I had three roommates once. If someone neglected to take the garbage out or wash the dishes, I never knew who the offending person was. When I lived with just one other person, it didn’t take much to figure out who the rancid food in the fridge belonged to. When we ran out of paper towels, I knew who to point my finger at.

Unless you share an office with just one other person, it’s impossible for you to know who left the top off the communal milk, who put a single dirty plate in the dishwasher full of clean dishes, or who took the last ice cubes without refilling the trays.

Office kitchens can be surprisingly dirty places: We all agree on this, yes? L.V. Anderson for Slate explores the phenomenon with an interesting conclusion. Rather than blaming it on the “tragedy of the commons” where people “exploit and eventually deplete shared resources by acting in their individual self-interest,” Anderson thinks it’s more about displaying autonomy, acting as more than a cog in the wheel—a position we assume when we’re sitting at our desks plugging away at whatever work we’ve been assigned. Calling the kitchen a place where we let our humanity show, Anderson says it’s the place we socialize in the office. It’s where we take a break from discussing work and reveal our personal lives.

While I agree that I’m less likely to chat traffic reports or best writing practices when I’m toasting bread for PB&J—to wit: I just had a conversation about the NY Mets as I waited for my tea to brew—I don’t think we can ignore the fact that laziness and a feeling that we’re not accountable are factors when it comes to the messy office kitchen.

It’s easy to not clean up after yourself when no one’s watching. If you only have one bowl and one spoon in the dishwasher, are you as likely to empty it as when half or a third of the dishes are yours at home? I’m not saying it’s the way it should be—I’m just stating what I believe is the obvious.

The way around this, of course, is to lead by example. The next time you go for a cup of coffee and find that only dregs are left, don’t look around for someone to accuse, and don’t storm off to the nearest café. Instead, set about making a fresh pot. While you wait for it to brew, maybe wash a couple of dishes? Replace the sponge, fill the soap container. No, it’s not “your job,” but would you say that to your boss if asked to monitor the team email while your colleague’s on vacation. Doubtful.

Go ahead and embrace the coffee banter while you’re getting your cup, but make sure you clean up the sugar that misses your mug while you’re at it. If we all take responsibility, the office kitchen will be a better place (that’s not filled with frustrating moments). And if that room becomes a better place, there’s no reason to assume that won’t extend to the rest of the space we inhabit with our colleagues—just imagine a world where you go to the restroom and the counter’s not soaking wet.


Photo of employees using office kitchen courtesy of Hill Street Studios/Getty Images.