Last week I met up for beers with some friends from the brewery I used to work for – a get-together to mark a former team-mate’s leaving the business. Well, my excellent good friends MP and DP were there, doing great, of course, and still with that look in their eyes that told of greater plans; and in the giddy, grinning afterglow of reuniting man-hugs, MP leaned in and asked me, ‘what are you having for tea?’ I laughed, and then he added, more soberly “I miss that, you know.”
What are you having for tea? It was a ‘thing’ I became known for in some small work circles. I like to think there were others, but here’s this one. It was a question that came to be important to the team.
Definitions first. ‘Tea’ here refers to the main evening meal – another person’s ‘dinner’, or a posher person’s ‘supper’ – following the Northern, or normal, model of ‘breakfast, dinner and tea’.
I began asking the question at work, which is to say ‘purposefully’ – and do be assured this was never an everyday thing (can you imagine?) – back in 2006. And it became something I’ve enjoyed doing ever since.
What are you having for tea? is, I know, a great work-meeting opener; and by ‘meeting’, meaning round-the-table roomy-teamy affairs, not greeting a client for the first time, or your interview’s opening volley. Introduced openly and well, it puts people right at ease, puts them back in their homes, and with loved things, back into the environment in which they are confident, in (varying degrees of, but different) control… adult deciders. It’s a unifier, too: everyone gets a go and there is only learning to be had, and you can be as contextual or not-so as you choose; some people love to share the seven-day back-story of the casserole, others just go with an untense future; I think I might give that noodle thing a try.
I’ve used the Tea Question in the darkly uncreative troughs of meetings too. It’s a fantastic gear-shifter when introduced right – and there is a wrong: this isn’t, for example, a flip-chart gig; no-one gets to record this stuff. I’ve seen it (and you do see it, in eyes and in shoulders) reconnect people with their selves, and not only in a home context, with everything that would and could imply – and I’m not suggesting that’s all, and only ever, one-hundred-percent-spanky-delicious for everyone, there will always be sensitivities and your own good judgement to be had – but also in and of the business of work and the thing to be sorted out; putting work, as it must do, in its place: which, as we all know, is the best place for it.
Note, please, I know there will be simple, hearty reasons why the tea-thing ‘works’ in this context, and though neither social anthropologist nor Freudian foodie, I will make it my business to know them.
Friday mornings, the team I was part of – and was meeting again with last week – would aim to breakfast together in the site restaurant. Between the staggered arrivals and the brown-sauce-flecked project updates, came the ‘what’s everyone having for tea?’ Fridays help so much with so much, of course, but I always got a buzz from the all-round wows and oohs, and sometimes, godammit, applause. It had become our team sharing thing, and we were brilliant at it – at tasting the weekend already and knowing where the day was headed.
And then there were the more intimate, less scheduled across-the-desk Tea Question moments (yes, this language is intentional, what are you at work?), with MP – these were his ‘I miss that, you know’s’ – which became a genuine, and genuinely useful, conversational hiatus in our afternoons. For these would in turn spawn riffs upon packaging, serves, storage, the role of beer, of alcohol, eco-agendas, food labelling, regional variations, diets, innovations, nostalgia, comedy, retail experiences, social responsibility, nutritional and family values, parenting, ancestries, first dates, bad dates, great nights, mad mates, love, stories, legends, clips on YouTube, cookery shows, brands and how they’re doing and for whom, heuristics, hang-ups, emotions, irrational dislikes, links to sites, personal slights, and (marketer, developer, innovator, planner) killer feckin’ insights.
Hell, who wouldn’t miss a slice of that?
So, try asking it – respectfully, purposefully and caring – of colleagues this week.
What are you having for tea?
© Copyright, Steve Mitchell and Fisher Lane, 2012