Have you ever noticed a mysterious loss of teaspoons at your workplace? Maybe it’s not teaspoons, but some other cutlery item. At my old work it was forks, which dwindled even when I bought new replacement ones. At the Australian National University neither spoon nor fork were safe, causing some students to eat salad with two knives as chopsticks.
The same thing was happening at the Burnett Institute in Australia. Teaspoons were critically low, no matter how many new ones bought. Clearly it was time for science.
“Exasperated by our consequent inability to stir in our sugar and to accurately dispense instant coffee, we decided to respond in time honoured epidemiologists’ fashion and measure the phenomenon,” they said in the paper.
They numbered 70 teaspoons and placed them in tearooms around the institute. Lo and behold, they started to disappear. Every week they counted the remaining teaspoons, probably with a lot of suppressed giggling and delight.
After five months, 56 out of 70 teaspoons disappeared, that’s 80%. The half life of the teaspoons was 81 days.
Teaspoons in communal tearooms disappeared faster than those in tearooms specifically for certain projects. Expensive teaspoons disappeared no faster than cheap ones.
According to the study, “at this rate, an estimated 250 teaspoons would need to be purchased annually to maintain a practical institute-wide population of 70 teaspoons.” The cost? About $100. Extrapolate that to the workforce of Melbourne, some 2.4 million people, and you’re looking at quite a wad of cash.
And it’s not just economic loss, it’s also workplace satisfaction. “Teaspoon displacement and loss leads to the use of forks, knives, and staplers to measure out coffee and sugar,” the study suggested. Staplers? You know it’s a bad day in the office when you’re measuring sugar with a stapler. Indeed, nobody in the office said they were “highly satisfied” with the number of teaspoons in a survey they conducted at the end of the study. Yes, they even did a survey.
But why are teaspoons such hot property?
The study gives a few possible theories. Perhaps there are so many teaspoons, people don’t think it will matter if they take one home. Over time the small acts of thievery add up until there are no teaspoons left.
Alternatively, and I can say this no better than the authors, “Somewhere in the cosmos, along with all the planets inhabited by humanoids, reptiloids, walking treeoids, and superintelligent shades of the colour blue, a planet is entirely given over to spoon life-forms. Unattended spoons make their way to this planet, slipping away through space to a world where they enjoy a uniquely spoonoid lifestyle, responding to highly spoon oriented stimuli, and generally leading the spoon equivalent of the good life.”
Their final theory is les choses sont contre nous “things are against us.” “Resistentialism is the belief that inanimate objects have a natural antipathy towards humans, and therefore it is not people who control things but things that increasingly control people,” says the study. Think of all the time you spend cleaning, buying, repairing, using and selling things. Do items really control our lives, sending us on some materialistic goose chase for reasons we cannot yet understand? I can only assume Yes.
I want to hear from anyone who has experienced this phenomenon, be it spoons, forks or knives. What goes missing in your workplace, and why do they constantly disappear. And what is the spoon equivalent of the good life?
Lim, M. (2005). The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute BMJ, 331 (7531), 1498-1500 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.331.7531.1498
Massive hat tip to James at Disease Prone, who said my posts had slowed down and suggested this paper.