Tea and coffee are our constant companions in office. Our tastes may vary between cappuccinos, espressos, masala chai and green tea, but most of us drink, on an average, three to five hot beverages each day at work. This also means that the cups in which we drink tea and coffee are our steadfast companions too.

No wonder managers have made these cups and mugs interesting statements of personal style, and even integral elements of office culture. Gone are the days when you drank your coffee or tea in a nondescript white cup and saucer. Look around your office, and one of the most colourful and diverse areas will be the pantry cupboard where the mugs and cups are stored.

Of course, tastes in mugs and cups are diverse, and they speak volumes about the executive who drinks from them. Here is a cup primer, that walks us through some interesting varieties you can choose from.

Porcelain China cups

In some of the most distinguished offices, you are still served tea and coffee in the time-honoured tradition—in delicate porcelain china cups, tastefully designed, and often with a little touch of gold at the rim. These are executives who believe in the power of tradition, and in all likelihood, they will also offer you sponge cake or Marie biscuits with your beverage, at evening teatime. A word of caution. Porcelain is delicate, so be careful with these cups and also with your conversation in these hallowed halls. In such wood-panelled offices, you are well advised to keep your conversation formal, sip your tea elegantly, and leave as soon as you have accomplished what you came for.

Conversation starters

These mugs are printed with colourful photographs of the executive, and perhaps his or her spouse or partner or children or even pet dogs. The idea here is to bring the family right into the workplace. When you meet a colleague drinking out of such a family mug, you should occasionally ask him or her about the family, and particularly about the pets. People with pets love speaking about them, and this can be a very useful icebreaker, before you get on to essential business discussions.

Alma mater mugs

Increasingly, many executives use coffee mugs emblazoned with logos of universities. Such mugs tend to primarily reflect nostalgia for the alma mater. Very importantly, they give you valuable insights into the executive—for instance, if he has a mug which says Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) or Indian Institute of Management (IIM) or some similar name on it, he will, in all likelihood, be a left-brained, numbers guy. Sometimes, you may see people carrying around mugs with globally famous college names such as Harvard or Cambridge. This does not necessarily mean that they have studied there, it could reflect just an aspiration or a deep need for badge value. In such cases, do your own research before jumping to any conclusions.

Holiday postcards

When you see colleagues drinking tea from mugs that feature a beach in the Bahamas, or a chateau in France, you must speak to them about their holiday. Here is an executive who is very proud of his vacation, and his cup is virtually a picture postcard that he is putting in front of you. He will talk fondly about time he spent walking the cobbled streets of Paris, or drinking tankards of beer at Oktoberfest in Munich. You can then respond by speaking about your own holiday in Cambodia or Japan. There cannot be a better way of bonding between stressed-out office colleagues who are taking a well-deserved tea break before rushing to their next long and tiring meeting.

Latte lifestyle

A growing segment of executives love to be seen with disposable paper cups that feature famous brands of coffee or tea. The green or red logo on the cup is the important thing here. This is a statement of cool lifestyle, and also a signal that the person is (or wishes to be) a connoisseur of the hallowed beverage, that he or she seeks only the best and finest. You can spend hours discussing with him or her the relative merits of a latte, cappuccino, espresso, Darjeeling first flush tea or Mao Feng green tea. The cup also provides good insight into where exactly you can invite the person, for your next meeting.

Dash of humour

For managers who wish to inject a bit of humour into their workplace, the surface area of mugs is a good place to turn to. Mugs carry humour lightly, and also convey the message that you are not a serious, stuck-up guy. There is, of course, a very wide variety of messages to choose from, so you will never run short of options. Some popular messages I have seen on mugs include: “Compliance is my life", “I love the Human Resources Department", “The Devil made me do it", “I had my patience tested, I’m negative." The real trick here is to have a message that you believe in, and is humorous at the same time. That makes for a mug that you will be happy to carry and use, all day.

Harish Bhat works with the Tata group. He loved his college mug that featured the clock tower at BITS Pilani, until it broke a few years ago.

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