Dear One Geek:
I work in a wonderful office that provides coffee, and which favors an open desk arrangement to aid in collaboration. Generally, this works out very well: many of us will grab a cup in the morning, and it’s not unheard of for someone to bring in breakfast treats or pastries of some sort. My colleagues and I will naturally grab some and take our spoils back to our common desk area.
The wonderful office in which I work is also wonderfully busy – so it’s relatively common to see someone eating lunch at his or her area, too. The only time this is a problem is when one of my co-workers brings his lunch. He consumes his food loudly and with evident enjoyment … and the only sorts of lunches he seems to bring are amazingly fragrant. Unfortunately, he lacks the social grace to understand the subtle hints that we’ve tried as a group.
How can we, as an office, make it clear to our co-worker that there are some foods that are just fine to eat at one’s desk, and other foods that should be best kept in the company cafeteria?
Fed Up With The Fragrance
Dear Fed Up,
The way I see it, there’s a few choices on how to proceed here, each with some perks and drawbacks.
The most severe method would be to attempt to implement policy that stops anyone from eating at their desk. This would solve the problem, but it’s the etiquette equivalent of cutting off a hand to treat a hangnail. It’s wonderful that your workspace allows you to eat at your desks – and I’m going to assume that’s a policy you don’t want to try to undo, even with “Loud and Smelly” contributing to the office atmosphere. (If it does get to the point where you and the rest of your co-workers find that his presence outweighs the benefit of having your own freedom to indulge at your desk, you can attempt to get the policy changed, but I’m rarely in favor of using legislation where communication can be used instead.)
Alternately, you can try to set some official or unofficial guidelines for what can and can’t be eaten in the work area. These kinds of things are done in some places when someone has a severe allergy (to peanuts, say, or perfumes). Alternately, some offices allow solids but no drinks, or beverages but only in a travel cup (to prevent spills). I’ve never heard of an official “low-smell” policy, or one that mandates manners, however, and I’m not sure how well such a policy would work out.
Unfortunately, both table manners and sensory perceptions are very much a matter of perspective. What one person finds pleasantly aromatic causes the next to want to hurl, and one man’s “appreciative gusto” is another’s “swinish discourtesy”. While you may be okay with one co-worker munching on an egg sandwich but appalled by another’s kim chee or catfish casserole, it’s really difficult to mandate office policy on the nature of what’s “offensive” and what’s “acceptable” to eat at one’s desk.
Which leaves us with two final options. The first is, of course, just to put up with things the way they are. While this isn’t ideal, it is more feasible than implanting bureaucratic policy that’s either unnecessarily draconian or (perhaps even worse) difficult or impossible to enforce.
The best option, however, is probably to speak with the co-worker in question, either directly or through a fellow co-worker who both sympathizes with your plight and gets along well with the offender. “Subtle hints” are obviously not going to work, so polite, but clear, communication is the next step. Try to get your request across without being offensive towards him, as a person, or insulting his food. Focusing on the sensory stimulus of the food (rather than his table manners, which could be construed as a personal insult or attack) may help keep it from becoming as emotional of an issue for him.
Saying something like this may help: “I am sorry to have to ask, but your (garlic soup/swordfish steak/pickled pigs feet) is really strongly scented, and it’s making me feel unwell. Would you mind saving that for eating in the cafeteria?” Or, alternately, “I’m sorry, I know we are allowed to eat at our desks, but for some reason the (tuna/spice/vinegar) in your lunch is really bothering me today. I’m not sure what’s going on, but would you mind maybe holding off on eating that until you’re away from the work area?”
If polite peer-to-peer conversations don’t do the trick, it’s possible to escalate the matter (especially if it’s a matter of general consensus that this person’s foodstuffs are universally an issue for the office) but be aware that an employer may decide to cut out all food consumption at desks, rather than singling out any one staff member, even if everyone else believes it’s a one-person problem.
Thanks for writing!