my team sent me a bag of garbage while I was recovering from surgery

A reader writes:

I’m currently covering a maternity leave and had to go in for a not insignificant surgery. It was complicated by the fact I seem to be working in the real-life version of Mean Girls, most frequently with a Regina George stand-in.

I ended up having my surgery, and negotiating remote work for my recovery. I’m feeling a lot less stressed, even though I logged back in the day after my procedure and got right back to it.

Today, two coworkers I’ve gotten close to came by for a visit and the weirdest work-gift situation ever came up. They both gave me a lovely gift, and treated me to dinner. And then sheepishly looked at each other, sighed, and said the office had a gift as well. I could tell they felt weird about it. It was a reusable shopping bag filled with garbage. A used pair of unwanted, scuffed shoes, several junk mail brochures, expired tea from the office kitchen, some dusty old plaques from the 90s, and a Sublime cd (one of the songs is called “Date Rape”). I was taken aback. I asked what this was supposed to be? They told me the people at the office said they should try to keep a straight face like this was a legitimate gift, that it was supposed to give me a laugh.

It did not. I said I really appreciated the thoughtful gift/dinner/visit the two of them had given me, but that this “joke” gift wasn’t really appropriate and didn’t fit the relationship we all have as coworkers. Rather than gentle ribbing, it felt like being in grade 9 gym class all over again. They apologized profusely and I asked them to take the bag back with them on the way out (with the injury recovery, I can’t actually leave my apartment for the next while), because I couldn’t get it down to the garbage myself.

Don’t get me wrong, I like joke gifts! I’ve given them and received them in the past. But when I’ve been on a team that did this: (a) it wouldn’t be actual garbage, and (b) it would be followed by something thoughtful (restaurant delivery/grocery/taxi gift cards/etc.). They just gave me actual garbage.

And I’m going to be asked how I liked my “gift” on Monday, and I have no idea what to say. Typically I would do a warm thank-you and find something to like about a gift (even if it wasn’t my thing), but what do you even say about this? That I was confused? That I’m not sure what to say? I don’t really want to laugh along with it. I thought it was awful.

Any advice would be much appreciated! I’ve not really encountered a situation like this before, and most of my friends are just as stumped.


I mean, I’m willing to believe that they genuinely thought this was a funny joke, in a “we’re horrible people with no sense of what normal people find funny, and therefore this thing that amuses us will amuse you too” kind of way. But it’s still a jerky move, done by jerky people.

I’m disappointed in your two other coworkers for being willing to deliver it to you and not saying  “no, that’s awful.” I’m not lumping them in with your other coworkers, because they obviously felt really gross about it, but it’s probably indicative of whatever messed-up culture your office has going on that they didn’t feel comfortable shutting it down.

As for what to say when people ask you how you liked the “gift,” here are a few options:

* “You gave me a bag of garbage.”

* Well, I can’t take my own garbage out because I’m recovering from surgery, so it kind of sucked, actually.”

* “I thought it was fairly cruel. I’m recovering from surgery.”

But really, I don’t think you need to worry about having the right response. They gave you garbage. They get the response they get.

I would say that to whatever extent you can, it would probably help you to remember that this wasn’t intended as an act of overt bullying or hostility (from what I can tell from your letter), and don’t let it give you 9th grade gym class memories. See your coworkers as socially inept fools who have been warped by your weird office environment, and value the fact that you haven’t been.

Read updates to this letter here and here.

{ 265 comments… read them below }

    1. Oryx*

      I like this the best because then it puts the person in an awkward position to try and sincerely explain why the garbage was appropriate. Good luck with that one.

      1. 2horseygirls*

        +1000 bonus points if you can time it so they have to explain it in front of their manager, who should be properly horrified.

        1. ChickenSuperhero*

          Sadly it WAS the manager. Who also (OP explains below) responded to a request to leave 20 minutes early to go to an uncle’s funeral, with “ok but come in 20 minutes early” instead of sympathy or condolences. Bag of garbage in the director’s *head*, sounds like!

      2. Mephyle*

        Well, actually, I think they knew it was inappropriate. But they thought that made it funny. I would like them to awkwardly try to explain why it was funny. Good luck to them indeed.

    2. nona*

      I really like this.

      The sender gets to explain A) they sent a bag of garbage and B) whatever was supposed to happen next.

      1. 42*

        I love this too; pure brilliance. And it lets you eff with them a little.

        You: “No, what gift?”

        Them: “You didn’t? We sent you a bag of garbage.”

        You: “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that–you sent what?”

        Them: “A bag of garbage!”


        Them: “Yeah, isn’t that funny?? A bag of garb…. I mean it was like…..gar…. …. … “

    3. KT*

      THIS. This is perfect. Watch them awkwardly try to explain the nature of their “gift” and rationalize why it was funny.

    4. Hermione*

      I like this, but I think I prefer AndersonDarling’s wording down below because you did, in fact, receive “something” from them. Also because I think, having known some mean girls in my time, the “What gift?” answer gives them a chance to turn on the two delivery girls:

      “Did you like our gift?”
      “What gift? I didn’t get a gift from you.”
      “What?! Judy and Megan were going to bring it by! Hey Judy, why didn’t you bring OP our gift?”
      Cue awkward interaction for Judy and Megan, who for right or wrong did do as instructed, rather than embarrassment for the “gift”-giver(s).

      1. Folklorist*

        Nah, I think it’s pretty easy to turn back on them. “No, I didn’t get a GIFT per se, but did for some reason get a bag of garbage. Would you call that a gift?”

  1. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Similar to hearing a bigoted comment, ask them to explain the gift. (I don’t get what was supposed to be so funny about this.)

    1. AndersonDarling*

      Yes, this is what I was thinking. Put them on the spot and make them explain.
      “I didn’t really get what you were going for with the bag of stuff. Could you clarify? At first I thought you just wanted to be cruel, but I figured I should give you chance to explain in case I missed a joke.”
      Then the LW would get the upper-hand by confronting the gift givers.

      1. fposte*

        I like this as well. I think saying you didn’t get anything puts the intermediary nice co-workers on the spot, and this allows for the possibility that one of the garbage givers has come to his/her senses in the meantime.

      2. penelope pitstop*

        +1MM. That response is perfection.

        I’m so sorry that you encountered such boorishness, OP. Wishing you a steady and smooth recovery and a restoration to full strength.

      3. KJR*

        I would love to be a fly on the wall to hear this conversation. But I would settle for an update from the OP!!

    2. Sunshine*

      Honestly, I can see a potential situation where the coworkers were coming from, I can relate it to being the kind of thing that when you are in a group of people probably seems like the funniest thing in the world. Then when you go to actually do this great idea…it’s not such a great idea.

      My best friend and I are notorious for just cracking up over nothing and thinking something will be so funny but it is only funny to us…but in the meantime we just feed off eachother’s giddiness resulting in the worst idea ever.

      I’m not saying it’s right but I feel like I’ve had some ideas I thought were funny at the time but weren’t, but I’ve never actually executed them…which is the difference.

      1. fposte*

        That’s exactly what I’m thinking. (And when I was a teenager, I executed at least one of them.)

        1. Amanda*

          But certainly you grew up and as an adult realized that it is not appropriate to send a bag of garbage to a coworker who is recovering. from. surgery.

          There is a big difference between an inside joke and….sending a bag of garbage to a recovering coworker.

          1. Green*

            Clearly it’s also a boundaries issue as well. I can see thinking this might be funny to do to a friend (like, not a work friend) that you actually know and then it turning out very funny in execution, but a colleague? (And, even then, what might be a “gag gift” to other people when given to a friend who appreciates it should feel more like a real gift that happens to be humorous based on a shared joke than a “gag” at their expense.) But a good time to re-emphasize that lots of people don’t like gag gifts at all and they’re pretty rarely appropriate in the office unless you *know* (like, you really know) someone would like it or it’s pretty unoffensive (maybe having a trophy or medal made for something pretty vanilla).

      2. KS*

        How is it even a joke? It is a thing that doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t even qualify as a joke. It’s just really stupid and they should feel stupid.

        1. JB (not in Houston)*

          This is actually the exact kind of thing my best friend and I would send to each other. But that is the kind of relationship we have. I don’t know why we think it’s hilarious to give each other horrible gifts, but we do. (We also give each other nice gifts) But I would never, ever send something like that to a coworker or anyone with whom I didn’t have that kind of weird relationship.

          1. Holly Olly Oxen Free*

            And I think that’s what’s key here. This kind of joke really needs to be done between people who really know each others sense of humor, and definitely not when someone is recovering from surgery.

            1. JB (not in Houston)*

              Exactly! It’s just not ok unless you have that kind of relationship. It just comes across as mean.

          2. Stranger than fiction*

            Exactly. I can’t even fathom how they think the Op would think this is funny. The message they’re sending is “haha we didn’t get you anything nor do we care about you so we threw a bunch of crap in a bag”

            1. Stranger than fiction*

              Ps and if that’s what her coworkers find funny, the mean girl in me would have gathered up some bandages from my surgery and put it in a bag for them.

              1. JB (not in Houston)*

                That or something else from my home that I had been meaning to throw out.

        2. bridget*

          When I was in high school/college, getting an old (and preferably weird-looking) plaque or trophy from the thrift store and giving it to somebody was a fun/funny/lighthearted thing to do. I don’t know if it always landed, but I don’t think it was ever delivered in an offensive way. This may be a bizarre variation on that theme.

          It’s not like the coworkers found an old basketball trophy and changed the words to be a lighthearted joke about her injury/recovery – I could see some of the coworkers I’m friendlier with giving me something like that with “Best at Catching Her Ski Falls With A Tree” or something.

          1. Connie-Lynne*

            We still do this once in a while! I have a great trophy I got for turning 40, it’s covered in fake feathers, and wacky paint, and all sorts of bizarre stuff glued all over it.

            I don’t see this as being the same kind of thing. Or if it was, well, I’d have missed it.

        3. Anna*

          This is exactly why humor is subjective. You and I wouldn’t think it was hilarious and neither would our friends, but clearly our feelings aren’t universal.

      3. Carly*

        I agree. I can absolutely picture how it happened.

        “What should we give Stacey? Laura and Katie are taking her out to dinner, but should we give her something from the office, too?”
        “Let’s get her a card.”
        “Okay, sounds good.” [No one takes responsibility to actually get it.]
        “Hey, what’s this old plaque sitting by the printer?”
        “Oh, someone gave that to Tom as a joke once and he just left it there.”
        “Haha, it would be so random and funny if we gave that to Stacey!”
        “Haha, totally. It could become a tradition to pass that old thing around!”
        “Let’s add in all this other stuff, too!”
        “Omg, that would be hilarious.”
        [Laughter and thoughtlessness ensues.]

        1. lowercase holly*

          maybe if it was just the joke plaque that really did get passed around. but then had something nice taped to the bottom or whatever. a bag of garbage? no.

      4. Elizabeth the Ginger*

        Yes, I think the coworkers likely just have terrible senses of humor but meant well. Not that that excuses it – I think joke gifts should be very carefully thought out.

        I have a group of friends that does a White Elephant exchange every Christmas. We’ve had to tweak the wording of the invitation to avoid junk gifts – the gifts can be things you don’t want but they have to be funny. Acceptable gifts: a giant stuffed shark, alphabet magnets, a hideous-but-hilarious macaron clock, a windowbox herb garden. Unacceptable gifts: old VHS tapes of movies no one liked, dented cans of beef chili.

        1. Pam Poovey*

          Definitely – just thinking back to years of white elephant at my office and I can easily see how this could have happened. We one year had someone wrap up our benefit package pamphlets and tie a big lollipop to it (meaning it sucked, or we were suckers, etc). Did I mention we were the HR department? And someone always got stuck with a “gift” that was really trash and not funny at all. Like the year someone who had a side business of bootleg dvd’s (illegal) gave a whole shoebox of bootlegged movies. We all knew who it was from and that person really did think they were giving a great gift and saw nothing wrong with it at all!

          1. Rhubarbgirl*

            Yup. My DH’s extended family does a “dirty Christmas” (aka ‘steal your gift’) exchange every year with a set of gifts for all the guys and one for the gals. It was a real adjustment for me the first couple years I participated, because inevitably some gifts would be really nice and some would be just meh (there’s a nominal dollar amount to be spent, but in practice everyone does whatever they want), and it was hard not to get hurt feelings around stuff that got stolen from you or how your own gift was received by the group. I’d never done that sort of thing, with a school or work group or with my family of origin, so it was unexpectedly emotionally stressful.

            With a work group, I can see it going horribly wrong more than right, honestly. At least with a ‘proper’ White Christmas exchange no one is expecting to get anything really good, but it’s still hard on the gifting end to come up with something that’s charming and funny but not actual junk/worthless.

        2. Dynamic Beige*

          The evil part of me thinks that if the OP had had space or inclination, she could have saved the “gift”… to regift at Xmas and give back to the 0h-so-thoughtful givers.

  2. LBK*


    I just…what!?

    Is there anything in your relationship with these people that would lead you to believe that they’d do it maliciously? Or alternatively, is there something in your relationship that might make them mistakenly think you’d find this funny? I’m just completely at a loss here. I disagree with Alison, I don’t see any way this isn’t malicious unless a) they’re insanely nice to you in the office normally and this is just a very odd misstep, or b) they somehow think you all have a much jokier relationship than you do.

    1. The Cosmic Avenger*

      Yes, this is a “prank” in the same way that locking someone in or out is a “prank”…and here, they don’t even have a way of mitigating it right away by having a real gift waiting.

      And I agree with the previous comments about how to handle it. Or as I often put it, act like you truly don’t understand, and ask them to explain it to you. That forces them to explain and deconstruct the passive-aggressiveness of their actions.

      1. KS*

        Pranks, like jokes, should be left to people who know what jokes ARE, and thus have a non-zero chance of being good at it. It kind of has to make sense.

      2. Purple Jello*

        Exactly! You don’t give a gag gift in a situation like this. But if you did, you would have something else to give as the real gift.

      3. Mephyle*

        A gag gift that was actually funny could have entertained OP and cheered them up. What’s so bizarre and off about this is that the givers who thought this up were apparently so completely tone-deaf about ‘funny’.

    2. Amanda*

      Agreed, LBK. This is cruel and I don’t see why these people are owed the benefit of the doubt. They did something that is objectively unkind.

      1. Green*

        The intent matters a lot as to whether they are “mean girls” or just thoughtless/misguided people who should be educated. (I’d probably be more snarky to former and just more like, “Eh, I just thought it was weird and not funny” to the latter.)

      2. catsAreCool*

        I don’t know that the people are owed the benefit of the doubt, but the LW may come off better at work if LW gives them the benefit of the doubt.

  3. Tiffy the Fed... Contractor*

    This is so… strange. I just can’t. I really have no idea what your co-workers were even thinking or how they could ever consider their gift funny. Even if it was an actual joke gift, it should be followed up with a real gift, ESPECIALLY because you’re recovering from surgery.

    Good luck, OP. I’m curious to hear what your coworkers say if you give them one of Alison’s suggested responses.

    1. Kelly L.*

      Yeah, it doesn’t even make any sense as a joke gift. It’s neither nice nor coherent!

      1. fposte*

        I can kind of see it–it’s one of those moments that’s humorous between the people doing it (maybe somebody randomly said “Hey, do you think she’d want my old shoes?”) and then it ramps up like 3 am hilarious ridiculousness at a sleepover. But in adulthood usually somebody has the sense to say “Funny to us isn’t the same thing as funny to the recipient,” and I wonder why the co-workers who delivered it didn’t just leave it somewhere instead–maybe there was a power or hierarchy differential.

        1. Hermione*

          The problem is that if the delivery girls *didn’t* deliver it, there would be a ton of awkwardness on Monday when the “gift”-givers ask OP about their present. If the delivery girls were going to object to partaking in this charade, they would have had to do so from the start; they can’t agree until they leave the room and then leave it in a trashcan on the way over, because they’re going to be asked about why the OP didn’t receive her “gift,” as horrific as it was.

            1. Hermione*

              That’s probably true, though I don’t blame them for doing it the way they did. I wish they’d said, “No, this is in poor taste and we’re not going to get involved,” but once they’d agreed, I don’t blame them for just following orders. To be honest, I think I likely would have assumed they were exaggerating if they’d come in with the story without the bag of trash.

              1. fposte*

                And the OP mentions it’s a small family business, and those do often have some weird power differentials. If Regina George is family and the nice co-workers aren’t, that could be a reason right there.

              2. Cordelia Naismith*

                I’m wondering if maybe that’s why they took the OP out to dinner first — as a kind of preemptive apology for the bag of trash.

            2. HRish Dude*

              I can’t blame them for actually showing her. This thing seems like an “it has to be seen to be believed” situation.

              1. Pill Helmet*

                From OPs description it sounded to me like they actually presented it like a gift. But I agree, if their purpose was to inform her of the awful coworkers then I can see why they did this.

                I hate to say it but now that I’m thinking about it, I wonder if they were really in on it and then when OP reacted badly they back peddled.

                1. OP*

                  They were just between a rock and a hard place. It was our director that was driving it (the shoes, plaques, and Sublime cd were all hers).

                2. Not So NewReader*

                  WTH?! The director was behind this idea?

                  If this is the highest ranking person in the group, I think I would ask for a sit-down chat in private.

                  Where I live a 13 gallon garbage bag costs $2.25 to throw out. I would have to ask her for the $2.25.

            3. Pill Helmet*

              That’s exactly what I’m thinking. They could have said “Hey, this is awkward but Mean Girls came up with this awful “gift” and asked us to give it to you. We really thought it was nasty so we aren’t going to do that, but we wanted to mention it just in case Mean Girls bring it up.” Then explain more if necessary and reiterate that it wasn’t okay with them at all.

              1. Green*

                In that case the intermediaries are just stirring up drama when they could just give it back to the organizers on Monday and say, “Eh, we decided we would rather not. It seemed funnier in planning but we thought it was inappropriate when it came time to give it to her.”

                If you’ve decided not to participate (which would have been the correct option here), just don’t participate.

                1. Charlotte Lucas*

                  Except that then the Mean Girls might have kept it in the office and made the OP open it when she came back. Which would be even more mortifying for her.

                  I’ve received a “funny” award at work – in front of multiple people – that I didn’t think was funny at all. It made me angry and embarrassed, and it really colored how I thought of my boss and one of my coworkers (who suggested it). I threw it out (actually, recycled it – no sense in hurting trees as well as my feelings) as soon as I got back to my desk.

        2. KS*

          I guess if you’re really drunk or high and think things that don’t make sense…do…

        1. Cordelia Naismith*

          I’m right there with you. I don’t get it. As a joke, it makes no sense. As a cruel gesture, it also just kind of leaves me scratching my head. Usually the point of bullying somebody with a gift like that is to see the expression on their face when it’s given to them, but this was given to the OP out of the office by two people who seemed sincerely sorry and awkward about it. The whole thing is just really weird.

          1. Charlotte Lucas*

            Maybe it was also to put the nice coworkers in an awkward position. Three birds with one bag of garbage.

      2. ThursdaysGeek*

        Years ago, I sent my sister a ‘care-less package’ (like a care package, only filled with garbage, similar to this gift). But, in my defense, I was young, she was my sister, and she hadn’t just been through surgery. Yeah, that’s not a very good defense: it was thoughtless.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I was actually thinking that I could imagine a scenario where I might do this to my sister and she’d think it was funny. But we have a jokey relationship and I’d never do it when she was recovering from surgery. But I can understand the thought process that would let people get to “this would be funny” in some circumstances.

        2. The Cosmic Avenger*

          But it was your sister. You have enough history and a strong enough relationship with someone like that to 1) know how they meant it, and 2) know how they feel about you. With coworkers this is rarely the case, which is why work pranks are usually just a form of hazing unless you know the coworker really well.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Right, right, I think ThursdaysGeek and I are both saying that it’s absolutely not okay in this circumstance! (She’s saying that it was thoughtless in her own; I’m saying that I could see it being funny in certain relationships, but not this one.)

            1. The Cosmic Avenger*

              Oh, I know, I mostly thought TG was being too hard on herself about the prank on her sister, and I was also pointing out (just in general, not to TG) why it’s usually a really bad idea to prank people at the office.

            2. majigail*

              I can absolutely see this going on in my office and everyone being ok and laughing about it for years to come.

        3. OP*

          That’s the thing, I love awful gifts. I am all over giving and receiving like, a truly ugly doll you found at the antique store, or a horrible-flavoured candy, etc. But with my friends and family. And it’s always paired with an actual nice gift afterward.

          They just… lost the plot on this one. They forgot the nice part.

          1. Cafe Au Lait*

            Yes, they did. This gift would have been hilarious if a gift certificate to a cleaning company had been stuffed in one of the shoes. Along with the words “We know your house is clean as a pin, but to make this work, we needed to give you garbage to get started.”

            1. fposte*

              Exactly. This is one of those things where if the needle had quivered just a little–if you’d been great friends, if it had been followed up with a thematically relevant good gift, if it were based on an existing joke–it would have been okay. But it didn’t and it wasn’t.

          2. Anonsie*

            Any chance someone might have heard a story about that and pitched it to the group as something you’d find really funny?

            1. OP*

              No, it’s really not that kind of office. Like, no one spoke to me at all for the first month. One of the guys working there prides himself on not getting to know new people’s names.

              1. Hermione*

                Which is probably at least partially a reason there continues to be new people – I wouldn’t want to work with some idiot who couldn’t be bothered to learn my name until I hit a arbitrary length of tenure that pleased him.

                OP I’m so very sorry that these are the people you’re stuck working with. They sound awful. I hope you feel well soon.

                1. anonagain*

                  I think that is less surprising than people doing this in a kind office. I don’t think they thought it would be funny for the OP. I think they thought it would be funny for them.

                  They sound like bullies.

              2. AnonyManager*

                Well that explains it. These people really are social misfits who have no clue how to interact with people. Wow!

          3. ThursdaysGeek*

            Could it be that they did the nice part first? After all, you did get something nice too. The co-workers were saying they were going to go visit you, and others said “oh do this awkward thing first, and then do the nice thing you have planned” but they didn’t really want to do it, so they put it off till last?

          4. EB*

            I just noticed that you were a temp worker – in that case, if you were working for a temp agency maybe letting them know about the office dynamics (which culminated in a bag of trash being gifted to you) and that placement with this company requires someone able to navigate bullying would be something to do? Of course asking them not to address it until your gone because anything done by the temp agency is likely to intensify the bullying.

      3. Karowen*

        I could almost see doing it to one of the people I’m really super close with. But if you don’t have the relationship where it’s appropriate to do things that are work inappropriate with each other (e.g. see Magic Mike or play Cards Against Humanity together) – if you don’t have the relationship where you would be delivering it yourself – then you can’t do this.

    2. John*

      Exactly. It should be followed by a real gift — something tremendously thoughtful to show they’re not really jerks after all. And that’s kind of what I’d say to any of the colleagues who might ask. “I sat there waiting for that gift that would surely follow to show everyone was not just being mean; nothing followed.”

  4. Alistair*

    “You gave me a bag of garbage.”

    Perfect! Repeat ad infinitum. This is your response to anything and everything to do with your “gift”.


    1. Hermione*

      “Right! But we thought it was funny!”
      “Oh yes, it was INCREDIBLY funny when I couldn’t even carry it down the stairs on trash day. Because, you know, I just had surgery.”

  5. HRG*

    This just makes me really sad. I can’t imagine doing this to a coworker who had had surgery. I don’t really like joke gifts ever, but I guess in the right context, with the right people it would be okay.. this is just really, really strange to m And sad.

    1. nona*

      …Yeah. Maybe I also got taken back to ninth grade gym class there, but it’s really depressing that someone would do that.

      1. AndersonDarling*

        Yes! I’m sad for the LW that she got the crummy “gift,” but I am more horrified that there are people in a job that thought this was a good way to communicate with a co-worker.

        1. Spooky*

          You know, I kind of hope that OP prints out the comments to this post and tapes them up in the office, just to show the coworkers what most people think of it. They need to get out of their own heads and realize how this looks to normal people.

            1. fposte*

              And if they did, it wouldn’t make them think they were wrong. That’s just not how human brains tend to work.

            2. ChickenSuperhero*

              Well, maybe not as Plastics, but at the end where she’s a lacrosse girl? It is a redemption story, after all. :)

  6. Erin*

    Maybe this is a cop-out kind of answer, but I can tell from your letter that you are a normal, sincere, rational-thinking person and I’m really confident whatever you come up with as a response will in fact be appropriate. I really admire the way you’re trying to see the humor in the situation and give them the benefit of the doubt (even though it’s not humorous and they do not deserve the benefit of the doubt).

    That being said, I vote for phrase number one: “You gave me a bag of garbage.” That really just says it all. Whatever they in response, just repeat. “Um. You gave me. A bag. Of garbage.” Dot dot dot.

    And best of luck with the health issues.

    1. Clever Name*

      Seriously. Your coworkers did something truly bizarre, and it really shouldn’t be up to you to make the situation seem normal or to pretend like you liked the “joke”.

  7. The IT Manager*

    OK, so if am reading your situation right, you are a temp filling in for someone on maternity leave and during your time temping you ended up having surgery. So you’re relatively new the office. Is this the first sign of mean girls or have their been others?

    If this is the first sign, then try to ignore it. Try not to think the worst of these people; although, yes that your perfectly lovely co-workers seemed forced into doing this doesn’t bode well. It sounds like some pushy person genuinely thinks this is funny (or she is a mean girl like you say.) I don’t find it funny. Alison provided some good responses.

    You do have some genuinely nice co-workers, though. Try to remember that when you’re putting up with the “comedians” in the bunch.

    1. John*

      +1. OP should focus on the fact that, despite being with the company for what sounds like a short period of time, two co-workers went out of their way to swing by, offer a lovely gift and treat her to dinner. That says something.

      1. Sara M*

        This. Keep bonding with those coworkers–they might become good professional contacts and/or long-term friends.

  8. Hermoine Granger*

    But I don’t get it…what does a bag of garbage have to do with surgery? How did this idea come about and why didn’t someone shoot it down? I just…yeah. This is so weird.

    1. Three Thousand*

      Yeah, pranks really need have some kind of meaning to be funny. If it’s intended as an inside joke or reference that they expected the OP to get, they obviously failed miserably. Out of context a bag of trash is just nonsensical.

      1. Jem*

        That’s what I was thinking…maybe it’s an inside joke they expected the OP to get but they missed the mark and she doesn’t really remember the joke?

  9. Sunflower*

    I am totally confused. Your co-workers failed miserably in every aspect of this. Were they trying to be funny or mean? Because they joke wasn’t either of these things. I guess I could classify it as dumb?

    I’m totally baffled what they were trying to get at with this. Sorry you even have to think about how to deal with this. I would stick with a ‘I’m a little confused- you gave me a bag of garbage.’ These people are so bizarre I’m not even sure it matters how you respond.

    1. Three Thousand*

      But then they’ll laugh and think their joke “worked.” If you appreciate the joke and think it’s funny that’s fine, but if you don’t you shouldn’t let them think you do.

    2. Finn*

      I don’t like this — but really only because I think there’s a better-than-not chance that they meant it indeed as Mean Girls as the OP calls them in the letter. If that’s the case, they’re trying to insinuate that OP is … garbage, something in the office they don’t want. Responding that the gift seems “pretty trashy” could come off as outright hilarious to them.

      1. Green*

        Apparently it was the director who initiated it though, so I’d recommend the more abrasive responses. So a pun on the gift sets a light-hearted tone while delivering the message. Alternately I’d go with: “Hm, I didn’t really get it.”

  10. Allison*

    I wonder if the intent was “you can’t come to the office, so we’ll send some of the office to you!” But the execution was in very, very poor taste. You’d think they’d at least send a card to help explain the joke.

    If I got a gift like that and someone asked what I thought, I’d say “I was very confused, it looked like the bag was full of garbage. I’m sure you meant well, but I was hoping you could explain the intent behind it?”

    1. OP*

      I think that very much was the intent. To me you need to accompany that business with a follow-up something that is thoughtful. You can’t just send the joke.

      1. The Cosmic Avenger*

        I think if that was the intent they would have put in office supplies and forms or something like that, and put it in a banker’s box. This had much more of a bullying feel to it, I’m sorry to say. To be honest, I don’t have a lot of respect or sympathy for the coworkers who brought it to you either, because without them this whole prank wouldn’t have happened. Plus, bullies often back down if they don’t get at least tacit support from their peers.

        Just know that there are plenty of people who will recognize that you are the only person acting like an adult in all this, and will admire you all the more for it.

          1. Amanda*

            Just noting that OP has said down-thread that this is the “meanest office” they’ve ever worked in.

            1. fposte*

              Right, but she’s also not reading this as entirely mean, and I think we can credit her with decent judgment on this since she’s the person in the situation.

              1. fposte*

                Upon further thought: I think there are times when people do miss mean intent, and I also think there are times when people read mean intent into actions that weren’t meant that way. OP seems very clear-headed and not at all inclined to whitewash the situation, so I think she’s pretty experienced in sorting the mean from the not-mean in her workplace.

      2. Future Analyst*

        So, I think this was horribly executed if the following is true, but maybe they thought the visiting co-workers would present the garbage FIRST? In which case it would have been a lame joke, but followed by the nice gifts and the dinner?

        Again, not that this makes the intended “joke” less terrible, but the timing of the nice then terrible certainly made it appear worse than the opposite would have done.

        1. OP*

          The nice gift and dinner was just from the two coworkers, they paid for them out-of-pocket. The rest of the coworkers just gave garbage.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            “OP, how did you like our get-well present?”

            “Oh, Mary and Sue were so very kind they gave me a lovely gift of [insert their gift] and they bought me dinner. That was so very kind of them. I will always remember their thoughtfulness.”

            Ignore the garbage. Make them ask specifically about the garbage. “Oh, the garbage? I did not quite get what was going on with that. But a neighbor carried it out for me on collection day because I am not supposed to lift anything. He thought it was odd that someone would give a sick person a bag of garbage… but …whatever.”
            What I like about this one is the neighbor can carry the emotional side of this story and you can act like you did not even give it a second thought. “Yeah, he seemed kind of upset about it, he thought it was pretty rude. I told him I was just focusing on the nice thing that Mary and Sue did.”

    2. HigherEd Admin*

      I wonder if the intent was “you can’t come to the office, so we’ll send some of the office to you!”

      Yeah, this is what I first thought too, but it was horribly executed — and as OP mentioned, a gag gift is typically followed up by a thoughtful gift, or at least a thoughtful card!

      OP, no advice. Just sympathy. I hope the rest of your recovery goes well!

    3. Prying open my third eye*

      > “you can’t come to the office, so we’ll send some of the office to you!”

      Yeah – the only thing I can think of is something along the lines of “We know you’ll miss all of the garbage that happens daily at work, so we’re sending some of it home for you” or something like that. It’s not very funny even if it was written on a card attached to the garbage bag. With no card or explanation? It’s a complete “WTF?”

      If this happened to me, I wouldn’t be angry or upset – more like “umm … there’s something wrong with you people!”

  11. OP*

    Hey, already an update.

    I got asked how I liked the gift on a call this morning, and I said I didn’t really understand it or have a place for anything in the bag. And couldn’t get down to take it out myself and so asked the coworkers to take it back with them. They seemed to honestly think I would enjoy it (???). It’s so bizarre. I’m so glad I’m working from home.

    As for my couple nice coworkers, it’s definitely a case of the office being so awful, that a bag of garbage didn’t seem that bad.

    1. fposte*

      Huh. Thanks for the speedy update, and I’m glad you had the moment to say WTF to them. And now we can join you in saying WTF.

    2. Spooky*

      Their response just makes me even sadder. Props to you for being the bigger person and trying to rise above it (I, on the other hand, might be looking for creative revenge, like those sites that let you ship exotic animal dung to your enemies.) How much longer until the person you’re covering for comes back?

      1. OP*

        Six more months. Unless she comes back a bit early, then four months. I wonder whether she’ll come back at all though.

        1. Windchime*

          Who could blame her? I wonder what kind of a horrible baby gift she got from them. A bag of dirty diapers?

    3. OriginalYup*

      Thanks for the update!

      You know how cliques engage in weird herd behavior that is totally bizarre to outsiders? I think the trash gift is like that — “shabby gifts” or “we sent the office to you” or whatever, and they’ve decided it’s hilarious while everyone else is looking on, baffled. It’s as though they’ve all decided to wear their socks over their shoes and are staring at you waiting for same.

    4. AnonAnalyst*

      You know, at first I was thinking this was a joke that went awry but they thought you would appreciate, or perhaps some office tradition when people go out on extended medical leaves (like “we know you must feel like garbage, so here!”) that you maybe weren’t aware of as a new-ish person…followed, of course, by a real gift.

      But…after your updates, these people just sound like jerks, so I’m not sure if you were supposed to find it funny.

      In any case, I’m glad you get to work from home for awhile, and hopefully you’ll be able to find something better once this assignment ends. I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. I hope your recovery is going much better than this job!

    5. Ife*

      What confuses me most about this is that the nice coworkers actually gave you the “gift.” I just can’t figure out why, if they really are nice people, they would not either (a) conveniently “lose” the bag of garbage before having a chance to give it to you, or (b) give some kind of apology/explanation as to what the office was thinking and play it off as “haha, what weirdos we work with!”, or ideally (c) push back and refuse to give you a bag of garbage in the first place! Did you ask them what the office was thinking? Would they know? Since they were acting sheepish about it, they obviously knew it wasn’t a real gift or a nice one, but they gave it to you anyway. WHY?? I just can’t wrap my head around what they were thinking. Hopefully the rest of your time with this office is more tolerable :(

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Yeah, I agree. I would have either “lost” the bag in transit or I would have refused to give OP the bag. I am kind of glad they felt awkward, they should have felt awkward.

        1. kelseywanderer*

          But OP said that the bag of garbage came from the director and she (OP) was specifically asked about having received it, which the nice coworkers might have known was likely to happen. If it came from their boss, who they knew would ask about it — well, they might have felt that they couldn’t avoid giving it to her. And again, they couldn’t really badmouth their boss while handing it over. As a result, most of the inappropriateness comes from the director, to my thinking. Everyone else is forced to just deal with it as professionally and diplomatically as they can.

          On second thought, that actually might be why the nice coworkers were quite *so* nice: maybe they were trying to make up for their horrible boss as much as possible without actually being able to do or say anything against her.

  12. Mike*

    I disagree that it isn’t just like high school bullying. They were trying to get a laugh at the expense of the letter writer. What kind of adult human beings would actually find this funny?

    1. Anna*

      It’s not the same. They thought they would get a laugh out of the OP, not exactly at the expense of. And some adults would, which is why comedy tends to be subjective.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Don’t call in to this place because someone died and you need bereavement time. They will figure out and even worse “gift”.

      1. OP*

        Oh, you’ll like this then: I actually did need bereavement time. I had to leave twenty minutes early to attend my uncle’s funeral. I sent a note to the team and the director replied: “Okay! Just come in 20 minutes early that day to make up the time.”

  13. Oryx*

    On the flip side of saying anything is saying *nothing* and just fix them with a long extended stare. It makes people super uncomfortable after they’ve said something obnoxious or stupid.

    Or, you could rework a phrase that has shown up here before: “I hope you’re not asking me because you think I agree that was an appropriate gift to give.”

  14. Ann O'Nemity*

    Maybe I’m feeling pessimistic this morning but I can’t imagine the OP’s conversation going well.

    Coworker: How’d you like the gift?
    OP: You gave me garbage.
    Coworker: Mwahaha, it was a joke.
    OP: I guess I don’t get it. Was it supposed to be funny to get trash when I’m recovering from surgery?
    Coworker: Geez, you don’t have a sense of humor.

    I just don’t think any response from the OP is going to shame someone who gave trash as a joke.

    1. LBK*

      I think if she can maintain a relatively non-incredulous tone and just repeat “It was not a funny joke” or something similarly direct without sounding too hurt, the awkwardness will reposition itself onto the gift-givers. I agree that they may not outwardly apologize, but it may at least make them reconsider this line of thinking internally.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I’m with you, Ann O’Nemity:

      Anything critical will put these people on the defensive.
      Maybe something like a mildly amused, “Well, it wasn’t something I’d have bought for myself!” Then you don’t ever have to say “thank you.”

  15. BRR*

    I’m not quite sure if this was accidentally or purposefully malicious.

    If they thought it would be funny and didn’t realize how terrible of a “joke” it was, I would treat it as an accident. Even the best of people can get caught up and not take a second to realize, “wow this is completely awful.” I would respond with something like ,”I already have that sublime CD.” Once again, this is if you think it was just a bad joke.

    If you think it was hurtful on purpose, I would respond with briefly depending on their question. Did you like your gift, No. What did you think of your gift, it was terrible or what gift. Do you receive you gift, what gift. All with a deadpan expression.

    1. Green*

      40 oz. to Freedom is indeed a classic album that one should generally already have in their collection (that particular song is more than a little problematic, mostly because the “justice” the evil date rapist gets in the end is being raped in prison), but one should probably not give it to a coworker for more reasons than just that song.

  16. Amber Rose*

    I think the big thing is, try not to feel hurt. Feel confused, because this is very odd. Feel free to express that confusion in all its flat “what” glory. But try not to take it personally because that probably wasn’t how it was meant.

    Alternatively: as a thank you, bake them all garbage flavored cupcakes.*

    *Don’t actually do this. =P

  17. BTW*

    I just don’t get the point or what was supposed to be funny about this. If it’s not a joke that people can put together easily then it is not a good joke. Considering your “Mean Girls” reference, the only thing that comes to mind with this is the phrase, “Taking out the trash.” Which would be obscenely rude, inappropriate and immature.

    I’m just as confused as the letter writer. Curious to see how this pans out when the OP goes back to work.

    1. OP*

      I’m working the rest of the contract from home, thankfully. I went back to work the day after the surgery, because we’re so busy.

  18. The Other Dawn*

    I don’t think this was done with malicious intent. It seems like a bad attempt at a joke and it really missed. I’d probably just say you didn’t receive a “gift” from them, that you received a bag of garbage. Leave it at that and just walk away. Just let it go.

    1. illini02*

      This was my thought as well. A bad joke that just fell flat. Unless there is a history of them being cruel that we aren’t hearing about it. I’m guessing there was some thought that went into this stuff (although its all so random that I can’t imagine what that thought process was like). Gag gifts are really tough to pull off. I’d argue trying to do it at work is really tough, and should be avoided for the most part, because as funny as the organizers may find it, there is too much potential for misunderstanding. Whereas if its your friend, at least they will hopefully not assume the worst about you for doing it.

      As for what to say, I’m at a loss for that, because it depends so much on the office, the people, and your relationship with them.

  19. Susan the BA*

    At a former office, a coworker got married soon after I started and office veterans insisted that we throw her a surprise “shabby shower” where we gave her completely random crap wrapped up to look like presents and then at the end gave her an actual nice gift card with money we had collected. I participated but felt awful. It was clearly really awkward for this coworker, who was also pretty new (so it’s not like this was a tradition she had seen for years and now it was ‘her turn’ in which case it could have been sweet, maybe??). I swore never to tell those coworkers if I was having a major life event, and as soon as I could I put in a transfer to a new office.

    1. Hermione*

      Whaaat? Why are people so weird? I don’t understand why this is supposed to be funny at all, especially for someone they didn’t really know that well. I’m of the mindset that if what you’re doing for a party could/would likely make the recipient embarrassed or ashamed, then think of something else. Purposely making someone uncomfortable/embarrassed/the butt of a joke is just plain rude.

      1. Noelle*

        My extended family does stuff like this. When I got engaged they threw a surprise shower (after I said no to them wanting to throw a shower) where they made us have a fake wedding (they tried to dress me up in a white plastic garbage bag). My fiance and I were very uncomfortable with the whole thing, and it continued all afternoon – they wanted us to smash cake in our faces (cake cutting was not enough), have tons of dances, etc. When we refused to do most of it they got really mad. They also kept telling us that they knew we wouldn’t like it. When I asked, “ok, why did you do it then?” they seemed genuinely shocked that I would ask them that rather than pretend I was happy about it.

        Oh and the worst part? There were no gifts. Remember the part about my saying no to a shower? Apparently they interpreted that as us not wanting gifts, not us trying to avoid embarrassing shenanigans.

        1. Hermione*

          WHAAT! This is CRAZY. I would have said no repeatedly, and if that didn’t work I would have left. I’m sorry, that really really sucks.

          1. Noelle*

            I really wish I had done this, and if I’d had even a slight heads up, I probably would have. But instead I reacted like a deer in the headlights. My family has a history of bullying and I’ve always been their favorite target because I’m really shy and was a wimpy kid who cried about stuff like this, which amused them to no end. So when this happened, even though I’ve grown up and moved away and made it a point to avoid these people as much as possible, I just blanked and felt exactly like I was a little kid again.

            1. Hermione*

              Ugh. I feel you. I will never understand the obsessive need some have to put others down to make themselves feel higher, or worse, for the sake of pure amusement at another’s expense. I hope you refuse to have anything further to do with them in the future.

              Did you enjoy your real wedding, at least?!

              1. Noelle*

                Actually, we’re having a planned elopement later this year. The shower was definitely a factor in the decision, not so much in and of itself, but my family’s reaction to it. They complained to me for weeks that I needed to handle it better (basically they wanted me to act like I was thrilled, and were “appalled” and “taken aback” because I didn’t). We were on the fence about eloping anyway, and this just tipped us towards the side of not paying thousands of dollars for a wedding that we wouldn’t enjoy so our families would be happy. So now we’re just going to have a ceremony with a couple witnesses and a nice dinner afterwards. I am much more excited now!

                1. Noelle*

                  OP – Thanks! And I’m sorry about your coworkers. Even if they didn’t mean to be malicious, this kind of thing is really hurtful. I think you handled it very well. And good luck with your recovery!

                2. ChickenSuperhero*

                  For what it’s worth coming from a random internet commenter, your family deserves to be cut out from your life for good. (Not that I think you should or must, but that you would be a reasonable person to do so.) They sound emotionally abusive. Have you read Lundy Bancroft’s books on psychological/emotional abuse?

          2. College Career Counselor*

            On a related note, many years ago a friend of a friend threw a surprise party for her boyfriend, who apparently didn’t like surprises or surprise parties. My understanding is that she knew this and did it anyway. He walked in, everyone yelled “surprise!” and he walked right the hell out without another word. Pretty sure that was the end of that relationship.

            Much harder to do in a work setting, of course, if you get ambushed by well-meaning colleagues who schedule a meeting and then spring a baby shower on you.

            1. Noelle*

              I have a friend who hates cake and also doesn’t eat gluten for health reasons. He was dating a girl who knew this, but she still made him a cake for his birthday. He was like, “that’s nice…but you know I don’t eat cake.” She got furious and was trying to force him to eat it and be grateful. That ended that relationship too. “It’s the thought that counts” is a saying for a reason – with both of these stories they either didn’t think AT ALL, or worse, they did and decided to do something they knew someone wouldn’t like anyway.

              1. Marvel*

                Oh, god, I have a story just like this, only a friend’s boyfriend got her an ice cream cake when she’s severely lactose intolerant (and they’d been dating for like a year, so yes, he knew this). And then proceeded to shrug and eat it all. Himself.

                Why are people so terrible?

                1. Noelle*

                  I have no idea, but it seems to be a pretty consistent fact of life. And that’s pretty bad. As if not being able to eat ice cream wasn’t already terrible!

        2. College Career Counselor*

          re: genuine shock. This is because none of it was about YOU, it was all about them. Which is exactly the deal with the OP’s co-workers. They didn’t care if she thought it was funny, because they did. She was just the excuse to do something obnoxious.

          1. Noelle*

            Yeah, I agree. It still amazes me how many adults are incapable of thinking about other people though, and how they feel that calling them out is worse behavior than whatever you’re calling them out on.

      2. Tyrannosaurus Regina*

        Gaaah and it’s so wasteful. Makes my chest hurt just thinking about it.

    2. Stephanie*

      Oh God. Poor dear then had to deal with all that extraneous stuff. Consumables and experiences as gifts, people. (Unless you know the recipient really would appreciate something that doesn’t fall into those categories. Otherwise, it turns into something else to dust or move.)

    3. Ann O'Nemity*

      My old job did an annual junk white elephant gift exchange around Christmas time. It only worked because everyone was clearly and repeatedly warned that the gifts were supposed to be junky (gaudy kitty figurine, chipped world’s best grandpa mug, dogeared copy of Windows XP Dummies, etc). The crappier the gift, the funnier it was.

      Even after experiencing years of that, I could not imagine doing something similar for a shower or a surgery recovery gift.

      1. Allison*

        White elephant exchanges are fairly harmless not only because everyone’s in on it, but the event is done to celebrate a holiday rather than an individual.

    4. Demanding Excellence*

      That seems like an awful lot of extra work. Why not just give a normal shower and be done with it? If I were the receipient, I would think that my coworkers a.) really didn’t like me or b.) just bizarre and it would make me question whether or not this office’s culture was for me.

      I don’t blame you for not talking about any major life events around these people either. I’d hate to see what they would come up with for the next person.

  20. Artemesia*

    The only way this reads as a joke is ‘you couldn’t come to the office, so we sent the office to you’ — which should have been on the card. And then although not funny at least it would have some coherence as a ‘joke’. I can’t see a response here that leaves the OP a winner. Being hurt or reacting hurt just allows them to label and diminish her.

    I guess ‘Oh that was so thoughtful. I couldn’t be in the office so you sent the office to me’ has some potential as a textured response. If they were saying ‘you are trash’ then you are saying ‘the office, including you, are trash’. If they thought it really was ‘let’s send her the office’ then your response is that you get it and have a sense of humor. Being offended although perfectly reasonable in this situation doesn’t get you anything.

    1. Mike B.*

      That makes sense! It’s not a great joke (unless you’ve had a few margaritas, which I suspect were involved in its creation), but it has a coherent punchline. The givers just didn’t realize that it needed that essential piece of context.

  21. Demanding Excellence*

    The “gift givers” also seem like the type of people who give peanut shells, broken items, and other inappropriate items in a office gift exchange.

  22. KT*

    This is just so bizarrely awful. Like when the Dursleys sent Harry Potter old socks for his birthday or a tissue.

    I think responses like a confused “What gift” is best–it puts the onus on them to explain their “gift” and why they though it was appropriate.

  23. AggrAV8ed Tech*

    If I had coworkers “gift” me with something like that, it wouldn’t even cross my mind that they were trying to be funny. I would just figure them for a bunch of douchebags.

    1. fposte*

      If you were inclined that way, that’s what you could give them in return. Maybe with a note saying “Sweets to the sweet . . . ” to see if they could put it together.

      (I actually think it’s a bad idea in practice, but it’s an entertaining thought.)

      1. Anonsie*

        Send them that note and a box of those chocolate anuses. “You are what you eat” or something.

  24. I'm Not Phyllis*

    Malicious intent or not – not cool. I like Alison’s approach of simply saying “you gave me garbage.” Or, a blank stare. Did they really think this was funny? Or even appropriate? So mean!

  25. LiveAndLetDie*

    This is terrible, and I can’t believe anyone in the office didn’t stop this before it got so far that the OP actually received the bag of crap. I’m sorry, OP, that your coworkers are so tone-deaf and insensitive during this hard time.

  26. madge*

    I could see it if it was a bag of trashed remnants from a nightmare project or a rage-inducing fax machine, but just random trash? Actual trash? That’s just…odd.

    Hope your recovery is going well, OP!

  27. Mimmy*

    What the…

    OP – Thanks for posting an update so quickly! Did they apologize when you told them you didn’t understand the gift?

    My hunch is that your two coworkers felt bad about the office gift, so they did something separately. If that’s the case, yeah, that was executed poorly.

    1. OP*

      They didn’t apologize, but there was a clearly a moment where they realized it went over like a lead balloon.

      Honestly, it’s just a really strange office. For most of my time there, it’s been the meanest place I’ve ever been. I think because they felt like I needed them more than the other way around? But now with the surgery, and recovery (and it’s a very long recovery), I’m in a position to leave whenever. So there’s still this meanness, but then random niceness. A garbage gift, unrealistic workload, cruel comments, but then also an offer to get anything if I need it, etc. I don’t necessarily think my RG is a bad person, I think she just hasn’t had a lot of good, professional office experience. This place is not a good way to learn management you know? (Small, family business).

      1. Golden Yeti*

        To me, that makes it worse.

        As a non-family member, you’re probably already on the fringe of things, to some extent. By giving you garbage, aren’t they just rubbing it in (because you’re not “in on the joke”)?

        Not cool.

  28. Stephanie*

    I could see how this got out of hand.

    Coworker: “We need to give OP a gift while she’s out on maternity leave.”
    Coworker 2: “Ha, I have my old gym shoes. I should wrap those up.”
    Coworker 3: “Oh, we should throw in some old tea bags. Everyone misses the Bigelow lemon tea that smells of Pine-Sol.”
    Coworker 4: “Remember the 90s? I haven’t cleaned out my desk since then. I have a Sublime CD I could throw in.”

    I mean, I’ve made similar jokes with friends (like sending a pregnant friend inappropriate baby registry gifts). But the joke among ourselves is usually the ridiculousness of the scenario and that we’d never actually do it. You coworkers actually went through with it. :(

    1. fposte*

      That’s what I was thinking. Giggle-drunk makes you stupid. But generally you either have enough sense not to put it in practice or at least realize later how dumb it was on the other end.

    2. Anonymouse*

      “Remember the 90s? I haven’t cleaned out my desk since then. I have a Sublime CD I could throw in.”

      That made me laugh. Thanks!

      1. AnotherAlison*

        Um, I would actually like that CD, and would really be happy is someone could also “gift” me a “Better than Ezra” CD. (Also from the 1990s, for those who missed their brief shining moment.) I lost mine before I transferred my 90s CD collection to mp3. . .and was really wanting to hear a couple of those songs a while back. : )

    3. Saurs*

      The oddest part of this shambolic travesty is that the garbage were all cast-offs from the OP’s director. Why? What? What was the director’s role in all of this?

  29. KT*

    Coworkers can be really dumb.

    I was out for a week when my mom was in the hospital near-it was a really touch and go situation, and the doctors told me to say my goodbyes to my mom.

    I came in Monday while she was in surgery to give myself something to keep my mind occupied, and my work area had been covered in hundreds of post-its. They had thought it would be funny and would cheer me up, but plucking off post-its from my keyboard was not what I had in mind.

    Point being in: some people just are socially awkward. And no one ever tells them “Socially awkward person, this is a terrible idea”. They may not mean it maliciously at all, so please don’t think it’s office bullying, but instead office cluelessness.

    1. Kristine*

      Oh, my. I would have marched right out of my work area and asked that it be cleaned up.
      Some things are just not done at work. Invading my work space is one of them.

  30. Kristine*

    You know, your two considerate coworkers should have had the backbone to tell the jokesters to deliver this “gift” themselves. I’ll bet no one would have. That would have put a stop to this outrageously immature groupthink.

    1. Golden Yeti*

      True. However, it could have also been that the pranksters were higher-ups, which could have made it harder to refuse. Not saying they shouldn’t have at least tried to refuse, but it could have been a power thing in play, too. If that was the case, it would be even more messed up, because then, not only were they being jerks themselves, but also using their position to coerce co-worker underlings to do the dirty work for them.

      1. Zillah*

        And we also don’t know that they didn’t try to refuse – I can definitely see a “Um… I don’t know if this is a great idea… I think OP might not appreciate this…” that got talked over, and if this is a bad environment, I can see just delivering it. :/

  31. Dasha*

    OK I can possibly see why your two friends at work delivered this. Did they maybe want you to see the gift? I mean, it sucks but I would also want to know that my other coworkers were literally giving me garbage. Maybe they thought if they just told you that you wouldn’t believe them?

    1. fposte*

      Oh, there’s a thought. I would have found it pretty hard to believe myself, because who would do that?

      1. A Bug!*

        Yeah, they were clearly embarrassed about the present, enough so that they actually went out and made sure to get a legitimate one. They also didn’t play along with the straight-faced delivery they were asked to make. I think they took the actions they thought would be kindest in the circumstances.

        I think it’s actually a good example of where a person’s intentions mitigate poor results, and where they don’t. The friends were between a rock and a hard place and made the decision that they thought was kindest to the OP.

        The mean girls, on the other hand? I’m sure they’ll swear up and down that they believed OP would find it just as funny as they did. But that’s either willful ignorance or a lie.

  32. Amanda*

    LW, I reread what you initially wrote and caught the Mean Girls bit. This makes me think that this is not an “all in good fun” kind of prank. As other have said, “joke gifts” should always be followed by a legitimate gift. That being said, I hate joke gifts, I think they’re crappy and at best fall flat.

    This seems really cruel. Especially for someone who has just had what sounds like pretty serious surgery.

    1. A Bug!*

      Oh, but it is all in good fun. Just not the OP’s. OP is expected to be a good sport so that the mean girls’ fun isn’t spoiled by having to actually think about how their actions affect others.

      (“You mean the bag of garbage? I’m not sure what you were going for with it.” “We thought it would be funny!” “Why?” “Well, because you’d get the present and think we’d given you garbage.” “But you did give me garbage.” “Yeah, but we didn’t mean it.” “Okay, but, like, you still physically sent me garbage, and I wasn’t mobile yet so I had to ask someone else to take it down to the dumpster for me. You did something thoughtless and inconsiderate, but it’s funny because you did it on purpose? But I wasn’t supposed to know it was on purpose, so that looks an awful lot like you guys having a laugh at my expense.” “Splut splut excuses wet blanket blah blah” “Look, it doesn’t matter, okay? You didn’t mean it, fine, whatever. Can you please just leave me out of pranks from now on and we can forget about this one?”)

  33. TootsNYC*

    I would just be vague. With an absent-minded smile.

    “Oh, yeah, that–I forgot. I guess it was kinda funny. Not really my sense of humor, unfortunately, so it didn’t have the effect I think people were going for. But thanks, I guess. Excuse me, I want to finish the TPS report,” and put on headphones.

    Look to the future, and go for the response that will create the least drama.

    1. Amanda*

      I disagree. OP shouldn’t feel like they need to accommodate these people. I agree that throwing a fit won’t help, but if they aren’t amused/are hurt by this gift then that is exactly what should be made clear.

      Also, OP isn’t creating drama. Her shitty coworkers are by giving mean, non-gifts to someone who is recovering from surgery.

  34. 2horseygirls*

    Any reference to “Mean Girls” has the immediate connotation (to me, at least) of deliberate acts designed to be hurtful (even cruel) and as demeaning as possible, just for the sheer joy of being bitchy to someone.

    OP, out of curiosity, did you inform the agency that placed you with this company? I think this is definitely something that should be in their files on this particular client. And they might seriously want to reconsider having this company as a client – that’s just an association that doesn’t need to exist. The account manager should inform their contact at the company (either in HR or this awful group’s direct supervisor) precisely why they are being dropped as a client.

    Society is already speeding towards hell in a handbasket – it would be heartwarming to see your placement agency take a stand. (removes rose-colored glasses …)

    1. OP*

      No agency involved. It’s one of those small companies that has the old mainstays, and then a revolving group of people in a few positions.

      1. 2horseygirls*

        Darn it.

        So does that mean you’ve filled in for them in other positions before? Do you have a good working relationship with their supervisor, or someone in HR, that you could say something like “I want to make sure that I’m just not taking this the wrong way, but I received a bag of garbage from Ann, Bob, Chuck, Donna, Ed and Francesca while I was recovering from my surgery. Is there something I’m missing, like an inside joke in that department?”

        1. OP*

          No HR or anything like that. I’m just covering a one year mat leave and then I’m dust in the wind.

          There really is no changing it, it’s a small family business, and the problems start at the top. Mainly I wrote the letter to AAM because I honestly didn’t know what to say. And part of me needed some other sane people to confirm that that this was awful.

  35. AMG*

    Ok, so at the risk of looking a bit obtuse, I am going to draw a parallel between this and the woman from last week who was looking up her co-workers’ deceased relatives and sharing obituaries, personal details, etc. Everyone was more or less in agreement that the professional response was something along the lines of, “Jane, I’m sure you were trying to be kind, but this is hurtful. Please don’t share my personal info.”

    This post is interesting to me because I see people being rude and thoughtless to someone in pain. In this case, it is more acceptable to say, ‘What gift? I only got garbage.’ and let the rude offender face their own awkwardness.

    What is the delineating factor? If anything, I feel like the obituary lady is worse that the garbage-givers, who may have been trying to get a laugh out of OP. I think both are bullying and inappropriate, so I don’t understand handling them differently.

  36. Dang*

    Wow. I guess the days of sending flowers and/or bringing some meals to lighten the load are over.

    I’m sorry, OP. I hope you’re feeling better and can get out of this dysfunctional place soon.

  37. KS*

    I would go with confused, because I sure am. Make them explain it. Play especially clueless. Make them sweat for it. What a bunch of freaks.

  38. Legal Beagle*

    This sounds like “know your audience” situation. When I was stuck at home recovering (and miserable) after foot surgery, my office gave me a plastic, severed Halloween foot as a joke. It gave me a well-needed laugh and cheered me up more than flowers would have. The major difference between my situation and the OP’s is that my coworkers know that I have a weird sense of humor, and we’re a close-knit bunch. I understand how others would have been quite offended.

    1. Amanda*

      And also they did not give you actual garbage.

      (I see how your situation is funny, and topical, and light-hearted.)

    2. Amber Rose*

      Agreed. I am frequently injuring myself, and was recently gifted a framed image that says “I’m not clumsy, the floor is out to get me, chairs are bullies and the walls are in the way!”

      I find it hilarious. Others maybe not. My coworkers know me well enough to get my weird humour and know I’d enjoy it.

    3. Windchime*

      When a coworker/friend had emergency surgery on her eye (torn retina), we sent her a lovely bouquet of flowers and a big bunch of balloons to go with it. It was near Halloween, so we were able to include one huge balloon that had a big eyeball on it. She loved it and thought it was hilarious. BUT–it wasn’t garbage. That’s just so weird.

    4. Three Thousand*

      But the severed foot makes sense and is clever. It’s not random and meaningless like a bag of garbage. If you’re going to play a “joke” on someone, you should at least manage to be funny.

  39. Anonsie*

    I’m suddenly feeling exceptionally grateful that my office just ignored it when I was out recovering from surgery.

  40. JW*

    To me, this sounds like a combination of something that sounds funny at the time, and a manifestation of peoples frustration with the gifting culture of the office. I can totally see somebody saying “let’s do a bag of funny gifts!” Thinking weird candy, funny stationary, novelty pens, whatever. Then, when it actually comes time to assemble it, nobody has gotten anything, and just chucks in whatever is around the office.

    I have worked in offices where one person , usually in a position of power, is always pushing gifts for every little thing, but expects everyone else to pay for and organize it. Nobody feels like they can push back, so it usually ends up being the recipient who ends up with the manifestation of peoples frustrations.

    Especially if gifting among co-workers for things is common, everyone could be pretty tired of having to get and pay for gifts. I really hate office gifting in general, and I know I would be extra irritated at being expected to buy a gift for a temp, who has not been at the company for long, and who is not even going to be back in the office before the end of the contract. Nothing against the temp personally, or temps in general, and I would probably just “forget” rather than chuck in a used roll of tape or something, but I do wonder if this is more of a rebellion among the staff about gifting in general, rather than a statement about the OP.

    1. fposte*

      Oh, that first paragraph is an interesting thought. I can totally see that happening.

  41. BadPlanning*

    True confession time — I once sent a package like this, more or less. The recipient was disappointed and told me so. I felt bad and apologized. It was one of those thing that seemed funny when packing it. Needless to say, as the OP points out, now if I send stupid stuff, I moderate it with something “good” — either a useful, wanted something or a nice/elaborate note explaining the absurdity. And not too much stupid stuff so the recipient doesn’t feel like they’re filling the trash.

  42. NickelandDime*

    Did they even know the OP well enough to be sure something like this would be viewed as funny and go over well? As coworkers, probably not. I probably wouldn’t say anything, but this is just data on the type of people you work with. SMH

    1. Connie-Lynne*

      Not that it makes this “present” any better, but I think the OP probably is unaware that the song is an (attempted and not entirely successful) anti-rape song.

    2. Lady Bug*

      Yeah I’d keep the Sublime CD. Date Rape is a pretty funny song, and the rapist gets his comeuppance.

      1. DarcyPennell*

        His comeuppance is being repeatedly raped? I’m not seeing how that’s funny.

      2. Connie-Lynne*

        That’s the part I think wasn’t successful about the song. Putting it delicately, I don’t consider turnabout to be appropriate punishment, whether it happens in prison or elsewhere. It gives the message that there are circumstances where this kind of assault is acceptable.

  43. Amy*

    How about: “My gift must have been mixed up with a bag of garbage. I got the garbage, so I suppose your gift went out with the trash? What was it? I’m sure I would have appreciated your thoughtful get well wishes”

    1. Allison*

      I was gonna suggest something similar. “I think there was a mixup, it looks like you sent me a bag of garbage, but that must have been a mistake!”

  44. Ruffingit*

    I think the best thing to do here would have been for the good coworkers to tell Mean Girl on Monday that they forgot to give OP the gift, but Mean Girl can give it herself. Mean Girl having to present it in person would have been very interesting.

  45. ChelseaNH*

    Putting on my Miss Manners hat, I’d say thank them politely for the gift. If they were looking for a reaction, this would confound them (not to mention forestall any complaints about your lack of humor). If they weren’t looking for a reaction, they’re idiots and not worth expending more energy than perfunctory politeness.

  46. The Bimmer Guy*

    I have to say…I’m the kind of person who would find this *hilarious* if it were done to me, but I’d never *ever* do it to someone else. I have a strong sense of humor, but for most people, this is just cruel. I agree…they get whatever response you think is appropriate for doing that.

  47. Sunny*

    Hey Allison, can you explain what you would do if this were to happen in your office?

    I would be absolutely horrified.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d talk to the gift organizers and find out what they were thinking. If they genuinely thought she’d find it funny, I’d point out the errors in that thinking and ask them to be more thoughtful in the future (and would probably suggest they come up with a kinder, alternate plan now). If it seemed more mean-spirited than that, that would be a much bigger problem — and one that would go beyond the scope of this one incident and require a broader look at who they hell I’d hired!

  48. Kadee*

    I just assumed that they plan to give a real present when she returns to work. That’s why they wanted the two others to really play it off that the garbage is a real gift – that way, the real gift will be a “surprise”.

    It’s still dumb and you have to know the person you’re playing a prank on to know how far you can take something, but I don’t see them as evil and I think AAM’s advice spot-on. Don’t frame it as 9th grade gym class or Mean Girls because unless this is part of a larger patten, they probably didn’t intend it to be that way at all. That doesn’t make it ok but it helps when figuring out how to respond.

  49. Coach Devie*

    This is so weird that I have no words.

    My brain can’t even allow this to be a thing.

    I’m sorry this even happened. Like no gift at all or just a card would have been all that was needed. I honestly wouldn’t have expected a gift from anyone if I was really new to the office or rarely there or hadn’t made any connections. I wouldn’t have felt any kind of way about it either. But this?????

    I. Just. Can’t.

  50. Student*

    I’m cringing because I could see my brother doing something like this.

    OP – from everything you’ve said in the post and comments, this is just someone who isn’t all there, socially speaking. It reflects badly on the giver, not on you, and it probably wasn’t even personal. The person who did this seems like he/she deserves pity and a wide berth. Try not to dwell on it or wonder about what you should do about it. Just take any measures you can to protect your sanity from this kind of thing and start looking for your next job opportunity.

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