Dear Helena,

I put my lunch—a chicken sandwich I’d made—in the office fridge, and somebody ate it. I wrote a mean note and taped it on the fridge, but I felt totally impotent. I’m still really angry about it. What’s the best way to keep people from stealing your stuff, and chastise them when they do? —Hungry for Justice

Dear Hungry,

The peevish note on the refrigerator is a common tactic. There’s one posted in the office space I rent with a bunch of other writers that says, “If you DRINK milk, please BUY milk.”

However, I would be shocked if this note has had any effect at all. Attacking somebody, even in this passive-aggressive fashion, only causes defensiveness. In the first chapter of Dale Carnegie’s classic self-help book, How to Win Friends & Influence People, he advises that one should never criticize or condemn anybody, because it causes the accused to rationalize his behavior and resent you. Even Al Capone viewed himself as a public servant.

Some people resort to devious tactics. Melissa Dodd, a marketing director in San Francisco, attached signs to her food that said, “I have the flu. I’m contagious.” But even a small child would be able to see through this gag. Some crafty types make “revenge sandwiches.” That is, rather than bringing their usual duck pâté and Havarti on a croissant, they substitute cat food, or a smear of Ex-Lax.

Or you could try to make your lunch look as unappealing as possible. This fake-mold-covered plastic baggie would be easy to make yourself with green spray paint.

Ultimately, however, these measures won’t actually reform thieves. (And I certainly don’t advocate making people sick through feeding them Ex-Lax.) To really change people’s behavior, if it is indeed possible, you have to first understand the root cause of their actions.

Steven Houseworth, founder of Theft Talk, a counseling service for people who steal, says thieves have “inaccurate beliefs about stealing.” Number one is “I’m not hurting anyone.” That is, when people steal from stores, they rationalize it by telling themselves the store is insured against shoplifting.

One CHOW staffer, who wished to remain anonymous, admitted to taking his housemate’s fancy ice cream sandwich because “she’d left it in the freezer so long, she’d obviously forgotten about it, plus she rarely eats that kind of food anyway.” Other people I talked to said they would never steal somebody’s lunch, but they would take a splash of somebody’s milk, “because they probably won’t even notice it’s gone,” or “they probably got such a big size thinking others would use it.”

To stop people from stealing, you have to show them how they are hurting their victims. When a thief is stealing from office kitchens, Houseworth recommends kvetching to whomever will listen in the hopes that it will get back to the thief. But that sounds annoying, as well as time-consuming. My suggestion: Write a fridge note explaining how the person hurt you in concrete terms using plaintive, rather than aggressive, language:

“To whomever ate my eggplant sandwich yesterday, I got up a half hour early so I could make a healthy lunch. When I discovered it missing, I had to spend half my lunch hour going to the deli for a $7 sandwich I couldn’t afford. I don’t mean to be a jerk, but times are tough right now, and I don’t have much to spread around. Sincerely …”

If that tearjerker doesn’t work, then you’re not going to reform the thief, any more than the feds could reform Al Capone. In which case, you’re best off storing your sandwich in your desk drawer, where you can keep an eye on it.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.

See more articles