Small is tall: Scale-making at Starbucks


And this verbal currency is again one that constructs the commodities for purchase at a Starbucks location as cells within a whole multidimensional matrix of complex objects defined by substances primary and secondary, shapes, sizes, and so on as it purports to be the most accurate description (i.e., construal) of them. Thus customers’ violations of bellying up to the coffee bar with the proper formula trippingly articulated stimulate barista rants on the employees’ website. Table 8.8 reproduces one of my favorites—and demonstrates the venomous condescension toward those who apparently pretend to the value of the Starbucks experience but who are thought by the service personnel to be distinctly unfit to consume Starbucks liquids, since they have not yet learned or—can you imagine?—they actually resist learning the rarefied uniqueness of genre and register for ordering them.

Me: Hi, what can I get for you today, sir?
Man: A small.
Me: You would like a tall what sir?
Man: I said I want a small. 
Me: Would that be a tall coffee sir?
Man: No I want a small regular, I don’t want to supersize my drink.
Me: No sir, tall is small. Here at Starbucks small is tall, medium is grande and large is venti. Man: Well what I want is a small.
Me: Okay, tall traditional it is. *grinding teeth* *get him the drink and give it to him*
Man: *Takes off the lid* I thought I told you I wanted a small regular. This is just black.
Me: Sir, you can find milk and sugar for yourcoffee over at the condiment bar. We have various types of dairy for your coffee and also many different types of sweeteners.
Man: What I want is a regular small coffee. Why can’t you do this for me? Is that too hard for you? At what I am paying for a cup of coffee you should be able to put the milk and two spoonfuls of sugar in for me.
Me: Well sir, here at Starbucks we feel that you are better served by arranging your coffee however you like. That will be $1.52.
Man: Are you sure? I can’t get this for free being that it has taken over 5 minutes just to get me a small coffee and ring me up?
Me: I am sorry that took so long. That will be a dollar and 52 cents for your TALL TRADITIONAL cup of coffee.

Why oh why do we have to go through this EVERY FREAKING DAY!!! Why!!!!

SOURCE: Manning 2008

There is revealed here a socio-spatiotemporal distance-from-the-authorizing-center involved for those failing the test as consumers no different from the distance indexed by inability to experience and properly notate oinoglossic aesthetics in the act of drinking wine. The totalizing corporate enregisterment of verbal style, both as a way to present and construe/construct that which is proffered for sale and as a way to present oneself in the saying as a consumer desirous of purchasing the comestible, constitutes in essence the imposition of a conical structure of the familiar kind in regimes of enregisterment. At the top and center are those “of” the lifestyle; at the down-and-out circumferential edges are those against whom baristas rant. Such a sociology—and sociolinguistics—distinctly reinforces the semiotics of what we term consumptive class, the key kind of class distinction in late capitalism, the one that drives people’s anxieties of identity manifest by the second-order indexicals of verbal enregisterment insofar as this indexes the very conceptual framing of their approach to consumption.


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Contributed date

November 22, 2020 - 12:08am

Critical Commentary

This short excerpt from linguist Michael Silverstein's chapter in a collection titled Scale: Discourse and Dimensions of Social Life attests to the evaluative nature of scaling. It retells the now famous short-is-tall episode at a Starbucks to argue that scale-making is both a learning process (of baristas and customers) and a way of creating social relations through value. 

For a more entertaining— but intellectually less fulfilling—take on the same topic see the following video clip:


Manning, [H.] Paul. 2008. “Barista Rants about Stupid Customers at Starbucks: What Imaginary Conversations Can Teach Us about Real Ones.” Language and Communication 28 (2): 101−126.

Michael Silverstein 2016. “Semiotic vinification and the scaling of taste.” In E. Summerson Carr and Michael Lempert, eds., 185–212. Scale: Discourse and Dimensions of Social Life. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.



Group Audience