Put that muffin down right now and read this. Did you know there’s an etiquette for eating food in the office?
Oh yes, there is – and chances are, you’re violating it. Right now. (Are you spilling muffin crumbs into your lap? Don’t even think about standing up and wiping them off on to the floor.)
“Whether it’s your desk, the office refrigerator, the coffee pot, the counter, the sink or the floor: If you spill something, clean it up. Your colleagues are not your servants; nor are you theirs,” says Mary Mitchell, author of several books on the subject of etiquette.
Thinking about reheating some leftover lasagna for lunch? Forget it, Mitchell says. No one wants to smell what you’re eating. Did you know some workplaces have banned popcorn because it smells so good? Well, they have, though apparently popcorn is also prone to setting off smoke alarms.
The key is no one must be aware that you are scarfing down food in your cubicle. No one must know eating is a pastime you indulge in every once in a while. You shouldn’t chomp, slurp or make “mmm”-ing noises while eating it.
“Your lunch should not smell so much it attracts attention, negative or positive,” Mitchell says.
Only the bland food from now on. Cold cuts, cold pizza or cold soup. Don’t you dare eat pad thai in front of your co-workers.
She says you should label your own food in airtight containers before placing it in the communal fridge. And even after you’ve written your name and a special note that says “Don’t eat!!!” on your plastic-wrapped egg-salad sandwich, sometimes people will still take your food. It happens. But not to worry, Mitchell has advice for tracking it down.
“Give the miscreant the benefit of the doubt – this one time. Mention it to your department head, without mentioning names of potential suspects so that it can be brought up at the next office meeting,” she says.
That advice, while seemingly safe, might create some awkward tension in the office. It’s hard enough keeping work relationships pleasant but not too close, collaborative and not too competitive. Telling your superiors that Jane Doe from across the room stole your sandwich? A little extreme, perhaps. Not to mention that, if you’re anything like me, when the issue of “people stealing egg-salad sandwiches from the fridge” comes up at a meeting, you’ll go bright-red and Jane – and everyone else – will know it was you who complained.
Mitchell does have another suggestion that might be more appropriate.
“You also could send an interoffice e-mail or text with a little humour (at least the first time), offering a reward to the person who brings the goodies back, no questions asked.”
A reward like … half an egg-salad sandwich?
In all seriousness, it is really important to remember that it’s not courteous to treat your office spaces (desk, kitchen, etc.) like you would treat your home. It’s okay to leave dirty dishes overnight in your own sink, but your co-workers really don’t want to have to pick over the crusty or sticky mess you’ve decided to leave.
But that’s common sense.
Of course it’s not polite to eat in front of someone who’s starving and hasn’t had time to get to the cafeteria. If you’ve got the time, ask if you can grab something for them. But chances are good that another day when you’re running around, they’re enjoying their lunch. That’s just how it works.
Not everyone has the time and luxury Mitchell seems to have to monitor what everyone else is doing; in a lot of occupations, you eat when you get a few minutes to spare.
Remember that no one – yourself included – would be happy about having to pick up a peanut-butter-coated knife to get to the sink. Mitchell notes that, if something wouldn’t fly with your mother, chances are it likewise wouldn’t be cool with your co-workers.
And pray that if you decide to eat something with a bit of a strong smell, or if you forget to take your cheesecake out of the fridge over the weekend, that you don’t work with someone like Mitchell, who may choose to publicly shame you for being a normal, busy human being.