Matthew Diebel, USATODAY
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It would happen like clockwork. At 8:10 every morning. A former coworker would arrive and unpeel a sandwich he had picked up at a local food truck.
A fried egg sandwich.
I dreaded it. After the rustle of paper and aluminum foil stopped, the stink of overcooked eggs and stale cooking grease would waft across the room, seemingly targeted at my desk. It made me almost retch. Why couldn’t he eat breakfast at home? I muttered to myself as I contemplated murder.
Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. No, I did not strangle him. Instead, I politely asked him to stop bringing in his stinky breakfasts. “I have an aversion to eggs,” I mumbled. He then took his odorous eating to the conference room.
Does this ring a bell? Probably. According to a recent Gallup poll, 67 percent of American office workers eat at their desks more than once per week. It’s a growing phenomenon -- in 1990, more than half of Americans took at least 30 minutes away from their workstations at lunchtime, a number that has declined considerably, according to Gallup.
Chewing and lip-smacking
One of those 67 percent was a former boss of mine. One of his nasty habits: Eating with his mouth open. At about noon he would descend to the cafeteria and return to our close quarters with something healthy (he was a vegetarian). And then it started. Loud chewing and, worse, lip-smacking as he savored his hummus and quinoa sandwich (or whatever it was). Unlike with my egg-loving neighbor, I could not bring myself to complain to the person who decided the size of my paycheck. So I just cringed. Five days a week.
I shouldn’t have had to wince as he minced, according to Patricia Rossi, a Florida-based business etiquette expert. Eating “al desko” is an acceptable practice, she says, but it should be done as sparingly as possible and with the feelings of neighbors top-of-mind.
“Work projects and deadlines might make it necessary to do so,” she said. “But keep chewing, slicing, and dicing on the down-low. We don't want … coworkers to think we are auditioning for ‘Top Chef’.”
Oh, that smelly food
I am not entirely innocent. I don’t often eat at my desk, but when I do I tend to fetch food from a nearby deli where they have a lunch buffet containing such treats as fried chicken and shrimp. No one has complained, but I worry that the odors could be offensive.
That said, I know they are less bad than the ex-colleague who brought in leftovers to heat up in the office microwave. Whatever he had the night before, you got a sniff of it the next day. OK, the lasagna wasn’t awful. And the pong from the pot roast was (just) passable. The chicken, however, angered my olfactory system. And then there was the fish. I think it was salmon. It made me pink with exasperation.
And please don’t mention the fake-butter smell of microwaved popcorn.
Another office etiquette expert, Haydee Antezana, is among the odor-averse. “Avoid eating strong smelly foods that will linger for longer,” she urges. And she even advises keeping a toothbrush in your desk. “You should try brush your teeth after lunch,” she adds, “or the smell will linger on.”
5 eat-at-your-desk etiquette sins and wins, from an expert
“Stay away from anything heavy on the garlic or onions,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach, Inc., especially if you work in close proximity to anyone. “Otherwise, the smell may offend someone and permeate the office.”
Fellow workplace behavior expert Patricia Fitzpatrick of The Etiquette School of New York is even more emphatic. “Proper office etiquette dictates that one not eat anything at one’s desk that is going to offend coworkers, such as food that has a strong odor or is messy to eat,” she says. “And they should never heat food, such as fish, that has a strong odor in the microwave.”
Hygiene, slurping and other noises
Whitmore also worries about non-chewing and slurping sounds associated with eating. “Try not to rattle paper bags, such as chip bags,” she says. “It might distract co-workers.” Other auditory distractions Whitmore warns about include beverages. “Don't slurp your drink or chew ice,” she advises. “And stay away from overly crunchy food.”
Another issue, say the decorum doyens, is hygiene.
“Desks have 400 times more bacteria than toilet seats,” says Antezana, “And it’s visually unappealing, especially if you’re walking through with a visitor. Breadcrumbs scattered all over files, sticky keyboards … yuk!”
“Eating at your desk can also attract bugs,” adds Whitmore. “Clean up after yourself. After all, your mother does not work there and will not clean up after you!”
A further bugbear is use of office kitchens and their appliances. “Don't eat other people's food in the communal refrigerator,” says Whitmore. “Clean up spills if you make a mess in the microwave or on the countertops.
“And if your food has been in the refrigerator for more than three days, throw it out.”
Antezana has some additional rules: “Cover your food when heating it up,” she says. “And if your spaghetti splatters all over the microwave make you clean it up before the next person has to use it. Same goes for the toaster – make sure it’s clean of your breadcrumbs for the next person.”
Rossi, meanwhile, is a stickler for tidiness and garbage disposal. “Always tidy up carefully,” she says, “throwing sandwich wrappers, containers and anything with a lingering smell in a larger trash can that isn't in an enclosed area.”
The Do's and Don'ts of Shared Microwave Etiquette
Meanwhile, all the experts urge workers to avoid desktop eating, at least occasionally.
“It's a good idea to use your lunch hour to run errands, network with other employees and take a break from your stressful day,” says Whitmore. “Get some exercise, walk around and get some sunshine.”
Get up from your desk!
Antezana warns about the perils of sitting all day. “Move around – this is your recess time!” she urges. “Nearly 86% of American sit for the majority of their work day, a level of inactivity that a growing amount of research finds detrimental to our health.”
Fitzpatrick advises that workers try to get out for a short break even if it’s only ten minutes or so. “It’s good for their morale and will actually help them be more productive when they return to their desks.”
And Rossi suggests “a brisk walk, outside if possible or a circuit around the office.”
Even if it’s to fetch a sandwich.