How to Be Sure Your Waiter Brings You Decaf (And Thwart Tiger Attacks Too!)

You’ve just finished dinner at a nice restaurant and you order a decaf coffee instead of regular so that you won’t have trouble falling asleep. A few minutes later, your server brings you a steaming cup of Joe. You want to drink it, but you’re worried it might have caffeine. At this point, I normally ask something like “Are you sure this is decaffeinated?”

But my friend (and newly tenured colleague) Yair Listokin tells me that Oprah suggests that we ask instead: “Is this regular coffee?” Or, “Are you sure this is regular coffee?”

It’s not fool proof, but asking “is it regular” will let you know whether the waiter is willing to say “yes” to any question. Framing the question doesn’t work if the restaurant follows the “after 8 p.m. or so, all the coffee is decaf” convention.

Asking the question this way (implying the reverse of what you actually want) also reminds me of a wonderful moment in the movie Chinatown where Jack Nicholson’s character (Gittes) asks the director (Palmer) of an old folks “rest home”:

Gittes: Do you accept anyone of the Jewish persuasion?

Palmer (very embarrassed): I’m sorry. We don’t.

Gittes (smoothly): Don’t be sorry, neither does Dad. Wanted to make sure though, didn’t we, honey?

Both of these questions are examples of my favorite creativity tool – flipping (which I’ve written about here and especially here). And in my warped mind, Oprah’s super-cool coffee question is related to these amazing Sunderband Tiger masks:

As explained on this funky “Man-eaters” page, the idea of flipping the mask around was an attempt to reduce tiger attacks:

This simple, yet strange idea was first tested in 1986. Tigers almost always attack from the rear, so the thought was a mask worn on the back of the head would confuse the tigers enough to prevent attacks.

The Indian government issued groups of workers with masks, and surprisingly, the idea worked. After a year no attacks had been reported upon those with masks, whilst thirty people not using the new system had been attacked and killed. It was noted that tigers followed some mask wearers for many hours, but without attack. In one later fatal attack on a mask wearer the tiger attacked from the side rather than the rear.

Villagers were always pessimistic about the long term effectiveness of the practice, saying that the tiger would soon learn the trick and attacks resume. Unfortunately, they were correct and though the system is still used, it is with decreasing effectiveness.

The civil rights scholar in me can’t help but notice that the complexion of the masks in these images seems notably lighter than the complexion of the people wearing the masks (suggesting a flipping of race as well as a flipping of the side of the head on which the mask is worn). This lightening might innocently be explained by fixed costs of masks production, but more insidious explanations concerning the preferences of the mask wearers or of the tigers are also possible.

The takeaway is that the potential for the creative use of flipping abounds all around us.


The other possibility is that the brighter colors of the masks are easier to see( higher contrast), thus improving the likely hood that the tiger will spot the mask.


One of Charlie Munger's tips for success is to "Invert, always invert".

caleb b

I worked as a busboy, on-and-off, for 7 years. On big holidays, we only brewed decaf. Since no one typically asks for regular, it didn't matter. On the off chance that you did ask specifically for regular, we would tell you it was, even though it wasn't. I never ran into someone that tried the Oprah trick.

On non-holidays...I knew many, many a busboy that did not care what you ordered, they just grabbed the first pot available.


The preference of the mask wearers? Somethig tellse the only preference of theirs at work is not getting eaten by a tiger.

I suspect it's the preferences of the normal consumers for these masks which determine the looks of them, not the preferences of the people who got them for free from the government.


If you ask for well done, you don't deserve to eat steak. If you want decaf, you're not allowed to drink coffee.


But why on earth would anyone want decaffeinated coffee? Surely the only purpose of coffee is to serve as a delivery vehicle for caffeine?


While caffeine is helpful, it is understandble that those who truly appreciate the flavor and experience that comes with enjoying a cup should have the option to do so without the added stimulation.


I prefer science, not social science.


Interesting. This may also be related to the salesperson's technique of knowing that most potential customers are conditioned to respond "No." Are you interested in this product? Not really. Do you need help? No, just looking. At some point, the salesperson flips it around, "Is there any reason keeping you from buying this product?"

Ummm. Might work on family members, too.

Impossibly Stupid

In a cooperative setting, flipping makes you look like a fool. It may be fine in your anti-Semitic and/or tiger attack settings, but in a restaurant or other "friendly" situations, it only causes unintended tension. For example, in the "is it regular?" scenario you twice demean the waiter: once by getting them to think that maybe they were mistaken in bringing you decaf, and then again when they realize you weren't adult enough to ask them a straight question.

I've seen people try this "flip" technique for confirming meeting times. "So, I'll see you at 10am...?" when we both *should* know very well that the meeting is at 9am. All it does in the end is make the questioner look like an idiot. If you want 9am, say 9am; if you want decaf, say decaf.


Don´t want caffeine for sure? Drink water!
Or else, order yourself a nice espresso corto (ristretto). Good coffee is supposed to have caffeine.

Ian M

If you pulled this condescending stunt on many New York Waiters, they would take the coffee back no matter what it was, and be sure to bring you regular.

Takako T.

I rather think it's a matter of cultural habit to have a cup of Joe after dinner at a restaurant. Personally, tea (incl. Herbal kinds) would help the digestion better than coffee, but I digress...

Most cups of decaf coffee still have 50% caffeine in them, so just order two cups if you need a fix. But coffee is considered a coolant in Eastern Medicine, you might get a chill, especially on a cold night (and weaken your respiratory system which is right next to your stomach).

There was (not sure if it still exists) a cafe in Ginza (Tokyo) where you can have slow cold water dripped coffee. They heat it later. The best coffee I've had. Hotter the water, the more caffein is extracted from the beans. So, you do the math :) I do enjoy organic regular coffee once in a while though.


You could also try my mom's strategy--asking the waiter for their home phone number, in case the unwelcome caffeine keeps her up that night.