A different take on paying it forward: Creating a new social norm

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I saw a post about “hanging coffee” come across my social media news feed this morning, and I thought this could be a great activity for our students. It would fit wherever you cover social norms.

What’s a “hanging coffee” (also called a “suspended coffee”)? Coffee shops (or other eating establishments) who do this allow patrons to gift coffee (or bagels, or meals, or whatever) to others. While I’ve experienced coffee shop patrons who have paid for the coffee for the next person in line, I haven’t seen this. How it works is simple. I walk up to the counter and order my coffee, but I pay for three coffees. The barista hands me my coffee and then “hangs” the extra two coffees I bought on the wall in the form of receipts or laminated cards. A patron who needs a free beverage takes down the receipt or the laminated card and hands it to the barista. The barista hands them their order.

There was an article in the Portsmouth, NH newspaper four years ago describing the practice there (Barndollar, 2020).

The norm of social responsibility tells us that we should help others. In fact, helping others makes us feel good about ourselves. Those are two good reasons alone to buy a “hanging coffee.” But what if “hanging coffees” aren’t (yet!) a norm in your community?

After covering social norms, invite your students to try to establish “hanging coffee” as a new social norm in your community. Of course, students don’t have to limit themselves to coffee. Is there a staffed laundromat in your community? “Hanging laundry” could become a thing. If your students don’t like the term “hanging”—I know I don’t—or “suspended”—another loaded term, especially for students!—encourage your students to think of another name.

Working in pairs or small groups, students are to identify a business establishment where patrons might like to buy something for someone else. (You might want to exclude alcoholic drinks at bars as an option.) If several pairs or small groups identify coffee shops, ask those students to divvy up your local coffee shops. Next, students—again working in those same pairs or small groups—are to speak with the manager about their idea. Students should be prepared to buy the first “hanging <whatever>.” If they don’t have the money, encourage them to bring their friends. Everyone in the group could chip in, say, a quarter to buy a “hanging <whatever>.” To make it easier for the manager to say yes, students should do some reconnaissance first to identify a place where the receipts could be placed and create a sign that could go in that location. If the establishment doesn’t have an empty billboard, students could consider donating one. Creating the board and posting a receipt one time may not be enough to establish a norm. How frequently do students think they will have to “seed” the board before the norm becomes established—perhaps students could encourage faculty to purchased “hanging <whatevers>”?

Invite students to report back on their experience. Based on social media responses, some students, managers, and others will be concerned that people would take advantage of the “hanging <whatever>” board. It’s an interesting idea to explore. Plenty of us donate money or food to food banks, and the food banks I’m familiar with don’t ask for proof of need. Might someone who is quite wealthy get free food? Sure. Do I care? Not especially. For all I know, they’re donating thousands of dollars each year to that food bank. As for the “hanging coffee,” I would imagine that social norms would drive not only who donates but who uses it. Having said that, I can imagine a person who is having an absolutely rotten day wanting to accept a coffee bought by someone else as a mood booster. I can just easily imagine that same person coming in a week later and buying ten “hanging coffees” in order to boost the mood of others.

If creating a new social norm in the form of “hanging coffees” doesn’t work for you as a class activity, consider suggesting it to the psychology club, psychology honor society chapter, Greek chapters, or other clubs.



Barndollar, H. (2020, January 13). “Hanging coffee” aims to pay it forward. Foster’s Daily Democrat. https://www.fosters.com/story/news/2020/01/13/hanging-coffee-aims-to-pay-it-forward/1909907007/


About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.