“New Zealanders are solid tea drinkers when compared to other countries around the world! Tea consumption per capita in New Zealand is around 1kg – we consume more tea per head of population than Australia or USA.” – Bell Tea Company
During my first few days at my office, I noted with increasing confusion a certain phrase that was said in the office around tea time. It wasn’t necessarily the same person who came down the hall from the direction of the break room – sometimes the accounts person, sometimes the loans officer, or even my receptionist/admin counterpart I was hired to assist. I could never make out what they were saying. The phrase “word vomit” comes to mind to describe it – whatever the jumbled mess was, it resembled “mlug spoilt” or “blug joint,” said in a heavy Scottish accent, of course. Like Pavlov’s dogs, it wasn’t that I understood the meaning of the phrase, only that it came to signify to me that I could leave my desk and run to the break room for a cuppa. But being of greater intellectual capacity than that of a dog, I eventually asked around and was soon using the phrase, “Jug’s boiled,” myself to alert the office that the jug of hot water in the break room was ready for tea time.
Jug? Kettle? To me, a kettle whistles and generally conjures up images of the holly-themed Christmas kettle my mother leaves sitting out on our stovetop year-round. I was first acquainted with an electric kettle while interning at a publishing company in Boston. Before this fateful introduction, I had known only the archaic method of heating water on the stove or the cheap convenience of the microwave when I went to make tea. Why doesn’t more of America realize an almost-equally convenient alternative exists? Boiling water in less than three minutes. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, what I say is true.
In New Zealand households, electric kettles are arguably a more important amenity than dishwashers or dryers. And, so I’ve found, in the workplace as well. I’ve already written about my time at Statistics New Zealand and the unexpected delight of an enforced morning tea break. My current office takes this one step further. At about 3.32pm my first day, a colleague hurries past my desk saying excitedly, “We’re late for tea!” Morning and afternoon tea? Does it get any better than this? In the span of seconds, the office is reduced to a ghost town, crumpled balls of paper rolling like tumbleweed, ringing phones ignored, unprocessed applications and unbooked appointments pushed aside like yesterday’s fashion trends. The chairs in the break room are filled to capacity as we giddily talk about something other than the fact that we’re a “charitable trust with limited resources, so sorry we can’t install your heat pump until July – yes ma’am, I am aware that’s the bloody middle of winter.”
At Statistics NZ, I’d heard a rumor that companies were legally obligated to provide tea and coffee – but I had to know for sure if something that amazing could be true. Alas, as Rick Hargreaves writes in the “Your Rights” column of the New Zealand Herald, that’s not far from the case:
“There is no legal requirement for an employer to provide tea and coffee but it would be unusual for them not to. In New Zealand there has been a long-standing custom and practice for employers to supply tea and coffee…Often older individual employment agreements and union boilerplate collective agreements require the employer to provide tea and coffee.”
Cha-ching! One such union is Finsec, NZ’s Union for Finance Workers. Its website lists the following requirements:
“All Finsec members at Westpac have basic rights to the proper pay, fair working hours and payment for overtime, having our tea breaks and adequate sick leave and annual leave…If we work more than 2 hours we are entitled to one paid 10 minute tea break. If we work more than 4 hours we are entitled to two paid 10 minute breaks.”
Law or no law, it’s close enough for me. To be fair, my Boston internship did have a staff kitchen stocked with tea, coffee, milk, and the occasional free box of crackers, but a cup of tea was consumed at your desk while that day’s assignment was completed – certainly no mass exodus of employees. The computers and fax machines could have revolted in our absence, for all we knew! Now I can’t imagine a workday without two tea breaks. By 10:15, I’m itching for a cuppa like a smoker for his fag break, and the stretch between lunch and afternoon tea often seems intolerably long.
But why tea? Yes, there are those stirring up their instant coffees, but the majority of the population seems drawn to anything from Twinings to PG Tips to the in-house brand of Pak’n’Save. I, however, come from America, the country that invented Starbucks and coined the term “latte factor;” the country that depends on coffee almost as much as it does on oil. Of course when I was leaving for London, people cracked jokes about afternoon tea and “tea with the Queen,” but I actually feel New Zealand has impressed me even more than England with the central place of tea in its culture.
This is exactly what Susette Goldsmith sets out in her book Tea: A Potted History of Tea in New Zealand:
“For many New Zealanders of the early Nineteenth century, tea rituals were links with ‘home,’ and the process of tea making was a familiar marker in a very foreign world…In the harshest of times in New Zealand’s earliest history, tea – though sometimes in short supply – always offered comfort and warmth.”
So while early Americans were busy throwing our tea into various harbors and pitching a fit against Mother England, New Zealanders quietly kept pouring the drink synonymous with their native land and shaping into a country where 77% of its households drink tea. And the twice-daily breaks, taken as religiously as multi-vitamin supplements? They’ve stuck around, much to my pleasure. If stories in the realm of tea folklore are anything to go by, afternoon tea began as a way to keep the seventh wife of Bedford from going hungry between meals. Now it’s a way of life this side of the world.
And a way of life I can’t imagine many arguing with. It only speaks to me further about the balance New Zealanders seemed to have struck between work and play. Sure, I love the tea breaks, but I love my four weeks of paid annual leave even more. Back home, one week of vacation is standard – two weeks and your friends get jealous. Here it seems like people know how to take a step away from their work, how to kick back, cut the stress and actually get around to enjoying life. Somewhere along the lines, maybe we drank a little too much coffee.
And people keep asking when I’m going to get a job back in the States…