On my way into work not long ago, I stopped to place my lunch in the office fridge. Really, I had to wedge it in, between the mostly empty bottles of salad dressing, a quarter of a Diet Coke, the decaying leftovers from someone's long-forgotten Chinatown lunch, and a jar of something that appeared to be home-brewed penicillin.
Given that this refrigerator is shared by more than a hundred journalists, it can get a little dicey. But I was startled by a particularly indignant note: "To the p — who has stolen my vanilla yogurt three times: KNOCK IT OFF!"
By lunchtime, there was a response. "It's yummy! Bring more!"
Such break-room battles — wars waged in snarky Post-it notes and calculated officewide memos — are as perennial as the return of Monday morning after the weekend, and as American as Casual Friday.
Over the last several decades, the number of Americans working white-collar office jobs has grown, while wages have stagnated, and the quality of that work — as measured by upward mobility, employee engagement, job satisfaction, and hours logged — has declined. Given all that simmering discontent, maybe it's no wonder some of us might swipe a sandwich or two, take it upon ourselves to overzealously clean out the shared fridge, and send out a few heated memos in the process.
But, at least in Philadelphia, it's not done without poetry.
Take the notes posted in the kitchen of the Opera Philadelphia costume shop.
One read: "Cleanliness is next to godliness. The sponge is next to the faucet. The cabinet is above the sink. Cleanliness prevents joblessness, among other things."
Or: "Attn OCP Staff: You are what you eat. There are many things you'd like to be someday, but realistically won't. When the current season ends, so must these illusions. Free Your Food."
The author of those elegant warnings was Allison Dobkin, now 34 and an advertising copywriter.
"It wasn't just any old passive aggression — not for the highbrow culture folks at the shop," said Dobkin, who worked as an assistant there. "I thought I would put a little extra into it and try to appeal to their intellect."
The signs worked, she said. But as to what caused the underlying issues, she can only theorize.
"There's the idea that your company kind of owes you: You feel you can leave your dishes in the sink," she said.
She concedes to committing her own break-room sins while working for Anthropologie.
"I was a little more experimental there. I was like, 'I wonder if I put foil in the microwave if it really will catch fire?' Sure enough, it did. Maybe you want to see what you can get away with," she said. "In some small way, wanting to blow up the company worked out in me wanting to blow up the microwave."
It's a modern predicament, in that the break room is a modern creation, according to Nikil Saval, the Philadelphia author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.
"Before, there was a coffee cart that rumbled along through fancy offices at different points in the day," he said. "The kind of break room or coffee room that we recognize today is a notable feature of the first open-office plan, which was developed in Germany in the 1950s."
The open office, with a break room, became prevalent in the U.S. in the 1960s and '70s, coinciding with the disappearance of all-female typing pools and the notion of a secretary who would fetch coffee and the boss' dry-cleaning.
"The open office was seen as democratic and egalitarian," Saval said. "An artifact of that is this communal private space, the break room, that was introduced as a liberatory feature."
As far as perks go, though, it can be a shabby one, crowded in such a way that conflict becomes nearly inevitable.
And so we have signs, notes, and mass emails.
Here at the Philadelphia Media Network, an ALL-CAPS announcement once appeared in the Daily News kitchen: "Refrigerator will no longer be cleaned out. Some people have abused it, and it has become disgusting." Another note, on the Inquirer microwave, urged "No Fishing," after a staffer cooked raw fish in this shared appliance.
But we're not alone. Similar battles are fought out in offices around the city, though tactics vary widely.
A Philadelphia nonprofit worker left her CSA share — a week's worth of produce, and expensive cheese — in a cooler bag in the fridge, only to learn that the bag had been emptied into the trash, then returned to the refrigerator. She let the matter drop, but privately she still fumes over "Cheesegate."
Gene Malone, of Rockledge, dealt with an office-kitchen felon more directly: "I caught a coworker eating my Tastykakes. I told him he did not have to replace them, but from that day on, you will always be known as Tommykakes!" The nickname caught on.
One woman said her father thought he'd foiled a sandwich-sampling nemesis by taking a bite out of his own sandwich and leaving a note promising, "I have herpes." In response, there was a second bite, and a second note: "I have herpes, too."
Chad Gorn, an IT manager at Jefferson Hospital, has a different perspective. Cleaning out the refrigerator, he said, "was my favorite thing to do because it gave me the opportunity to be ruthless with authority. My two-minute-warning emails became legendary, if I do say so myself."
In one missive, sent to his entire team, he appended a photo: "Among the things I trashed were the two soft grape tomatoes, two-and-a-half spinach leaves, an opened packet of bleu cheese dressing (pictured). If that was anyone's lunch, I apologize and I will buy you two soft grape tomatoes, two and a half spinach leaves, and an opened packet of bleu cheese dressing."
Jody Foster, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the new book The Schmuck in My Office, said snippy break-room signage could indicate a work environment that has gone off the rails.
"It comes up when there are people who are clearly disrespecting the communal space," Foster said. "As a culture develops, you can get people to respect that culture. The signs go up when there is repeated disrespect for it, and one-on-one interventions, as they go on, fail."
The "why" of bad break-room behavior is hard to pin down: Maybe the perpetrator is expressing anger. Maybe he's a narcissist who thinks only his needs matter. Or maybe she just doesn't understand what's expected — that, for instance, your lunch really isn't up for grabs.
"Even if it seems completely ridiculous and self-explanatory, you have to lay out the rules of engagement," Foster said. "Haven't you gone into public bathroom stalls where there are big signs that say, 'Flush the toilet'? There are people who require this very clear directive."
So, she said, the least managers can do is explain the rules to new hires and to place a sign on the refrigerator, such as: "Please do not eat any food you did not purchase." For workers, she advises, label your food.
And if bad behavior has already happened, call it out — directly and concisely.
She mentioned a situation where a worker repeatedly stopped up the office toilet, then mummified it in toilet paper.
"Finally, HR posted something that said, 'This behavior has to stop immediately, or we will begin monitoring the bathroom.' Magically, it stopped. I'm not saying it didn't go to the McDonald's across the street, but it stopped in the office."