A plate of mixed biscuits

Why these biscuits highlight several unspoken social rules

If you’ve ever been to a meeting in Britain, you might have noticed that there’s often a plate of biscuits in the middle of the table – and sometimes it never gets touched. The reason why is not that we don’t like biscuits! Instead it’s because of several unspoken social rules.

The first unspoken rule is that it is polite to offer the biscuits to others before you choose your own. This is not a problem if it is a plate with lots of the same type of biscuit. However, if it is a plate of mixed biscuits, there is a high chance that your favourite biscuit will get taken by someone else. Therefore, it is an advantage to wait until someone else offers them to you. If everyone has the same idea, you might have to wait a long time for someone to make the first move.

There’s another problem when there’s only one biscuit left on the plate. It is considered greedy (and a bit selfish) to eat the last biscuit – because everyone secretly wants it. The only polite way to eat that final biscuit is to offer it to everyone else first… but this is at the risk of someone taking it. So again, everyone waits for someone else to make the first move.

Once you know these rules, it is fun to watch them in action. Everyone will sit looking at those biscuits for a long time because no-one wants to offer them to everyone else. In extreme cases, no-one eats anything. Even if people do start eating, there is always a lonely biscuit left on the plate.

However, it is very different once the food is put back in the office kitchen. With no social rules to break, everything vanishes in about 3 minutes.


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