Surprise dinner in the office fridge: nice gesture or too creepy?
January 11, 2018 4:25 AM   Subscribe

I’d like to surprise the woman I’m going out with by leaving food for her at her workplace. I had to do some research to make it work. Do I do it?

I (27m, grad student) met a new friend (27f, grad student) in September. We started dating last month after a particularly lovely night out. Starting next week, she’ll be working 12-hour days for one month and, due to a lack of dinner options on campus, will be forced to bring sandwiches/store-bought microwave meals to uni. I cook every night and can trivially make a little more, put it in a box and stick it in the fridge in her break room on my way home from work. So this is what I’ll do once a week or so, and I’m very fond of the idea of making the first time a surprise. Due to our schedules, actually meeting at her office won’t be an option, so I’d leave a card at her desk that tells her to check the fridge.

We already know each other fairly well; she has visited me at my place maybe a dozen times, crashed on my couch, invited me to her house, and even visited me at my office once (same campus, different building). Also, we prepare food for each other on a somewhat regular basis, and I don’t think this would make her feel awkwardly indebted to me. So I think the idea isn’t too terrible. But: She has never told me explicitly where her office is and her name is not listed on the institute’s website. I figured it out myself through some web searches based on the degree programme she’s in, a few things she has told me about the project she’s working on, and by physically walking to the right hallway to locate her office in her absence.

I’m pretty sure I’d appreciate it if somebody did something like this for me, but I’m concerned it might come across as stalkerish/creepy, especially since the nature of our relationship changed so recently. What does MeFi think? Is this a good idea to keep secret, or should I give her advance notice and ruin the surprise? (Don’t worry about logistical issues. I’m really only interested if I’m likely to upset her.)

Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (39 answers total)
I was going to say 'nice, not creepy', until I read the bit about how she's never told you where her office is, which does change things a little. Depends slightly how much you openly know about where she works (eg. have you just tracked down the particular room she inhabits, having previously openly known which building, or have you literally tracked her down from zero knowledge of her workplace?).

To be honest, I think the gesture of providing the food is plenty kindness, making it a surprise is gilding the lily and you don't know how it could go - just not necessary.

(But if you must: a note on the food explaining exactly how it got there might reduce the creep factor: "This is thanks to [workmate you've hopefully already met with her], who agreed to collect the food from reception so I could surprise you!")
posted by penguin pie at 4:39 AM on January 11 [19 favorites]

I think if she had already made it obvious to you/it was obvious to anybody where her office was the surprise aspect would be fine. The fact that you had to go all Sherlock Holmes to figure this out is what potentially raises the creep factor. In view of that, I'd run it by her first. The sweetness of the gesture would not be diminished. And if she'd rather you not come by her office, she can decline gracefully.
posted by Diablevert at 4:41 AM on January 11 [16 favorites]

I am not your girlfriend, but this would really bother me. Not do much from the stalking angle, but from the "being seen as a professional at work" angle. Women face particular challenges in the workforce because of our gender. In my experience, these challenges were magnified when I was a graduate student for whatever reason, probably because you're already kind of low on the totem pole.

If my boyfriend had done this for me in graduate school, I would have been worried about who he talked to and what that person thought of me for having my boyfriend come to my office so early in my job there. I really prefer to keep my work life and my home life very separate, because just knowing that I have a boyfriend invites weirdness at work in a way that I don't think would happen if I were a man.

The more I think about this, the more I realize that I would be upset because my agency at my job about how much I decide to share with my coworkers about my own life would be undermined by this gesture. Again, I'm not your girlfriend, but personally I would really dislike this. It would be so much sweeter if you just told me that you wanted to make me dinner and talked to me about it and let me decide whether or not you could stop by my office. This really is a sweet thing of you to do, but if you made it a secret I would be really unhappy.
posted by sockermom at 4:47 AM on January 11 [118 favorites]

I would be worried about both the level of lookup you had to do and the fact that you would be unilaterally inserting your dating life into her workplace, opening her up to conversations with her coworkers that she may not want to have.

What you want to do is kind and thoughtful. Respecting her autonomy by asking her how/if you can do it in a way that works best for her is even better.
posted by Stacey at 4:50 AM on January 11 [15 favorites]

I agree that this is a bad idea, and I think that the “surprise” aspect would undermine the sweetness of your gesture. Don’t be this guy.
posted by ejs at 4:52 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]

I like to do surprises for people but I also like to know whether they will be well-received so I'd probably at some prior time ask a totally hypothetical question along the lines of... "soo....this is totally hypothetical and random but how would you feel about surprise dinners sometimes arriving in your work fridge, totally not saying it will happen because this is hypothetical but wondering what you think of that?". This sort of question is usually well received and lets them have a say whilst you maintaining some element of surprise. This sounds kind, I hope it goes well!
posted by london explorer girl at 5:01 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]

To me this is super duper creepy and bad. When I'm stressed (and it sounds like she's going to be stressed) I really need to know what and when I'll be eating that day way ahead of time - with your surprise plan, whatever she'd gotten in the first place would go to waste as well as the time and money she spent getting it, or your food would get tossed and then you've given her the lovely surprise of guilt. She doesn't know that you know where she works, and finding out this way is hinky and would throw up a bunch of red flags for me if I were her. Additionally, is she even going to be comfortable eating mystery food that's supposedly for her? I sure as hell wouldn't be, especially not in the early days of a new job while learning office fridge etiquette.

Your heart is in the right place. But do you know if she even likes surprises? Has that even come up? Play it safe and tell her that you'd like to support her in this little way this month ahead of time.
posted by Mizu at 5:04 AM on January 11 [11 favorites]

You can surprise her just as much by calling her at 4:00 or 4:30 and offering to bring her dinner.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:07 AM on January 11 [72 favorites]

Delivering dinner is an incredibly thoughtful, caring gesture. Why potentially ruin it just to add "surprise!" to what is already a super-nice instinct when you can just say "Hey, I made you some lasagna that you can reheat during your late nights in the lab, can I drop it by your office?"
posted by jacquilynne at 5:10 AM on January 11 [24 favorites]

It's creepy and stalkery and you would also be putting her coworkers into a bad position. Someone would have to let you in, someone would have to give you access to the fridge, etc. Her coworkers would now know that apparently anyone can access their personal food. You'd be putting her in a position where she would now have to explain this to them which is really unfair.

Additionally, I would not want to have to explain any part of my personal life to my coworkers. Explaining who is that guy and how did he get in and are you dating, etc., would really upset me and I would probably break up with you.

Ask her what she wants as a treat and do that. Do not infiltrate her place of work.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 5:13 AM on January 11 [11 favorites]

As an added thought: once you have provided her with dinner, you can say "I thought about sneaking it into your work fridge as a happy surprise, but I wasn't sure if you'd love that kind of surprise or hate it, so I went with asking first." That will both demonstrate respect for her as a person and prompt a conversation in which she tells you if she likes/hates surprises, likes/hates bringing her personal life into work, likes/hates the idea of you investigating her online, etc.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:19 AM on January 11 [82 favorites]

If I were excitedly dating someone new I’d want to see them and get a drop off and a kiss. The leaving it part does not feel right to me. And more than anything, this is a professional environment that can affect her career for years to come - let her lead, let her know the vibe of the place, etc. I’d also say, generally if you have to ask yourself “is this creepy” that is usually a good indicator that it could be perceived that way. Intent v impact of course as your intentions seem warm.
posted by anya32 at 5:19 AM on January 11 [5 favorites]

I really like jacquilynne's script for this - you say you know her quite well but I think it's critical to know whether or not she likes surprises before doing a surprise thing. Personally I hate surprises - I manage my anxiety through routine, control and knowing what I'm meant to be doing next at any given time, and surprises totally mess with that. Doesn't matter how nice a surprise birthday party or "just bring your passport and I'll tell you at the airport!" vacation actually is; I'd be too stressed out by the surprise aspect to enjoy it.

Show that you care about her by asking her what she likes, rather than by making a gesture that could potentially backfire.
posted by terretu at 5:51 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]

You are doing well now, things are good. If this goes over how you think, it will be a nice gesture. If it comes across as creepy, it may sink the ship. I don't see why you need to be taking that chance.

Trust your instincts. If it may be creepy, don't do it. Move a bit more cautiously until you have a history together to fall back on for when you do something weird.
posted by Oceanic Trench at 5:52 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]

This is a beautiful gesture and you're a super-thoughtful guy! Tell her you want to make her dinner to take to work and ask her the best way to get the food to her.
posted by kimberussell at 6:09 AM on January 11 [7 favorites]

I think this is still a bad idea as described but:

Someone would have to let you in, someone would have to give you access to the fridge, etc.

In a typical academic setting in the US, unless she works in a lab (which she doesn't seem to since the OP mentions finding her office) nobody would have to let him in and everyone in the world is already able to walk right up to the fridge in the grad lounge or break room and lik the bred.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:18 AM on January 11 [8 favorites]

I agree with the previous commenters, and suggest you explicitly tell her, "I was thinking about the long hours you'll be working," [true, and demonstrates your thoughtfulness] "and it occurred to me that it would be very easy for me to make a bit more food for supper once a week or so, and drop it by your office," [not mentioning that you tracked down where it is and know precisely where on your trip home it would be] "It would make me feel good to be able to do this small thing for you," [again, true and demonstrates your regard for her] "Would you feel comfortable with me doing that, or should I channel my efforts elsewhere?" This gives her control over her workspace (I can't help but find it non-trivial that she has never explicitly said where she works, since you have been seeing one another for a while and work on the same campus), not that she doesn't want you to know but that perhaps she is not yet comfortable with welcoming you into her workspace world. Perhaps she has an inkling that you're a "drop by the office to say hi" kind of guy, and perhaps she is not yet at that point with you for whatever reason (I myself have set arbitrary "rules" for myself in this regard, in an effort to protect myself in a world full of challenges in social, business, academic, and romantic senses). This also demonstrates to her what a kind, thoughtful person you are without the potential for turning a lovely surprise into an unexpected and undesired gotcha.

Hope this helps, it's a lovely thought, truly, but perhaps talk it through with her before proceeding.
posted by pammeke at 6:19 AM on January 11 [5 favorites]

I think the locating the office is maybe actually not that creepy, depending on the size of the program. I had friends in grad school who were in other departments, and I knew which building that department was in, and so it would be a pretty easy leap of logic to go "So person X's office is probably in building Y".

Locating her specific lab is maybe a little bit of a stretch, but again, likely wouldn't rise to creepy, at least for me. Odds are, there's exactly one lab working on that project on campus, which could be very easily sussed out.

From the other's-in-the-department point of view, I have been creeped out by significant others of folks in my department hanging around offices/using kitchen space or what not without my colleague present, but seeing someone pop in to drop off food/a forgotten umbrella was pretty typical (especially if they were another student on campus) and wouldn't have raised any eyebrows.

That all being said, the bigger issue, as others have raised, is preplanning. If she's in a major crunch time, having food magically appear when she's already stressing and had planned "OK, I was going to eat X" might just throw things off, plus maybe some minor "Dang, I didn't get to see him". Call or talk to her first.
posted by damayanti at 6:32 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]

I think your instincts to be cautious are good here. Agreed with everyone else that in that phase of grad school I would have loved not having to worry about dinner once a week, and that I would have not loved 1) preparing food that day for nothing, 2) my colleagues having access to bits of my private life that I hadn't told them, 3) someone I had just started letting into my life doing anything that had the slightest whiff of a prank about it. She might be different and love minor-boundary-crossing surprises, but I think giving her control over her own workplace image and environment is a small price to pay for not doing something that she might not appreciate.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:36 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]

Showing up at someone’s work when they have specifically not told you where they work absolutely reeks of “checking up” on your partner. I’m not saying that that’s what you’re doing—the fact that you are asking if it’s appropriate tells me that you are not—but it will give a lot of women pause. Please don’t surprise her. Offer to bring her dinner! That’s such a lovely gesture and she will appreciate that you are mindful of her boundaries.
posted by corey flood at 6:44 AM on January 11 [10 favorites]


The food seems like a gift for her (if she wants it); the surprise seems like a gift for you.
posted by kapers at 6:55 AM on January 11 [15 favorites]

Remember when Ross brought the picnic to Rachel's office on Friends???
posted by kapers at 6:58 AM on January 11 [8 favorites]

Remember when Ross brought the picnic to Rachel's office on Friends???

If you don't, she was fucking furious, and dumped him. I think your intentions are good and it's possible -- POSSIBLE -- that either this would be fine or it would bother her, but not enough to break up with you. But it's really problematic for a number of reasons, and just calling her and saying hey, I have [chicken pot pie] here, can I bring you some? solves all of the problems and allows her to say no, I actually have XYZ happening, can you bring it by tomorrow? It basically puts her in the driver's seat for this gesture instead of you. If you are internally, instinctively recoiling at the idea of her having the agency and control around this instead of you, please do some thinking about why that is and what that means.
posted by kate blank at 7:18 AM on January 11 [5 favorites]

But: She has never told me explicitly where her office is and her name is not listed on the institute’s website. I figured it out myself through some web searches based on the degree programme she’s in, a few things she has told me about the project she’s working on, and by physically walking to the right hallway to locate her office in her absence.
Okay, upon re-reading, I have to ask: why did you do this instead of asking her where she works? That's a normal question to ask someone you're seeing...
posted by kapers at 7:19 AM on January 11 [10 favorites]

Surprises are a hugely divisive thing. Some people love them, others hate them. I think it is absolutely wise to know for sure where your friend falls on that spectrum before surprising her. I, too, like the idea that london explorer girl and jacquilynne suggested above of sort of "asking permission to surprise". Give her a general idea of what you'd like to do, and let her accept or graciously decline.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:36 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]

Another vote for it's a lovely thought, and if you had been to her office with her before it would have been fine to surprise her, but as it is ask first. Twenty years ago or so a guy I'd just started dating called me at a work number I hadn't given him, and I was really disturbed (I got over it because (a) he was really well vouched for through contacts who'd known him a long time, and (b) he was a journalist, so I figured he had an unusual sense of how strange it was to track down someone at contact information they hadn't given you, and he was being less creepy than a different person would have been. I ultimately married him, and then eighteen years later he ran off with his business partner, so I plausibly should have listened to my instincts, but that's neither here nor there.)

Anyway, yeah, ask first. If you really want to surprise her, mmmaybe it would be okay to see if you can maneuver her into inviting you to come by her office openly, before you want to do this? Once you've been there with her at her invitation, I think the surprise is probably okay? But I'm not confident that's a good idea. Asking is better.
posted by LizardBreath at 7:36 AM on January 11

Ask if you can bring her dinner at work. Make the "surprise" part something other than the sheer appearance of dinner. One of the things about being okay with this is that aside from whether or not it's creepy, you don't really have any way of knowing if she's brought some other food thing and whether that might be wasted by not eating it today on any given day. Make the "surprise" a note or an extra little treat or something included with the food.

I would have murdered to have food just magically show up when I was maintaining an awful schedule in law school when I was on law review, but surprises can be awkward. Part of the "nice" of this is that if she knows it's coming, she doesn't have to pack dinner that day and you've saved her time and energy! But you can still introduce an unexpected element that will make it more romantic.
posted by Sequence at 7:52 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]

I would like it, but then I’m the person in a Golden Age mystery novel who would eat the box of murder chocolates. In fact, I did just eat some apples that came in the mail before realising that I should try to find out who sent them. Tbh, some people might find Surprise Lunch not only creepy, but controlling as well. It’s best to talk it over with her even if that’s less fun for you.
posted by betweenthebars at 7:55 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]

[This is a followup from the asker.]
Thanks everyone! You’ve given me plenty of reasons and I’ll go with the consensus and not make it a surprise. I’ll simply ask her a day before I do it. I like Sequence’s extra surprise idea.

Some clarifications: She’s doing a master’s degree and is only in her office for two hours every day after her classes finish. And those unfortunately end two hours after I usually go home, which is where the drop-off-on-my-way-home idea comes from. Our schedules simply won’t overlap this month and seeing each other will be limited to Saturdays and Sundays. We’ve talked about the professor she works for, which building she’s in (obviously, because it’s one of the biggest public buildings in the country where we live—one can see it from 100 km away!), but the question “what’s your room number inside that huge building?” has simply never come up. It was easy to find out though; it’s next to the office of the post-doc who supervises her and who was trivial to find on the institute website. And finally, everyone can literally walk up to the fridge from the street between 7 am and 8 pm without speaking a word to anybody.

> If you are internally, instinctively recoiling at the idea of her having the agency and control around this instead of you, please do some thinking about why that is and what that means.

I hope I haven’t given anybody a reason to actually believe that! It's a little painful to read something like this when it doesn’t describe me at all.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:10 AM on January 11 [5 favorites]

One problem with surprise dinner is that she might actually have a sandwich she's already made, and even though your dinner would be tastier, the sandwich will get soggy and nasty and be inedible tomorrow. I'm not sure where on the "broke grad student" scale she falls, but there were times I would have felt incredibly guilty about not eating my sandwich.

Also, try a low-key surprise, in which you text her and say "I'm outside your building and I have a (coffee/tea/chocolate/snack) for you, would you like to come down and meet me or can I bring it up?" and then - especially if you talk about it afterwards - you'll know how she feels about a lot of things (like surprise gifts, interruptions during her work hours, unexpected visits, boyfriends in her professional space, her coworkers seeing her with her boyfriend, etc.) as well as potentially getting invited into her building so that you seem less like an interloper if you go back.
posted by aimedwander at 8:38 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]

It's a lovely thought. Ask her first. It's still a surprise because she doesn't know you're going to offer to do it for her, and you get the added advantage of seeing her happy reaction, or if worst comes to worst have saved yourself from a huge faux pas if she declines.
posted by wwax at 8:45 AM on January 11

+1 sweet lovely thought but also no, don't do it. Do by all means offer to bring her something nice to eat though. Do it so she has time to plan on it. It would be so sad to have new boyfriend call with surprise offer of homemade lasagne right after you got done eating something from the vending machine, yknow?

(You didn't do anything to suggest that you're a weirdo, don't worry. This is MeFi. Someone is always going to suggest you need therapy or that you're oppressing someone. It's part of the... charm?)
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:04 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]

Answering the original question: yes, it could come off a little creepy as a surprise. As an offer, super sweet and cute.

I don’t think this would make her feel awkwardly indebted to me
I don’t either, but it’s good you’re considering such things.
posted by RainyJay at 9:23 AM on January 11

I would love to be cooked for and I think it's a wonderful thing! However, I (a woman) don't like the idea of a boyfriend showing up in a place where I work. Yeah, I know you're not planning to hang around and be a nuisance, it's just that there are too many nosy people at work who are going to start thinking of me as someone's girlfriend rather than a professional in my field. Work is not the appropriate place for cute romantic surprises. So yes, ask her first!
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:34 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]

Nthing that it’s a sweet idea, but there are so many reasons not to do this, as stated above. Asking her is the right way to go.

(But, I do think once you are married, it’s been a number of years, you know she likes surprises, you know it won’t affect her workplace, and then you leave her a home cooked meal in her work fridge which makes her remember when you made her food early on in the relationship... That’s a good long game to play...)
posted by Vaike at 11:47 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]

Jesus, it's not "super creepy and bad". It's kind and thoughtful. But the modest upside of the surprise is probably not worth the potential downside, so I agree you should talk to her first - that means you can ask her what she wants, too :)
posted by Sebmojo at 12:31 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]

it is in fact creepy and bad for a man to track down a woman's physical location using information he was not given but had to spend significant time ferreting out himself. the kind and thoughtful part was to have the idea of bringing someone working long hours a tasty meal.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:02 PM on January 11 [11 favorites]

If she's only in her office two hours a day is she really going to be able to use a chunk of that time to heat up and consume a home-cooked sit-down dinner? I wasn't sure of the logistics from your question. If I were supervising a grad student I would find the need to take that kind of dinner break while we were supposed to be working intently on a project a little weird in and of itself - leaving aside the surprise boyfriend drop-off aspect. If i were your girlfriend I'd probably rather wolf a quick sandwich or else eat later, and find the dinner thing inconvenient.. another vote for ask.
posted by hazyjane at 8:49 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]

Not only would I find this creepy if I was your girlfriend, I'd find it creepy as anyone else working in the same office and I'd be talking to someone higher up on the chain about how someone's stalkery creepy boyfriend has been showing up in the office kitchen unannounced, when the person they are dating isn't even there.

There have been cases of jealous boyfriends coming in to women's workplaces and shooting multiple people, no one wants to worry about you sneaking around in their office kitchen and poisoning people or who knows what the hell you could be doing in there -- not that you are, but as a random employee not involved with your relationship I wouldn't have any way of knowing that.

I've also had personal items stolen from me at work by other employee's family visitors, so I'd be suspicious of that sort of thing as well if you are poking around employee-only areas when your girlfriend isn't even there.

Naturally this doesn't result in people viewing your girlfriend well at work either.

Just give your girlfriend food for a sack lunch in advance like a normal person.

(Edit: I'm in the US so workplace shootings are A Thing, if you are elsewhere I hear people aren't so concerned about them)
posted by yohko at 4:05 PM on January 15

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