Drink - Victoria Moore prefers the right mug

If you work in an office, it is very important to respect others' cup preferences

What you drink is not always as important as what you drink out of, particularly when the drink is tea or coffee. My cousin considers it a form of psychological bullying to be given the blue china cup with the gold moon and stars. Her old flatmate discerned she hated it, and as their relationship deteriorated, so the number of times Claire found her morning tea contemptuously poured into that mug increased.

She and I never make tea or coffee without asking the other which cup they want. We always have a strong view on the matter. As a general rule of thumb, the cream teacups with blue dots are for coffee with late breakfasts; the Spode blue mugs rarely upset; the fish-patterned one is preferred in the mornings - but it is never safe not to ask. The right vessel can cure many ills, the wrong one provoke a flurry of bad temper.

Everyone is the same. When my boyfriend had in (London) decorators, we were surprised to see they had rootled past the chunky Habitat mugs to unearth the Leeds United ones we never use from the back of the cupboard. Were they being ironic? Chelsea supporters having a joke? We felt uneasy about it for days, in the end deciding they had simply sought out those mugs most like their own.

If you work in an office, it is very important not to get in the way of other people's cup preferences. When I began my job the first thing I did, even before filing a story, was to buy a supply of mugs. This did not deter Lady Olga Maitland, with whom I then shared an office, from commandeering the gold-rimmed white china cups and saucers reserved for the editor's important visitors for our afternoon Earl Grey. I don't know what happened. Perhaps some cabinet minister got sore at being given the second-best cups. But eventually this got us banned from the kitchen for three months. Now there is no Lady Olga, but we do have two sorts of cup and there are not enough of the nicer ones to go round. And sometimes freelancers come in.

"When we have new people," my boss whispered to me the other day, "they cannot have the nice mugs for a long time."

It has taken a while to acknowledge openly that we all prefer the thinner china cups. There is nothing actually wrong with the other kind of cup. It has blue and white stripes that are hand-painted and it cost £8.

But when my boss makes coffee he now asks, "Who wants the thick mug?" and the other two of us make a calculation taking in our respective moods and the small favours and allowances we owe each other before volunteering. Occasionally, if he has been beastly, my boss will drink from the thick mug himself to signal his remorse - or we might give it to him as punishment.

As I say, what you drink out of is important.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The defeat of the left