After a couple of days, I noticed that the level of the creamer I kept in the community fridge in the hospital’s PICU (pediatric intensive care unit) had gone way down, much lower than my own usage would suggest.

My daughter’s health was, of course, of much greater concern, but it still registered in my consciousness. Later in the day, the level was noticeably lower, despite me having had no further cups of coffee.

Obviously, someone was using my creamer, although it was clearly labeled with my daughter’s name and hospital room number.

“People just do that,” said one of the nurses, obviously having seen it happen before. It’s not that she didn’t care; it’s that she was jaded by it, stumped by a problem with no good solution.

I thought maybe it was a factor of being in the PICU–that the families in the waiting room there were less likely to be “regulars,” and thus not used to hospital culture. After 31 hospital stays (30 at that same hospital), I thought I had a pretty good idea of how people respected each other’s food in the refrigerators that were a standard part of each floor with patient rooms. I’ve stored sandwiches, food from the cafeteria, Lunchables, and other items without having anything stolen.

So when we moved from the PICU back to a regular floor, I bought another bottle of creamer (since by that time the first bottle was completely empty).

People still stole from it.

The rate of disappearance was slower, but definitely people were using it. I even added an extra label that said, “Is this yours? No, it is not. Please don’t steal.” That slowed it down even more, but did not stop it.

I think that people would open the fridge, see the creamer carton there, and think, “It’s just a little dollop. No one will notice.” Of course, if you have a dozen people thinking the same thing, the cumulative effect becomes noticeable. People who wouldn’t dream of stealing an entire package of food might “use” a little bit of something. The same thing might happen to an open package of cheese slices.

But I also noticed similar items that seemed to last longer. Rather than a milk carton just sitting on a shelf, though, it was a milk carton that was stored in a plastic grocery bag. Rather than an open package of cheese slices, it was a package of cheese slices inside a Rubbermaid storage box. I think that extra little bit of effort that it would take to open someone else’s storage is enough to make people not reach for the open carton, the open package.

This connects to speaking because it shows that people are not necessarily logical. A teacher of mine used to say, “People are not logical; they are psycho-logical.” Your audiences are like that. You are like that. I am too.

Useful psychological insights: where do your audiences draw the line for the things you ask them to do? What are the little differences that can make a big difference? Do you ever justify little things that otherwise would violate your values?

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