Wednesday, December 17, 2008

office rituals

Our office has a lot of rituals, particularly at the holidays. Today we had the annual holiday breakfast. We have breakfast together. It used to be cooked by the accounting staff, and me. We have 40 people in the office now, and we have outgrown a meal cooked on-site without a kitchen. We now have a catered spread. The desserts/sweets table is still filled by the office staff. Everyone brings in something, and then we eat the leftover cookies and cakes for a few days.

The big event of the breakfast is the white elephant game. Each person who wants to participate buys a gift in the $20-$25 range. You wrap it, bring it in and put it on the white elephant table. Then we draw numbers to determine the order of play. The first person opens a gift from the table. The next person can either take the gift from the first person, or unwrap a new one from the table. If your gift is "stolen" you get to pick another one, from the table, or from another person's open gift. The next person can "steal" from any of the people with gifts already opened, or open a new one. A gift that changes hands twice is deemed safe and can't be taken again. So there is some strategy, a lot of laughter, and occasionally you end up with something you really like as your gift.

What's funny to me are the unwritten rules of the game. For instance, you don't pick your own gift from the table, or steal it when its your turn. Even if no one knows you bought it, you don't pick it. And while "stealing" from each other is part of the game, and encouraged, you have to do it a certain way. There can't be anything personal to it, and it has to be good-natured. So how do the rules get communicated? We all know them, but how do new staff learn them?

It's like knowing what's a "good" gift for the table. You can tell gifts bought by new staff, because they don't fit in. So how do we all know that votive candle holders are good, but ear muffs are not? That a bottle of fancy booze with a nice glass in a gift box is perfect, but a case of beer would not be.

We also have secret santa for a week. If you play, you draw a name, and buy that person a tiny gift a day for 5 days, and then a $20 gift to deliver at the breakfast. You have to keep it secret, and if you know someone's secret, you can't tell. And you are supposed to leave a note on your mailbox, thanking your secret santa (even if you didn't like the gifts)... and you should try to make sure your person can't guess you. And you should try to find out what they like, and personalize the gifts...

It's office lore, and office ritual. And we all learn it somehow, and participate in it, and reinforce it. ? Is it because the office is almost all women? do offices full of men have the same kind of thing? Are we more of a group because we share this stuff?

1 comment:

Kitten Herder said...

Your white elephant sounds much like our yankee swap. However, with ours, there are not restrictions on the number of thefts in the game. Also, there is often a horrible thing that returns to the pile every year. With my husband's office it was a log-of-meat (aka, a summer sausage). That thing was re-gifted at least seven years running. What's scary is that it never seemed to change color or look any different. The trick for the person who gets stuck with it at the end of each year is how to camouflage it the next year so someone picks it from the pile.