How to order coffee at McDonald’s in Phoenix

I like drinking coffee. I enjoy eating fast food. I live in Phoenix. You might be inclined to think I’d be a master at ordering a cup of coffee in a local McDonald’s.

You’d be mistaken.

Years ago, it wasn’t such a challenge. I’d visit a McDonald’s and ask for a small coffee. I’d get a Styrofoam cup with brewed coffee. I’d then turn around and find the condiment station, which would have the creamers and sweeteners and those cool plastic stirrers with the arches on the handles. I’d prepare the coffee the way I wanted it and move on.

Small cup of brewed coffee at McDonald's

Then, a few years back, McDonald’s decided it needed to compete more aggressively for breakfast customers. Along with a new menu of coffee offerings, McDonald’s began preparing its standard brewed coffee to order. Even the big coffee chain against whom it was competing didn’t offer this service for its brewed coffee. What’s wrong with letting a crew member do a little more of the work for you, right?

More than you’d think.

I like sweetener in my coffee, but I usually use a non-nutritive sweetener instead of plain sugar. McDonald’s offers several sweeteners, so it’s not a problem. I prefer Splenda. So my typical request at McDonald’s became this:

I’d like a small coffee with two creams and a Splenda.

At which point, nine times out of ten, I’d hear the following response:

How many Splenda?

This puzzled me for months. I’m not one who speaks quietly or unclearly, so I was surprised to hear the same question from so many different crew members at a number of different restaurants in the city.

Finally, it occurred to me the problem might be one of language. The vast majority of crew members at McDonald’s in Phoenix speak with an accent suggesting Spanish is their first language, not English. It’s seldom a problem, since almost all speak English quite well. Still, I thought I might be experiencing a language issue.

I took only one year of Spanish in high school, and that’s all the Spanish I ever studied. However, thinking back to what I learned, I remembered something important. A lot of words in English begin with an s followed by another consonant. These sounds are familiar to us English speakers, but they don’t seem to be native to Spanish. When an English word beginning with one of these sounds has a cognate in Spanish, it’s often preceded by an e.

Consider the English word state and its Spanish cognate estado. See what I mean?

Now, what about the word Splenda?

I think the problem was, when I was placing my order, instead of hearing the request I thought I was making, many crew members were hearing:

I’d like a small coffee with two creams and Esplenda.

That would explain the question I kept hearing in reply.

To test my theory, I began rephrasing the order:

I’d like a small coffee with two creams and one Splenda.

Since I started ordering this way, I haven’t been asked to repeat myself.

So why am I using my travel blog to talk about ordering coffee in my own town?

By repeating the same request over and over the same way — and foolishly expecting different results — I was cultivating an attitude that could prove counterproductive during future travels. When I finally changed one word in my order, it was comprehended the way I intended. I should have tried that a lot sooner.

When comprehension breaks down, we shouldn’t be reluctant to say the same thing a different way. That’s something important to remember when traveling.

10 comments.

  1. Exactly! Well said.

    What irritates me is that Americans abroad always seem to ask for a “bathroom” or “restroom” and of course no one understands them. A “bathroom” is a place where you bathe. “Restroom” isn’t really used outside of N. America. Ask for a “toilet.” It may sound crude but that is what you are looking for, right?

    Also, in Senegal they put “e” before “s” as well. Spaghetti becomes espaghetti, sprite becomes esprite. I still haven’t gotten out of the habit… people think I have a strange lisp.

  2. Curt, your insight of how to communicate was based on your travel experience, which is why more Americans need to do it. A little understanding of how someone from another culture is thinking and perceiving interaction with us is a gift we could all give ourselves.

  3. Great example! What may sound crude is simple and literal, and that helps get the point across.

    It took a long time to deprogram myself from four years of high school French and realize the salle de bain was not what I was looking for in bars in Paris!

    By the way, something very similar happens in French, except the s goes away altogether and becomes é. So, to continue my example from above, the French cognate of state is état.

  4. Good point, Tom. Perhaps I’m giving too much credit to my high school Spanish teacher and not enough credit to some amount of cultural understanding I gained through my own travels.

    In many parts of the U.S., especially in the larger cities, experiencing another culture can be as easy as walking or driving a few blocks and opening one’s mind a little. No, it’s not the same as traveling to another country, but for someone without the means to travel abroad, trying a restaurant or grocery store or church in a part of town outside one’s cultural comfort zone can be an eye-opening experience.

  5. And after 3 years in Europe I always used the Howie Mandel approach “louder and slower”. Last time I take advice from THAT guy! Thank you for this clarification!

  6. Three years of louder and slower, Sam? Sounds like you should have ventured off the base more often!

  7. Wow, that’s pretty funny actually. Good thing you figured that one out… I would have been a little frustrated after having to repeat myself at every McDonalds.

  8. It’s amazing what one simple word modification can do for the employees’ understanding. Good on you for adapting!

  9. It had me scratching my head for a while!

  10. It’s easy to forget that what is spoken isn’t always what is heard, especially when you’re speaking your native tongue in your own town.