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the adult bibs, the talking shrimp, and other unusual office traditions — Ask a Manager

One of the most interesting things about offices is how they develop their own subcultures, rituals, traditions. I recently asked about unusual office traditions you’ve seen or experienced, and here are some of my favorites you shared.

 My office has a “talking shrimp” that we use instead of a “talking stick” in brainstorming meetings where we otherwise run the risk of all talking over each other. It’s a foam replica of a cooked jumbo shrimp — headless and legless but we’ve added googly eyes. The tradition has evolved to the point that now in virtual meetings people will sometimes put a shrimp emoji in the chat when they want to talk and the meeting leader will recognize them saying “you have the shrimp.”

 All of our baby showers are veggie themed. It started several years ago when the pregnant person and the office clown were talking about gift baskets. Clown said, “Wouldn’t an onion basket make a nice gift!” It went from there. I started a week before the shower, which did in fact feature a basket full of every kind of onion known to man. Showers since then have included sprouts, potatoes, and turnips; the most recent one was asparagus.

 My first day at one of my first jobs out of college I was given a $30 gift certificate to a local yarn store and was given instructions to go find yarn that “felt right to me,” buy $30 worth of it, and bring it in the next Monday. There were a couple of suggested weights and the firm instruction that I not purchase acrylic, and while it was extremely weird to me, I did as I was directed and showed up for work with a couple of skeins.

Turns out we had a woman who’d worked there longer than God and who crocheted in all her meetings to help her focus. She’d make granny squares out of every new hire’s yarn and they’d be added to the office afghan blanket – by the time I started working there she’d been at it for years and there were multiple blankets floating around the office. Anyone could check out a blanket, but only for a day at a time because they were extremely in demand. The director had started the whole thing years and years ago when he’d noticed her crocheting, was fascinated, and asked if she’d mind taking on a special project. She said okay, but she wasn’t providing the yarn, he said that’s fine, and had it written into the budget.

She retired when I’d been there for five years, but by that point she’d trained a successor and the tradition was still alive when I left a couple of years after her.

 In my department, we celebrate a wide variety of made up holidays. For example, a policy such as Policy 9.13 Nepotism would be celebrated on September 13 with your relatives’ favorite treats. There are also a variety of other holidays, such as Toast Day and Fa-La-La-Latte Day.

 We have a “Wall of Same.” If two or more coworkers happen to come into the office dressed very similarly, they’ll ask someone to take a picture and add it to the board. It’s fun to notice with someone “Hey we’re wearing almost the same thing! Let’s take a picture.” One day, a few years ago, there were about 6 of us who happened to wear something burgundy on the same day — a sweater, blazer, pants, or skirt. I’ve moved on from that office but I still have that picture!

 At a software development firm, we had the Build Breaker Trophy. It was a spectacularly ugly statue of a merman riding a seahorse, which somebody had fished out of the office dumpster. If you broke the build (translation: messed up the shared project code so that it blocked everybody else’s work) then you got presented with the Build Breaker Trophy, and had to display it on your desk until you could pass it on to somebody else.

 We have a periodic International Snack Battle, where people bring food in a given theme from a place they have lived or a culture they like (including here). It’s done during an extra long tea break. Themes have included milk, dessert, (non-alcoholic) drinks, pineapple, lemon… Everyone gets the chance to try new things and learn about new recipes / local bakeries / unique products, as entries need not be homemade. Each person present can vote for top three on presentation and on taste. Spreadsheet tabulation ensues. Winner chooses next theme. (People usually include allergen info on a label without being prompted, and they sometimes bring something that stretches or doesn’t fit the theme, if that’s what they’re feeling.)

 My floor has all of the lights off. We don’t like fluorescent lights. New people get a handful of poop emoji erasers to use as weapons to toss when you need someone’s attention but they have headphones on.

 At a place I used to work we had a tradition called Bad Decision Friday. It was a small, very casual nonprofit. We’d either go somewhere together and have greasy, regrettable food, or–if it was busy — we’d order greasy, regrettable food delivered. The camaraderie! The indigestion! I miss that place.

 I worked in a TV newsroom many years ago that had a gargoyle statue on the corner of the assignment desk. He was the “Breaking News God” and every time someone touched him, some major incident would inevitably happen that would require reporters and photogs to rush out the door and producers to completely re-tool their rundowns. It was a workplace full of skeptical journalists, but everyone was wary of the BNG.

 We had The Team Plant. It was a nice ordinary office houseplant in a basket, and it didn’t belong to anyone in particular. Most of the time it lived on a credenza in the middle of our open space. But sometimes the team would just decide that you deserved or needed to have The Team Plant on your desk for a while.

You might find it on your desk if you got a promotion or had a new grandchild, or if your car was damaged in a fender-bender or someone on your account team left the company, or if you had a cold and were dragging. It appeared on my desk the week my father died and stayed there for a while, and then one of my co-workers completed a difficult project and I passed it on to him.

 My former office has the New Hire Frog. Every new hire, regardless of experience, is bequeathed this guady frog statue from the former new person, along with a list of Rules of the Frog. Rules include “rub frog’s belly for luck but no more than once a day” or “don’t place frog on your cubicle’s wall because he is afraid of heights” or “bring the frog with you to workload meetings so Head Boss remembers you don’t know all the ins and outs.” Silly, simple, occasionally practical stuff.

Supposedly the frog was liberated from a tequila bar in Mexico by a former employee, but no one ever got a straight answer from him so no one really knows where it came from. But faithfully does the frog stand upon each new hire’s desk.

 We had a huge oil painting donated by a board member long ago, it was an amateurish coastal harbor scene in odd colors, with a pink lighthouse with beams shining out from it that looked a bit … well, phallic, in a way that once you noticed it you could not un-see it. If you were out on travel or vacation and had enough wall space in your office, you might come back and find it hanging there. Then you had to keep an eye out for an opportunity to pass it on to the next lucky staffer. Nobody ever discussed this directly, it was just a thing that happened as if by magic. When we moved to a much smaller office space it was discreetly (and well) hung in the building’s common area.

 A few decades back when I was working as a computer technician the place I worked had a fun tradition. On the last Friday of the month, the boss would buy a case of beer, and around 4:30 we would gather in the loading dock and drink some beers while we took turns using a The Official Company Bat (TM) to beat any malfunctioning equipment into small pieces of scrap.

 I used to work with a museum with a lot of outdoor space for the public to enjoy free of charge. One summer day I decided it was far too hot to eat lunch in my office without any climate control, so I took my sandwich to the gazebo. This woman with about 10 macaw parrots climbing all over her, sauntered up the path. She then entered the museum, and began placing the birds on people.

I love birds. I even have my own parrots! Never would I think of bringing my girls to a public space and just put them on people. And yet, everyone acted like this was a perfectly normal thing. And everyone stopped what they were doing, even giving tours, to play with the birds they had been handed. The birds were delightful!

When she left, I kept asking people if it really had happened, and their response was, “Oh, that’s just the parrots for peace lady. She comes here sometimes to give the birds some shade.”

 At one workplace we had Salad Days in the summer. A coworker had a large garden (maybe actually a small farm?) and several times during the growing and harvesting season he’d announce a Salad Day and then bring in a HUGE amount of greens and veggies and other people would bring in things like dressing or cheese or croutons or fruit or bread or whatever might go on or with a salad and we’d all just eat giant salads for lunch.

 We have a company-wide White Elephant gift exchange every Christmas. It’s absolute madness, and a lot of fun. One year, an intern submitted several beautifully framed photos of himself. The recipient proudly displayed them at his desk until the following White Elephant, when he wrapped them up and put them back in gift pile. And the same thing happened the year after that, and the year after that… It’s now been more than 15 years, and the photos of Intern Nathan have showed up in the White Elephant every year since.

 My workplace has a cat. He was not originally ours, he moved in at some point. We are a very secure site, with badging in everywhere, secured perimeter, 24/7 security guards etc., and a cat who is just allowed to wander around. He has a Facebook page which has more likes than that of the institution’s leader, he features in the Newcomers’ Guide and if we have visitors, we sure check whether he is at his usual spot, to show him off. He has an official entry on our website. Search for Micky the Space Cat!

 I worked in a very casual workplace (shorts, jeans, basically anything goes as long as it’s not too revealing), and we would occasionally have a “Formal Friday” (like casual Friday, but the opposite, get it?). Some people would just dress office snazzy, some would wear something you’d wear to a cocktail party, and some people used the opportunity to bust out their 80s/90s apparel with shoulder pads and gaudy chunky gold jewelry. Good fun. (And, of course, totally optional.)

 I have just joined a team where people have huge adult terry cloth bibs to wear at lunch time. (The kind that can be bought in bulk for nursing homes.) Mine was bestowed on me this week and I am surprisingly happy about it.


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