Don't Drink the Cream

Social etiquette proves hard to navigate.

February 28, 2020 • 3 min read

As I was told, some years ago a team of contractors were visiting the office of a big potential client. Hoping to impress, the sales lead on the deal brought a skilled product designer along to the meeting, as well as a software developer who was well versed in the relevant tech. The hope was that they’d be well-equipped to answer any remaining questions, put the client at ease, and finally seal the deal.

Now this was a pretty fancy client, and in preparation for the meeting a tray of refreshments had been laid out. Some pastries, tea, and even a little pitcher of cream for coffee. It was perhaps a more refined environment than the team was used to, but the discussion was going well.

After a time, the developer pointed to the pitcher of cream and interjected, “Is anybody going to drink that?”

A moment of surprised silence followed. Then, the answer: “No..?” Nobody is going to drink that.

So the developer nodded, said “Okay,” picked up the little pitcher, and drank the cream.

This was an unexpected turn of events. The client raised an eyebrow, but what was there to say? “Hey you, stop drinking that cream”? It was just established that nobody else wanted it. Who says you can’t drink the cream?

Well, nobody says that. Nobody says you can’t drink the cream, because “we all know” that you don’t drink the cream. We use observation, pattern matching, and sensitivity to social cues to conclude that even if you kind of want to drink the cream that’s been set out for coffee, you’re supposed to not.

No matter how much preparation the sales manager did before the meeting, it’s unlikely he would have thought to brief the developer on the etiquette around imbibing condiments.

I often think about this story for two reasons. The surface lesson here is that while most skills can be taught, there is a baseline level of EQ that is worth looking for when you’re recruiting a team, especially for people who might present with you in a high-stakes situation. It’s easy to underestimate how helpful it is to have team members with strong self-regulation and social awareness.

The second lesson, which to me the more interesting one, is that performing as expected in social situations is really complicated! Who cares if somebody drinks a pitcher of cream? It was probably going to get warm and go to waste anyway! For people who are predisposed to having lower social awareness, including many people on the autism spectrum, the implied rules of social etiquette are a minefield. Rather than picking up social cues instinctively, some people need to learn them one by one, by trial and error, and many of them are completely arbitrary.

The good news is that social awareness can be learned. In fact, it can be really helpful for some people to get a note or heads up when they’re out of sync with social expectations. Some folks may get defensive, sure, but you’d be surprised how often people simply appreciate the tip.

Even a well-meaning person may wonder to themselves, “Hm, I like to drink cream, but I’ve never seen anybody else do this before – is it considered okay to drink the cream?” But as of today, if you type “is it okay to drink the pitcher of cream” into Google, you just get a recipe for making a pitcher of White Russians, and a discussion on the health consequences of drinking whipping cream.

So, for anybody out there searching for the answer, a helpful tip. Despite there being no logical reason for this rule, even if you’re thirsty – even if nobody else is using it – don’t drink the cream.

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© Allen Pike. You can find me on Twitter, contact me, or check out Steamclock.