This Viral Twitter Story About a Stolen Office Lunch Is a Teaching Moment

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A long time ago, the complied wisdom and morality of a society would be passed down through an oral tradition that would teach the next generation through stories, songs, and ceremonies. With written language came the ability to inscribe these stories onto stone or papyrus, and it gradually became easier and easier for these sacred texts to spread widely. But fewer and fewer people look to old stories for real enlightenment these days, and for many, questions of right and wrong can seem old-fashioned. But that’s not to say there isn’t a hunger for a discourse that can teach us what behavior is praiseworthy. Now, we look to Twitter. More specifically, we look to this Twitter story about a stolen lunch that contains a surprising amount about workplace etiquette and ethics:

This comes from Zak Toscani, a comedian, and though it is unverified (like all the old legends), we can still draw lessons from it. According to Toscani, his co-worker bought a thing of shrimp fried rice at 11:30 AM and put it in the fridge so it would cool off by the time he took his break at noon. (I don’t know why you would do this, but let’s not fixate on that.) In that narrow half-hour window, the shrimp fried rice vanished. The perpetrator was captured on camera, however, and the wronged co-worker saw the tape:

This is the most important part of the story, the element that transforms it from a gossip-y office tale to a genuine moral lesson. The question here is not whether stealing a lunch from the office fridge is wrong—it obviously is. The question is, what do you do with a fridge thief? What kind of punishment is appropriate?

The most libertarian among us might argue that it is not the place of office authorities to police the fridge. They might ask, “Well, was your lunch labeled?” They might tell you that the proper course is to write an angry note on the office messageboard (if such a thing exists), or tape a “NO STEALING” sign to the fridge. Why involve HR at all? Was the fried rice really that good?

The more law-and-order perspective posits that the perpetrator should be disciplined in some way—if not fired, then given an official warning. Or at least have to compensate the wronged party for his lunch. You can imagine an office (or a society) where there is a set punishment for a stolen lunch. The thief not only committed a crime against the fried rice–haver, she broke the covenant of the office fridge, the fundamental idea that if you put food in it and it is either clearly labeled or obviously your food and not a communal item, then you can rest knowing the food is secure. An office community that cannot trust the rules of the fridge is a broken office community—so that community should have the right to punish violators.

On the other hand, a society may also way to pay attention to the victims of crime and factor that into the resulting penalty. Here, the victim demonstrates not a desire for vengeance, but a loyalty to his fellow office workers as a group—he knows that a firing would upend the perpetrators life, and would not want that disproportionate penalty to be handed down. Instead, he just wants his curiosity satisfied.

In the United States, the idea that victims should have an expanded role in criminal court proceedings—often referred to as “victims’ rights”—is controversial, with some arguing that it can put defendants at an unfair disadvantage. You can imagine a scenario where a more vindictive would-be rice luncher demands that the thief be fired, or where a prior relationship with the thief colors the punishment process unfairly. But the victim here has opted for a more informal punishment process:

So while the perpetrator hasn’t been officially sanctioned, clearly everyone in the office knows that she stole a lunch. This is clearly a form of punishment, as the office as a whole knows that she is untrustworthy.

So here we have a second violation of the office code. No one expects a thief to admit their crime in public, but here we might have expected a half-admission: Oh was that your lunch? I’m sorry I thought it was garbage and threw it out. Or else a confession with a exculpatory factor: I am deathly allergic to shrimp. I needed to get rid of it. I will buy you a new lunch. The lack of shame is what has the office “about to start screaming.”

Further, she hides behind the “no snitching” code of conduct, which posits that victims of and witnesses to crimes shouldn’t involve the authorities. In fact, the victim here follows a version of this principle—he could have demanded punishment, but he didn’t. The offender, not knowing this, continues to make herself look foolish.

Indeed.

So here we come to the end of the story, and it’s final lesson, which is that sometimes punishment does not even involve letting the punished know it is punishment. Here, the penalty for her crime is almost symbolic—she has to eat the exact sort of food she threw out. More importantly, she is seen eating the food and likely being mocked, not just in this office, but in offices across the world, thanks to this viral thread. That is, if she even exists. The whole thing might just be fake.

But fake or not, the viral story affirms the values that so many office workers hold dear, and codifies them: The office fridge thief is the lowest of the low. It’s wrong to wish someone else be fired for a petty offense. And informal, community-driven punishment can be more effective than judgments handed down from on high.

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Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.





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