Ladies who do not lunch
May 6, 2011 12:30 PM   Subscribe

I like my coworkers, and I like lunch, but I have anxiety issues with eating in public. Is it socially acceptable to skip 90% of friendly work lunches? Will it hurt my working relationships, in your opinion?

Over the years I have learned to control much of my social anxiety, but one of the situations where I am still likely to have a panic attack is eating in an unfamiliar place with a large-ish group of people I do not know exceedingly well. There are a few reasons why this is the case, but the important bit is that there is a pretty excellent chance in this situation that I am going to be silently freaking the hell out and possibly locking myself in the bathroom.

This means that I usually try very hard to skip situations like work lunches. I enjoy the company of most of my coworkers, and I am friendly and pleasant (based on feedback), but when you get 7+ of them together for a casual lunch my anxiety goes through the roof. I usually try and go at least once a month to be sociable, but lunches are a big part of the culture here and they often go 2-3 times a week. I make up nice excuses like saying I brought my lunch, or I'm meeting my husband (who works on the other side of town!).

I am worried that not going on these excursions will subtly cause my colleagues to see me as less of a team player, and this could hurt my job experience in the long run even though I am otherwise friendly and hard-working. So I guess what I'm asking is: in your professional lives, if someone politely begged off most optional lunches would it negatively affect the way you think about them?
posted by jess to Work & Money (32 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Personally, no, but I think many people would think you are odd or aloof or something.

Also, please get some therapy.

Getting tired of/annoyed by constant group lunches would be normal.

Silently freaking the hell out and possibly locking yourself in the bathroom is not.
posted by freakazoid at 12:35 PM on May 6, 2011

I mean, this probably depends on the company, but I bring my work to lunch nearly every day, or I eat out by myself or with my husband, and it doesn't seem to be a problem (some of my coworkers eat out together nearly every day).

I think if you frame it as a money/health thing, they'll understand that some people can't or don't want to spend $10-$15 on a meal three times a week when they can brown-bag it from home. Look for other opportunities to interact, like after-work drinks where you can leave for dinner, or set up an intramural sports team.
posted by muddgirl at 12:36 PM on May 6, 2011

Can you just not eat, or does it still make you anxious to sit there with them? You are going to have to say or make up something like "I prefer not to eat out, but I do enjoy your company" and then just get a cup of coffee or glass of iced tea.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:36 PM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I used to work in an office where we'd eat lunch in a group (generally 4-5) at least 2-3 times a week and one member of our team never came because he always had a lunch from home. I never thought anything but that he was saving a lot of money not eating out at lunch all the time. There is definitely social bonding that can take place over a work lunch, but I wouldn't expect it to be essential for your career.

The bigger question is whether you would want and appreciate the comfort and bond that could come from knowing these people better. That's the reason to find a way to enjoy having lunch with them.
posted by meinvt at 12:40 PM on May 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

During my first week on the job, my supervisor came into the office and said, "Hey everyone! Let's go out for pizza this weekend! What do you think?" I had a prior commitment, so I politely said that I was sorry but couldn't join them. Nothing more was said of it.

Until the next week, when I was shadowing a co-worker to get trained. Halfway through the day of training, she looked at me and said, "How fucking mortified were you when she invited you out for pizza? I think I would have died." I laughed, because in some ways I had been pretty mortified. I mean, I didn't know these people yet. They didn't know me. Why did they want to get together outside work and socialize... already... or at all! And obviously, I wasn't the only one who felt that way.

So long as you are pleasant and professional otherwise, I suspect you'll be fine.
posted by jph at 12:41 PM on May 6, 2011

So I guess what I'm asking is: in your professional lives, if someone politely begged off most optional lunches would it negatively affect the way you think about them?

If I had severe social anxiety (and even if I didn't), and if I worked someplace where your good standing was in part determined by your presence at company lunches, I would find a different job.

My workplace only has the occasional group lunch which people will shrug off if it conflicts with their own schedules. We have weekly meetings, anyway, so it's not like we don't get regular face time. This varies from workplace to workplace, however.

This has a lot to do with the corporate culture of the place you work. There's no single answer to this. My guess is that a workplace where several of your coworkers going out to eat together regularly is the sort of place where not going will peg you as "the loner."
posted by deanc at 12:41 PM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think this is something to work on in therapy, rather than trying stop-gap measures to get out of eating in public, with groups of people. Invariably, some lunch event or conference or seminar is going to come up that you'll really want to attend. True, you can sit there with a bottle of water and a fixed expression, but life's too short, I think. I don't think your colleagues will care if you eat or not, but not attending can cause you to miss out on not just bonding, but the brainstorming, blue-sky conversations that can occur.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:45 PM on May 6, 2011

There's nothing offensive about wanting to take a break from the work environment over lunch. I think I would find a way to get that idea in circulation. As long as people don't suspect it's about THEM, most people won't look askance at you being a bit less of a joiner.
posted by Ys at 12:46 PM on May 6, 2011

Best answer: I try not to do anything with my colleagues because, frankly, I don't really like any of them. I don't watch television, and I don't care about sports; I don't have anything I want to say to these people. So, I'm generally thought of as aloof at work, because I am actually aloof at work. Where I work, this is OK. Hooray for my accepting, yet dysfunctional workplace.

However, what I do miss out on is the informal sharing of information that goes on at these lunches. There are developments within my workplace that affect the substance of what I do and the firm where I work that I hear about months after other people. Who's leaving/left/come back from maternity leave, who transferred to another office, who retired. It's embarrassing professionally to see someone in the hall and note you haven't seen them in a while, only to find out that they were on family leave because their child was dying of cancer. (That has not happened to me, thank god. But I did remark to someone that I hadn't seen her in a while and she had just come back from seven months' maternity leave.)

I'm hoping to change jobs in the nearish term--but I know that my prospects at this job would be limited by the fact that I don't know what the fuck is going on around here.

So, even if you don't want to go for the sake of conviviality, you might consider going just so you can hear the scuttlebutt about the changes coming from the accounting group, or the revised timetable for the big project, or the informal change in sick time, etc.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:48 PM on May 6, 2011 [8 favorites]

It really depends on the workplace. I've worked in places where this kind of thing was fine. I've also worked in places where it would be assumed that OMG YOU HATE EVERYONE (and they'd also speculate that you were anorexic or something like that).

Personally, I think that's silly. But professionally, honestly it might be worth talking to a counselor about this sort of thing.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:50 PM on May 6, 2011

When I worked for a publishing firm, there was a group of about 10 of us who would all get lunch at the same time, or go out for lunch with each other. We would often invite new hires, or people who showed interest. If someone consistently turned me down, I stopped asking. I honestly and perhaps insecurely would sometimes assume that it was me, or that something was up with them, but as long as they were friendly otherwise (which happened plenty of times) while in the office generally, it would be completely forgotten within a week.

In my opinion, you going once a month is probably exacerbating the situation. You will constantly get invites if you're a "sometimes" attendee. If someone consistently says no, then you'll probably stop being asked. Your excuses to this point are completely acceptable in a work environment, just stick to them for a couple of months.... people will stop asking eventually, in my experience.

Additionally, there was a guy who would come sometimes, not contribute anything at all to conversation... and in fact would often sit at another table right next to us, but not with us. He would listen to our conversations, laugh at jokes, but never do anything else. I know I thought it was strange, but his lunch behavior in no way altered my view of him as someone I had to work with... his explosive anger and condescending attitude did that, not his "odd" lunch behavior. How you act at work at your JOB, is in my opinion, far far more impactful to how people view you than how you act during lunch....
posted by Debaser626 at 1:02 PM on May 6, 2011

You can skip them...but you have to do something else in its place. If your coworkers see you eating alone at your desk, they might be go eat somewhere they can't find you.

They won't think a thing of it. Just tell them "I have something to do at lunch".
posted by hal_c_on at 1:07 PM on May 6, 2011

You may well be perceived as aloof, sorry.

Lunchtime socialization is a key part of becoming 'one of the gang'.

As someone who too often has a tendency to wolf lunch to get back to work, this is something I've learned the hard way.
posted by bonehead at 1:07 PM on May 6, 2011

Are they really just eating, or is it sort of an informal meeting where work gets discussed?

Collegiality is important, even if your work is good. Maybe find some other situations in which to act social with them? Something to make up for not joining group lunches. If you're conversing with them a lot in small groups, that might be good enough to show you like them and you're a team player.
posted by Knowyournuts at 1:12 PM on May 6, 2011

I usually prefer to eat lunch alone at my desk instead of the lunch room. Sorry. i hate lunch rooms. They're noisy. My coworkers pretty much understood this. Make a point of going once in a while, just so they know you don't hate them. Otherwise, just say you prefer to eat quietly at your desk or whatever.

(also: therapy. duh.)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 1:27 PM on May 6, 2011

I think it depends on how charismatic and attractive you are.

(Please don't flag and delete. I'm not being "snarky." This is my honest opinion based on observation and experience and is not intended as a joke.)

Certain people draw others to them through their looks or a mysterious quality variously called "charm," "charisma," "likability," etc.

If you're generally popular then you can get away with skipping lunch. Check your email inbox and Facebook account. Are you getting 20 to 30 emails a day from friends and wannabe friends? Are you getting constant FB friend requests? Then screw lunch, you're fine. If anything important comes up, others will compete to be the first one to tell you about it.

If you have normal or slightly above normal attractiveness/charisma, then yes skipping will hurt you socially and professionally.

But consider this: how much will it hurt you? Maybe it's worth it to just take the hit. Maybe a practical and reasonable approach for you would be to skip the lunches and do your best to make connections with your coworkers in other ways.

Just because it's disadvantageous doesn't mean you have to torture yourself. Realize that company lunch isn't your thing, go as little as possible, and look for ways to minimize the damage.

Again: honest opinion, serious suggestion, no irony or snarkiness intended.
posted by eeby at 1:32 PM on May 6, 2011

I eat at my desk and work through most of my lunches. Once every few months I eat in the lunchroom, when I get cajoled into it. My coworkers are very understanding, and all I miss out on is the office gossip. But, I will also point out that most of the lunch group is my employees, and my boss eats lunch at her desk as well.
posted by Zophi at 1:33 PM on May 6, 2011

... in your professional lives, if someone politely begged off most optional lunches would it negatively affect the way you think about them?

Are lunches the primary opportunity for social interaction at work? Working directly with your coworkers (as opposed to everybody sequestered in their own cube), "water-cooler talk", and other activities can offset whatever "social capital" you may be missing by avoiding lunches.

While a lack of "social capital" would not make me think any less of a co-worker qualitatively, I may think less of them quantitatively. As in their name would not immediately come to mind when I need to find someone to go to that conference next month / lead that client presentation / [insert other opportunity].

... one of the situations where I am still likely to have a panic attack is eating in an unfamiliar place with a large-ish group of people I do not know exceedingly well

Would it make you more comfortable if you suggested a lunch place that you know well rather than an unfamiliar place of their choice?
posted by thisisnotbruce at 1:38 PM on May 6, 2011

Best answer: One more suggestion: If large-ish groups of acquaintances in an unfamiliar lunch setting puts you off but you still want to be social and grow work relationships, what I've done in the past is bring in a box of donuts / cookies / fruit.

Set it on my desk, free for the taking, spread the news by word of mouth, relish in the short one-off conversations as co-workers swing by your desk.

Of course, this risks you being interrupted randomly throughout the day and possibly being known as food guy/girl.
posted by thisisnotbruce at 1:44 PM on May 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

I would say the main determining factor is the type of invitation. If it is a lunch organized by a superior for the purpose of team-building, and everyone within your working group is invited, you should probably make the effort to attend. If it is a smaller subset of your co-workers who are invited, and they are just inviting you as a friend, you don't need to.

I pack my lunch to save money/calories and no one seems to mind when I beg off of these. Other co-workers do the same. However, once a month we have an "optional" lunch that everyone within my team is invited to. I attend these. We have one guy who never attends this team event and everyone does think he is weird. YMMV but thats how I gauge if I will attend or not.
posted by halseyaa at 1:52 PM on May 6, 2011

I like thisisnotbruce's idea. Not wanting to go out with everyone is ok (actually I hate huge groups eating out, what a pain), but you will need to make an extra effort to bond with your coworkers in other ways.

You would have to talk to your doctor about this, but an option might be taking some mild anti-anxiety medication to help you deal with these kinds of situations. It's not solving the problem but can help be a stopgap. YMMV and it may depend on the med, but it could take the edge off enough for you to enjoy lunch out.
posted by radioamy at 2:01 PM on May 6, 2011

For what it's worth: I'm the most extroverted, non-socially anxious person you'll ever meet, but eating with strangers or people I don't know well makes me uncomfortable too. Not quite to the degree you're describing, but I understand what you're getting at. Eating is a pretty intimate act, but as a culture we tend to discount that.

Going out for lunch that often is expensive and I think you can beg most of these invitations off by saying you brought your lunch and that you're on a tight budget.

One of the ways to work through this, of course, is to get to know your co-workers better. Eat in the lunch room with them rather than at your desk so that you get to know them better and get progressively more comfortable eating in front of them. Ideally, after a certain amount of time, having lunch with them elsewhere should be less taxing on you.

Another option, on a day when you know a lunch out is due, is to eat your lunch beforehand, and go out with them and just get something to drink. I'd imagine they'd understand that you're saving money but want to spend time with them. I wouldn't find that odd, personally.
posted by Hildegarde at 2:09 PM on May 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is it going to have a severe negative effect on your social standing? Are your coworkers going to actually stop to think you're not a team player because you don't come to lunch often? Very doubtful unless your workplace is naturally.... high schoolish, which some are.

Is it going to have a subtle effect on the rapport you have with your co-workers? Probably.

So, yes, it's something that you would benefit from working on over time. I like the suggestion that you go, but not eat. Would that eliminate or help the anxiety? You should still work on being able to eat in public, but maybe that's something that would help you get into those social situations more, and maybe could be one step toward being more comfortable eating in public. However, make sure that if you do that, that you don't use it as a crutch. Don't start going to lunch all the time, but never eating. That won't take care of the underlying problem.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 2:11 PM on May 6, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses, everyone! It's been very helpful for me.

I do make an extra effort to connect with my coworkers during the day outside of lunches, as well as participate in non-eating-related things like holiday celebrations. (thisisnotbruce, you reminded me of when I brought candy for Halloween which had exactly the effect you described. I think the occasional round of office cupcakes is in order!) I had considered going and not eating in the past, but I thought that might seem weird, so I appreciate the feedback thus far on that front too. :)
posted by jess at 2:17 PM on May 6, 2011

Personally, I think my coworkers who eat together would find it strange if someone tagged along but didn't eat (unless it is a lunch with a specific purpose, like a lunch meeting). Much stranger than just bringing in a lunch. But again, this is going to vary widely.
posted by muddgirl at 2:22 PM on May 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would be like, oh no! I just ate my lunch! Can I come along to chat though?
posted by Hildegarde at 2:24 PM on May 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Going out to lunch with your co-workers can be a really positive thing, and if that's the culture in your office then never going along may mean that you miss out on important information / gossip, and miss an opportunity to build stronger relationships with your colleagues. It's probably not going to harm your career if you don't go, but it's an opportunity to improve your working relationships which you're not taking.

I'd make an effort to go when it's a special occasion (someone's birthday, celebrating a big sale / project finishing etc), or if you haven't been for a couple of weeks, just to keep in the loop.

Thisisnotbruce is on the money - bringing treats in to share gives you the same bonding opportunities without having to deal with an anxiety-inducing situation. Bonus points if you bake the treats yourself!

Muddgirl's suggestion of trying after work drinks as an alternative to lunch is also a really good idea.

Good luck...
posted by finding.perdita at 2:42 PM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've worked at places where it would be really weird to skip out on 90% of the friendly work lunches. The problem is, you will probably never know whether it is regarded as weird, and you will probably never know whether and how it is affecting your career path in the company. People tend to keep stuff like this to themselves, but I think at some workplaces it could be regarded as weird. I would recommend trying to deal with the social anxiety problem and start attending more lunches.
posted by jayder at 2:47 PM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think that avoiding social opportunities with your peers will hurt your working relationships, but how much it will hurt depends on the prevailing office culture. If the culture is that everyone eats together twice a week and it's just a thing that is done and everyone likes it, you will probably stick out like a sore thumb if you do not go. You will also stick out if you go but don't eat. You could get away with Hildegarde's "Oh I just ate but I can come to chat" once or twice but any more than that people will think you have an eating disorder and then some of them will try to "help" you and that will lead to even more awkwardness.

If we worked together and every time a group of us ate lunch together and we invited you and you declined nearly every time, I would think that either a) you didn't like us or b) you had some kind of issues with food.

Do they eat at the same places all the time? Because if that's the case, would repeated exposure without your coworkers desensitize you? Could you eat there with your husband a few times to get a feel for the place?
posted by crankylex at 3:02 PM on May 6, 2011

Here's the way I do it: I can't afford to eat lunch out every day, so I don't. But! My office has lunches that the company pays for on a regular basis -- my whole department goes out for lunch monthly; lunch is ordered in for the entire company once/week. I attend those, because I am not paying for them, and I make extra effort to be social at them. It seems to offset the problems of not going out to lunch every day. (Or smoking, which is another place at work where information gets shared -- all the smokers take their smoke breaks simultaneously.)

I do miss stuff, like who is discontent or whether HR is about to change a policy. But it turns out all right.
posted by linettasky at 3:40 PM on May 6, 2011

Another option -- you can order something really light such as a salad or some soup, and just pick at a bit. In social situations, most of peoples' attention is directed towards their own anxieties. If you develop a little deftness about it perhaps no one will really notice whether you're actually eating. Just don't draw attention to it.
posted by eeby at 1:16 AM on May 7, 2011

My colleagues and I usually go out together to pick up lunch (which is when we do our catch up/rant chats) and then eat on our own at our desks because it's a good time to catch up on work like e-mail. That could be a possible tactic for you.
posted by like_neon at 7:26 AM on May 9, 2011

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