The secret rules of office coffee etiquette

September 10, 2019

Taking a coffee break at work should be a relaxing, and relatively simple, process. But there are many unwritten rules that can complicate matters. Indeed, these unwritten rules dictate office coffee etiquette – and it seems that a lot of people are falling foul.

With the help of best-selling etiquette author Richie Frieman, I decided to take a peek down this rabbit hole, in an attempt to understand the ins and outs of office coffee etiquette. And while I only managed to scratch the surface, I still learned an awful lot.

It is therefore my moral obligation to share what I learned with you.

Let’s start with some basic housekeeping for your office coffee station

If you have a communal kitchen at work, then this is probably where you go for your coffee breaks. And while your actual coffee-making procedures and equipment might be wildly different from mine, there are a few basic housekeeping rules that we should both be attending to.

Here they are:

  1. Keep the area tidy
  2. Contribute to communal resources
  3. Fill the pot if you took the last cup
  4. Do not use somebody else’s mug

These rules may sound simple, but as this flowchart shows, some people need the basics spelling out!

Office Coffee FLowchart

Used with permission from “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham, www.phdcomics.com

Don’t be a mug

Maybe you did a double take when you read that one of the core rules of office coffee etiquette, is not using another person’s mug. And maybe you’re asking why. Well, if you want my short answer then it’s… well, duh, it isn’t yours.

But don’t just take my short answer as gospel. As I mentioned before, I have been discussing all this with Richie Frieman, etiquette expert, and best-selling author of REPLY ALL… And Other Ways to Tank Your Career.

“If you bring a cup in, it is your cup” he tells me, flatly, “and that applies to everybody. I wouldn’t drink out of somebody else’s cup, not if it was quite obviously theirs. Why would I? I would either use one of the cups that belonged to the office, or bring my own. And I would not expect other people to drink from mine.”

Enforcing the basic housekeeping rules

Not everybody knows these basic rules. And Richie says that some people need a serious crash course on how to be a decent human being. But for the most part, a polite sign will go a long way.

It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, either.

“Just a simple ‘please clean up your mess’ can really help” he says. “And if there’s somebody deliberately flouting this most basic etiquette, a light-hearted reminder is not out of place  – ‘hey buddy, are you gonna clean up that mess?’”

Of course, when it comes to things like the ‘don’t use my mug’ rule, Richie says that sometimes, you’ve just got to use common sense.

“You’re not really helping yourself if you keep putting your personal cup in a shared cupboard” he says. “If you really don’t want somebody using your cup, then the answer is to keep it on your desk, or in your locker.”

I’m getting coffee. Do you want one?

After breaking the ice with a few housekeeping rules, I decided to ask Richie about some of the social etiquettes involved with coffee runs. You see, I’ve always thought that if you’re making a tea or coffee for yourself, then it is a nice gesture to ask a colleague if they would like one, too. But while this is true, it also has the potential to become a big etiquette dilemma.

Let’s look at an example.

Pretend you are about to make yourself a coffee. You’re feeling particularly generous, so you ask your desk partner, Jason, if he would like one too. But here’s where it gets complicated. You see, Big G, who sits across from you, can hear a pin drop at a heavy metal festival. And when he catches wind that you’re doing a coffee run, he asks if you’d mind grabbing him one while you’re at it. It would feel rude to say no. But if you accept his request, then you’re stuck with a brand new dilemma. You’ve got to either blatantly ignore Big G’s intern, Bellatrix; or you’ve  got to offer her one, too. And if you offer to grab coffee for Bellatrix, then Weird Joe is definitely going to chip in with his order.

And so it goes on…

It’s not rude to only get yourself a drink

Richie says that to keep this simple, you don’t ever need to offer anybody but yourself a hot drink. And honestly, that does not make you rude!

“You should not feel guilty about not doing something for someone, if that something is not in your job description” he explains.

And in fact, Richie says that by offering to make somebody a coffee, you may even be inadvertently offering to take away a much-needed screen break!

“Personally, I enjoy my coffee ritual” he says. “I like putting in the right amount of sweetener, the right amount of milk. And it’s as much about the break as it is about the coffee.”

But people are taking advantage of my good nature already

Now, you might be reading this, and thinking to yourself ‘great advice, but you’re too late, John – I’ve already made myself the coffee lackey. I’m a lost cause’. Well, don’t give up just yet!

Firstly, please know that I understand your frustration. Unless “getting coffee” is part of your job description, then nobody wants the reputation of tea boy or coffee girl. Even the most ambitious intern can find it a source of grave irritation!

So if you have become known as the person who always does the coffee run to Starbucks at 11am, then there’s a way to shake the reputation without being rude.

Break the pattern with a dose of light humour

Richie says that breaking the pattern as soon as possible is the best way to go. And you don’t have to be rude.

“Some people say that you should be blunt, and say ‘no way, get your own coffee’” he says, “but I disagree. People aren’t usually trying to take advantage of your good nature, it just sort of ends up that way by mistake. And that’s why a bit of light humour is usually great for framing reality, while cutting the tension. If I don’t want the burden, I just laugh and say ‘hey, I only have so many hands!’”

And if humour fails?

“Make them a part of it!” says Richie. “If you don’t want to out-right refuse their request, say to them ‘hey, why don’t we both go?’ – you’re not denying them their caffeine fix, and you’re not setting an unhealthy pattern, either.”

You’ve mastered the coffee break. Now tackle ‘pitching an idea to your boss’

You might remember quite a while back, Richie helped us out on a piece we wrote about pitching an idea to your boss (when your boss thinks it sucks).

If you enjoyed Richie’s advice on navigating some of the treacherous waters of office coffee etiquette, then you should definitely check it out!

How to pitch an idea to your boss when they think it sucks.

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