Office lunchtime bullying. It’s a thing, and a sort of messy thing to sift through amidst the culture of office politics. But fear not, it’s also a thing that can be easily avoided! First, it’s important to establish that our plates are personal whether we know it or not. They’re sort of like an edible extension of our souls. 

If you were ever bullied as a kid for lunching on (deliciously addictive) kimchi, sloppy joes, or rice and beans, it can be hard to keep a tough skin! We – or, when we were younger, mom and dad – usually take great care and pride in putting together our breakfasts/lunches/dinners. So naturally, it can feel a little sticky when someone else decides to pass judgement on it.

You are what you eat?

What and how much we eat always seems to be the talk around the office. It’s often accompanied by the unintentional sideways glance or even the occasional sarcastic quip. And sure, while these general inquiries are probably not rooted in malice, it can surely feel tiresome. Feeling like you’ve got to defend your food choices each and every day gets tired, fast. 

But what if – *gasp* – you are that person gabbing at the office coffee pot?! Maybe it’s your own assessments of someone else’s food that is the underlying culprit of office lunchtime bullying – unintentionally or not. And all this time you didn’t even know it was a problem. 

In all honesty, the reason we feel strongly about this is because it’s why Chewse got started in the first place. Our Founder and CEO, Tracy Lawrence, was bullied so badly in school that she ate lunch in the bathroom to escape the torment. And no, this isn’t a scene from Mean Girls. Tracy wanted to make office lunchtime a time in which everyone has a seat at the table. 

Because it doesn’t stop in childhood. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, over 60 million people in the United States experience office bullying. Common forms of bullying include verbal harassment, sabotage, and intimidation. Whether it’s before a big meeting or office lunchtime bullying, it doesn’t feel good to be a target. So how do you stop it, or prevent it altogether?

Workplace Bullying Institute Chart

So it’s a problem. What can I do?

So what are the proper mealtime manners when it comes to commenting on someone else’s lunch? Should we be allowed to pass judgement, however positive or negative on what someone else has packed for the day? Or should we wave it off like a sliver of spinach caught between your colleagues teeth? (By the way, has anyone even figured out the exact protocol on that very unfortunate situation? Do we or don’t we tell them!? Please reach out to us if you know, stat!)

Food, in all of its biological composition and glory, is as much a party for our taste buds as it is necessary for us to survive. But it’s not actually the physical act of eating itself that brings people together. Eating in public or shared spaces, while proven to bring people closer together, can initially feel messy and embarrassing. A setting and source of deep discomfort and insecurity. 

Understanding that there are two sides to every coin, we encourage you to treat office lunchtime with colleagues the way you would approach sightseeing in a foreign country. Be open-minded, not pushy, and respect what you see on their plate in a way that may be (totally) different than your own.

Keep in mind what thoughtful food conversation is and should be! This can help alleviate any possibility of office lunchtime bullying to make mealtime the best time. And you never know, the differences you thought made someone “weird” just might be wrong. You very well might feel closer to your office community. We’ve gathered more tips and tricks to make sure your office is a safe place for all kinds of eaters! 

Eating vs. Gathering

A designated office lunch has the unique power to magically bring colleagues together. It’s not exactly the food that sends the sales team running to get in line – it’s the ritual. The ritual of knowing that at 12:30 everyday everyone has permission to step aside from screens and Slack DM’s to come together for an hour or so to sit with one another. It’s the ritual of knowing that at 12:30 everyday there is freedom to connect and interact in a space that is intended to promote inclusivity from the minutiae of the minutes prior. 

We’re pretty sure no one wants a speech about how the nitrates found in tomatoes cause cancer. Or how putting butter in your coffee will somehow provide enough energy for you to go and solve the climate crisis. Especially not during the Great Microwave Showdown of 2019, with a chaotic assortment of leftover fried rice and homemade kale caesar as sensory overload in the background. 

In those precious mealtime moments, the more important attributes to focus on (if not requesting the recipe) are the conversations about a colleague’s day, vacation plans, or perhaps workplace strategies. 

Don’t be the office lunchtime bully that takes one whiff of whatever’s heating up and shuts. it. down. As the old saying goes, don’t yuck someone else’s yum! Be like the Pillsbury Doughboy and reply with a smile and awkward giggle if you don’t know how else to reply to, you really shouldn’t be eating x, y or z. Because admit it, the Pillsbury Doughboy is simply the best. Full stop.

Your decadence is someone else’s comfort food

Office meals are a fun and delicious opportunity to ingrain within the culture that it’s okay to hit pause so that you can speed up later. Lunch time should not be the time when one’s food choices become scrutinized and picked apart, regardless of how “healthy” or particularly “decadent” their food might be. 

Rather than focusing on what or how much a colleague is consuming, try instead asking how they are. You don’t want to be that office lunchtime bully people are trying to avoid. If you’re having trouble grappling with what’s fair game or not, let’s look at a small but useful case study. 

You know that one coworker that dresses to the nines everyday? You might be thinking, how the heck do they have the willpower not to show up in yoga pants (if your office is cool with that kind of dress code!) everyday?! It will forever be a mystery to you. But it doesn’t take Nancy Drew to figure out that prodding them about how they have the mental fortitude to wear pants sans elastic waistband is probably not the way to go. And we’re sure the strength of both of your relationships will be much better for it. 

Office lunchtime is sort of the same. Treat people’s food preferences as that, their preferences. If your colleague has decided to opt-out of office cupcakes, that’s alright! Their decision is theirs and prodding them into having one is unadvised. 

Be curious without being crass. Be inquisitive without it being an interrogation. And if you’re not sure what’s fair game or not, err on the side of caution. Or chat with your office manager! They might offer valuable insight on what they think aligns most with your company’s values. 

On food: a sticky, sweet, sour, and (sometimes) satisfying subject

Think of what’s appropriate lunchtime conversation etiquette in the same way you would think about starting up a conversation about literally anything else. The weather always seems to be a nice conversation starter, albeit a boring one. But if the status of Karl the Fog rolling in to damper the weekend doesn’t seem that intriguing, why not ask where your coworker got the panini instead of drooling over it? Be thoughtful in how you approach a conversation about food and always bring kindness to the table (and the hot sauce). 

Food is delicious (especially from our restaurant partners like Vive La Tarte in San Francisco and Mezze Me in Austin)! And talking about its seemingly magical properties when prepared perfectly does have a rad and tasty ability to bring people together. But food can also be a source of insecurity and it’s important to keep that in mind. 

What’s on someone’s plate can also be very personal, and hey, maybe they aren’t up for talking about it. That’s cool too! Respect the vibes, man. In general, a good rule of thumb for talking about food is to stick to the food’s objective qualities, instead of its subjective qualities. But if someone looks to be clearly disengaging from conversations about what they’re eating, perhaps bringing up subjects non-food related is the best route. 

Refrains commonly overheard from office lunchtime bullies and encouraged to avoid;

If you’re having a hard time figuring out what exactly is fair game and not, we’ve come up with a few phrases to help guide your office lunchtime conversations forward. After all, we’re in the game of bringing people together over food! A happy office is an open one, and making everyone feel comfortable at the lunchtime table just might help you learn a thing or two.

Rather than…

“Oh, I’d offer you these homemade cookies but you’re too healthy for that.”

“Another salad today, huh?”

“You know, white rice isn’t good for you.”

“You should really try this Keto diet.”

Try instead…

“I noticed you were sitting alone, would you like some company?”

“Can you show me how to make that dressing? It smells delicious.”

“I’ve noticed you haven’t been eating with us lately, everything ok?”

“How are YOU.”

“What’s really new and exciting in your life right now?” 

Set Office Lunchtime Intentions.

So gather with intention. View office lunches as a time to focus on participation over portion size. Make room for your colleague, regardless of whether or not they’re eating the same thing as you. Find a moment to connect on a human level, not a nutrient one. Here at Chewse, we believe that inclusivity breeds morale. We think that radical candor is a way in which we can engage with one another directly and with compassion. 

While we are a self-professed bunch of foodies, restaurateurs and amateur home chefs, our connections to our work and to one another are much deeper than our food choices. We certainly understand that you don’t want to be that awkward wallflower with the capacity to also be an office lunchtime bully. We cherish the moments that allow our office to come together and sometimes (quite literally) break bread together.

But more often than not, we’re all simply satisfied knowing there is always a seat at the table for each other. Don’t you? Reach out to us to make your office lunchtime home to family, not bullies.

Guest Post by Gabi Maudiere

My name is Gabi (duh). I’m always that person in the office who brings enormous salads mixed with so many different kinds of vegetables, nuts and seeds that I’m almost always sure to get one or more, whoa, what’s that? come lunch time in the office. In my free time you’ll catch me running a lot of miles (I’m training for my 3rd 100 mile trail race), reading a bunch of books (you should see the stack on my bedside table), or noshing on fresh bagels from Beauty’s in Oakland (salt and pepper bagel with avocado, sprouts and red onion is the go-to order).