It happened almost ten years ago. I’d just started a new job at a large company, and was sitting at my desk one afternoon, when this woman suddenly appeared beside me. She was holding a bag of Lay’s potato chips — not casually, but pinched between two fingers, as if it were a loaded handgun she’d found under her desk.
She stared at me, wide-eyed, and took a step closer: “I just ate this entire thing.” I stared back at her, frozen. She held my gaze for an interminable moment, then shook her head and walked away.
I still have no idea who that woman was. I never saw her again. For all I know she walked out of the office and turned herself into the police. She was certainly acting like someone who’d committed a crime, and she’d clearly felt the need to confess. I rarely ate chips myself at that office, but when I did, I’d find myself glancing over my shoulder, waiting for her ghost to appear. I still think of her when I see a bag of Lay’s at the deli—those guilty eyes.
The truth is, though, The Chip Incident was just one of many bizarre workplace conversations I’ve had about food — most of them totally one-sided. I’m being so bad today. I have to be good today. Hi, I literally just ate two cupcakes and I am an actual monster. How are you supposed to respond to that? It took a long time, but I finally found the perfect response: So?
We’ve made a lot of important strides in terms of workplace propriety (especially in the last year). We know it’s not okay to, say, expound on your sex life in graphic detail to a subordinate or pressure them for details on their own sexual experiences. And it’s not appropriate to criticize a colleague’s body or religion. These things still happen, of course, but it’s widely considered unacceptable to bring personal matters into the office. Yet, when it comes to food, we’re still minding everyone’s business. And we’re doing a lousy job.
Work lunch has become a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. But here’s a question: Why are we damning people at all?
The problem of workplace food culture is not new. Food has always been part of our work lives, and it will be as long as we need it to survive (or until the bots take over — whichever comes first). But it’s not just work lunches or breakfast meetings anymore. Food has recently become a perk: A growing number of companies are luring new talent with the promise of free snacks or subsidized meals.
We’re not talking protein bars either; Zappos employees get free grilled cheeses on demand, and Pinterest reportedly hosts regular guacamole contests. At the same time, we’re living in perhaps the least grilled-cheese-friendly era of diet culture. Dairy and gluten? Quel scandale! I’d love to know how many Zappos employees are actually eating the free sandwiches — and how many of their co-workers stop by their desks to say, “Oh my god, I wish I was eating that.” I’m gonna guess maybe five. On average.
If you want to talk to your work pals at lunch, go for it! Enjoy that instinctive social eating. But keep the conversation off the plate…
It’s not just the cheese-abstainers, though. When we ourselves are “being bad” we tend to fuss at colleagues who aren’t. “Look at that healthy lunch” we coo, staring daggers at their macro bowl. “You’re so good, I hate you.” JK! But not really! We’ve reached a point where no one can enjoy a meal—macro or not—in peace. Work lunch has become a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. But here’s a question: Why are we damning people at all?
America has a long history of moralizing food. Sylvester Graham, one of our earliest dietary reformers, literally preached against the evils of dairy and flour in the early 19th century. (FYI, he also railed against raw vegetables and pepper, so don’t get too excited.) Graham was followed by dozens of other dietary reformers peddling physical and spiritual purity through food — or lack thereof.
Today, the tradition continues with only slightly less dogmatic terms, like “clean eating.” But in practice, it’s the same. We talk about food in terms of goodness and badness: Guiltless brownies, Sin-Free Sugar, the good fats, the bad carbs, the clean and whole versus the processed and modified.
Part of the issue is that, as humans, our eating habits are strongly influenced by our social environments.
Medical and nutrition professionals often argue against this vague, puritanical language. Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN (an anti-diet dietician) called it: “A steady drip of disordered messaging about food and nutrition.” Harrison noted this during a panel discussion at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference earlier this year. She spoke alongside a group of food journalists who’d banned phrases like “guilt-free” and “clean eating” from their publications.
That is no small thing given how many readers actively seek out these phrases in magazines and online. In cutting these terms, they were voluntarily giving up a large swath of traffic and revenue. But it just wasn’t ethical (or accurate) to describe inert objects, like cookies or pasta, in terms of guilt and innocence. Faith Durand, editor-in-chief of The Kitchn explained: “I don’t believe that there are moral absolutes. There may be scientific absolutes. There may be things that are better for us than others. But when it comes to morality, that has no place in food writing.”
Nor does it belong at the office, of course. Yet that is where this judgmental language and behavior runs rampant. Part of the issue is that, as humans, our eating habits are strongly influenced by our social environments. Other people influence both the foods we choose and the amount we eat.
And the more we crave social acceptance from our peers, the more we tend to model our eating on theirs. For better or worse, the workplace is where most of us do the majority of our socializing. We all know our families (read: parents) and our friends can impact our eating habits. But our co-workers play a role, too—perhaps the biggest.
That’s why it’s so important to watch what we say during lunch. Our food choices are incredibly personal and yet eating is a social activity. It sounds like a paradox, I know. But it’s really not that complicated. If we can learn the difference between friendly banter and sexual harassment then we can learn this.
If you want to talk to your work pals at lunch, go for it! Enjoy that instinctive social eating. But keep the conversation off the plate, the same way you would other obviously not-okay topics. You wouldn’t lean over your co-worker’s desk and say, “Oh my EFFING god, your breasts look so good right now.” I mean, right? I hope?
I’m also hopeful that you wouldn’t then stare down at your own chest and start comparing it to your colleague’s. Not only is it flagrantly inappropriate, it has nothing to do with work. The same goes for their food. In the immortal words of Salt-N-Pepa, it is, quite simply, none of your business.