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