Trouble's brewing if office rituals have ground you down

"FURTIVELY I watch the rituals of the office kitchen, like an anthropologist. For example, at my office, the person who empties the coffee pot makes more coffee. That's true at my office. I think. "

I want to figure this out.

Every morning, one particular guy (a developer) visits the kitchen (which I can see from my desk) just after getting to work. He starts up the coffee maker and makes three or four cups of coffee. Then he pours a mug's worth to drink and goes off to his office. He returns to fill his mug a few times during the morning.

No one else usually drinks coffee from the coffee pot. The fridge has lots of free sodas, so that's where the caffeine addicts get their fix. The special Diet Coke rule: Whoever takes the last cold one has to move more Diet Coke from the storage cabinet to the fridge.

The CEO goes on a solo Starbucks run every day.

As often as not, there's a teensy bit — maybe a third of a cup — left in the pot at the end of the day. If it's still there the next day, the coffee-drinking developer empties it into the sink and makes a fresh pot.


-Is it acceptable for me to take that leftover half cup in the afternoon without making a fresh batch of coffee?

-How about taking a full cup in the morning, given that the developer has probably calculated and made enough just for him? I don't drink coffee every day, and I sometimes arrive at the office after the developer.

-Once or twice a month, I go out for coffee with a colleague. Even though there's a coffee maker in the office! Is this weird?

(My interim answers: Yes, no, kinda.)

What rules about drug sharing do other addicts have with each other? Smokers give away spare cigarettes to strangers on the street; is it the same with harder drugs?

I wouldn't know. The only addictive drugs I've ever tried are alcohol, caffeine and chocolate. I used to think this was because I respected the law, or thought of my body as a temple. Maybe I really avoid other drugs because I expect my life to turn into a science fiction story where I get spared by the aliens or react to an experiment differently because I'm the only one who's never smoked pot.

A few weeks ago, I astonished a fellow partygoer by mentioning that. We were leaving the party and walking toward the subway, and he stopped in his tracks. "You've never smoked anything?"

If I'm being honest with myself, I have to admit his reaction is one reason I haven't tried marijuana. My mindless nonconformist reflex gets me to play devil's advocate with my own behavior.

My Indian parents wanted me to be a doctor or engineer, and I rejected those paths even though I didn't have an alternate plan. I married my husband after five years of dating and a five-day engagement. I even want to make arbitrary changes to the sample text in programming exercises when I copy them out of the textbook.

So, I feel an urge to rebel against customs that get shoved in my face. But the customs that take some perception to see — those I want to understand. Like the office kitchen and the coffee pot.

I have a pretty good view of the kitchen from where I sit, and I see enough comings and goings to chart half the social life of the office. People come in for water or a Clif Bar and start impromptu discussions of programming techniques, movies, exercise fads. One guy says he wants to lose weight but grabs a handful of candy from the free M&Ms jar five times a day. Does he see what I see?

One guy converses with me at lunch and when he refills his water bottle. I told him I'm reading Neal Stephenson's 2,400-page "Baroque Cycle." "What's it about?" he asked.

On the level of plot and setting, it's about 17th-century Europe, political intrigues, scientific discoveries, banter in coffee houses and the movements of markets. But it's also about the false distinction between people of thought and people of action; to paraphrase Einstein, thought without action is lame and action without thought is blind. And it's also a giant meditation on a theme that Stephenson can't stop thinking about: what it takes to "condense fact from the vapor of nuance," to quote his earlier book, "Snow Crash."

You observe enough little things, and the rules and the system behind them emerges. The information seems hidden because it's scattered. Watch and learn. And decide whether to disobey.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at

You observe enough things, and the rules and system behind them emerges. The information seems hidden because it's scattered.