My last post about Jeff Sessions hand washing his oatmeal bowl at work leads nicely into a topic I’ve been wanting to do a post about for a while now: the politics of dishes in the break room.

There’s a good chance you’ve seen a sign along the lines of:

YOUR MOTHER doesn’t work here.
Please clean up after yourself.

A couple thoughts.

1) The sign is sexist. (So don’t use it).

It assumes that the mother is the one who cleaned up after the reader in the reader’s home. We can go to town on this. Maybe the reader’s dad did more of the work. Maybe the reader had two dads. And on and on…

Someone could read it as being prescriptive (saying how things are supposed to be): mothers are supposed to clean up. I don’t see it that way. I see it as being descriptive: saying this may be the reality at your home, but you’re at work and there’s a different set of rules here. Which leads me to…

2) The sign is effective.

It communicates the message powerfully and clearly. But, since it’s sexist, it’s not okay to post a sign with the “your mother” opening. What would a non-sexist alternative look like?

While substitute teaching the year before I went to grad school, I saw a sign in the break room along these lines posted by the sink:

The person who normally cleans up after you at home doesn’t work here.
Please clean up after yourself.

So, it’s a gender-neutral version of the “your mother” sign. To my ear, it doesn’t pack the same punch.

I think part of that is that the audience for the original version of the sign isn’t really all people reading it. The intended audience is particular people, people who don’t do their dishes because they grew up having their mothers clean up their messes for them. In other words, its making a guess about what kind of people are leaving the dishes in the sink and why.

And I think the reason the original version works is because there’s some truth to those assumptions, though of course it’s often not that simple.

Crafting a better sign.

So the first version works but is sexist. The second version is no longer sexist, but kind of falls flat. What are some alternatives?

Here’s a direct one:


Okay, it does the job, but what if we want to catch readers’ attention by being interesting?

Here’s one from a break room shared by political scientists and economics at a university:

Tragedy of the Commons

It works because its making a lighthearted reference to a concept used in both disciplines.

A friend sent me this one from his work:


I like it because it’s positive, but also firmly makes the case for what needs to happen. He says it seems to be working, with people leaving dishes in the sink less frequently.

What about you? Do you have any favorite “do your dishes” signs from a workplace? If so, let me know in a comments, below.