Tale of missing fried rice sheds light on the office politics of a shared fridge

The inside of a refrigerator in an office kitchen is seen in New York, Tuesday, July 1, 2008.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Stace Maude

A story about a missing lunch of shrimp fried rice is captivating social media and shedding light on an often overlooked but highly contentious aspect of office politics: fridge etiquette.

Interactions around the office refrigerator — replete with passive aggressive Post-It notes and decomposing leftovers — reveal human behaviour in the workplace, experts say.

Eddy Ng, a professor at Dalhousie University's Rowe School of Business, said the shared fridge is a microcosm of office dynamics, serving to accentuate interpersonal skills, communication styles and personality types.

"It may seem pretty trivial but it can manifest into something that is bigger than just stealing lunches," he said in an interview from Halifax. "It accentuate peoples' personalities and attitudes towards their colleagues."

It's also the scene for a comical tale about stolen shrimp fried rice that has gripped social media for days and spurred an online exchange of woes from cubicle-land.

Zak Toscani, a writer and stand-up comedian, took to Twitter last week after his co-worker's lunch was stolen.

He joked that the missing food was shrimp fried rice, escalating the crime from a misdemeanour to a felony, and mused that it was a "professional hit no doubt" due to the lack of a shrimp smell in the microwave or kitchen.

Toscani said his hungry co-worker asked to view security footage of the communal fridge, and detailed to his online followers how the investigation unfolded.

"Lunch was in fridge for less than an hour before it vanished," he tweeted, noting that the "psychopath" didn't even eat the food but instead "buried it in the trash."

"Her motives remain completely unknown," Toscani said of the perpetrator.

After seeing the surveillance footage, he said the victim decided not to press the matter.

"I can’t say I blame him," Toscani said. "We don’t know what this woman’s fully capable of."

His amusing account of the sensational office drama — he quipped that it was the most excited he'd been "at any job ever" — went viral, garnering hundreds of thousands of likes and re-tweets.

The workplace spat appears to have hit a nerve among workers affected by the seemingly unscrupulous actions of self-appointed fridge police.

Comments online included whether the shrimp fried rice story has been "optioned by Hollywood" — including suggestions for director and actors — as well as theories about the burglar being a scorned lover seeking vengeance.

"It's wild," Toscani said in an interview from Los Angeles, about the surprising amount of attention his narration of events has received.

"It's become a conversation piece because so many people have had their lunch stolen or thrown out," he said. "Office situations like this seem to be really common."

Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist and Georgetown University professor, said workplace kitchens are often fraught with problems.

"People are in a cramped space, where the office kitchen has almost this level of unwanted intimacy to it," she said in an interview from Washington, D.C. "You might want a little more privacy but you have to use the communal refrigerator."

Bonior, an author and host of an online chat column in The Washington Post, said the shared office kitchen is prone to passive aggressiveness in part because food can be a loaded issue for people due to scent sensitivities, diets and other issues.

"You might need to interact with people to resolve an issue, but rather than deal with it face-to-face people will often leave notes," she said, calling it a "stealth attack" against someone without taking the responsibility for being direct.

"It really does bring out a childishness in the workplace."

Bonior recommended personal, direct and respectful communication in any workplace conflict.

"As funny as this story may be, in general it's better to avoid this sort of secret drama that risks making people feel humiliated and offended."


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