Mini Object Lesson: The Mug, Scaffold of Office Work

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Jeremy Tarling / Flickr

Props are supports. You prop up a structure on a scaffold while bolting or welding it in place. A friend can prop you up when you’re down. In theatercraft, a prop supports the fiction of the production.

Everyone needs a prop. Kings and queens have scepters, whose purpose is to have no purpose, to telegraph the fact that their bearers don’t need one. Cigarettes used to be props, when it was still permissible to smoke. Today, the smartphone has replaced it.

In cupboards, a mug is just a mug. But in the office, a mug becomes the fundamental prop of the professional. Like the cigarette or the smartphone or even the scepter, it gives the worker something to do with his or her hands. Cradle the mug while listening during a meeting or a one-on-one. Carry it purposefully to or from the kitchen, or nonchalantly while entering a colleague’s office. The mug says “Here I am, and no big deal.”

Mugs are disarming, and in both senses: First, they deescalate any office encounter by disabling one of the limbs of its instigator. Sure, actual fisticuffs are unlikely in the workplace, but metaphorical ones aren’t. Even aggressive gesticulation is impossible for the mug-bearing. The danger of scalding coffee keeps the be-mugged in check.

But second, mugs charm. They mollify. Nothing to worry about, it’s just a guy or gal with a mug. “Hey, let’s go get a coffee. Meet you in the break room.” This is also why you can’t trust people who don’t drink coffee (or tea; or who refuse to pretend to do). Muglessness is a sociopath’s tell.

The plain mug works fine, but the imprinted one thaws and pacifies even further. When emblazoned with a favorite slogan or quip, the mug holds up a part of its bearer’s personality, even when it rests atop the desk or upside-down in the dishwasher. Imprinted mugs reveal something about their owners, something true or at least aspirational. Something true to them: Best Dad or The Atlantic or I Pooped Today. “This is me, and no big deal.”

Without mugs, the modern office would collapse. It is the scaffold from which the arbitrary talk and action of the workplace gets constructed. Just try removing it from your routine, and your colleagues’. Work would come unmoored without  mugs to lash it to the docks of humanity.

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