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April 4, 2023

Food and Work – #MTtalk Roundup

Yolande Conradie

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I'm a foodie. I love cooking, baking, exploring new foods, new cooking methods, new tastes, exotic foods, herbs, spices, restaurants. You name it, I love it! And, of course, I love to eat. And, when I travel, I always look forward to trying new food.

We were in Mauritius recently and I relished the fish and seafood dishes. My husband, on the other hand, does not eat seafood and isn't a big fish eater. Being South African, we come from a nation of meat eaters – and we love nothing more than a good barbeque. Here, in South Africa, we don't call it a barbeque though, we called it a "braai" (it sounds like the word "bright" without the "t").

On our second to last evening, we were at a local barbeque shack where a few young men grilled prawns the size of crayfish (delicious!) for their guests. While I was tucking into the amazing seafood, my husband looked on with a slight expression of disgust, declaring that he didn't eat stuff with claws and antlers and beady bug eyes. He was craving a thick juicy "braai" steak.

Food brings people together

As I mopped up the last of the delicious buttery sauce from the prawns with a chunk of French bread, he stood up and walked over to the guys at the grill. It wasn't long before they beckoned me to join them. My husband had negotiated a deal with them: if I shared my homemade barbeque sauce recipe with them, we could use their barbeque the next evening to grill our own meat.

To say that the next evening turned out to be the highlight of our trip would be an understatement. We laughed until our cheeks hurt, we talked, shared our grill secrets, and all made a "braai" together – prawns on the left of the grill, beef steak on the right. We were having a lovely time – a middle-aged white South African couple and four young black Mauritians sharing stories about our cultures, language, jokes, struggles, history, and day-to-day lives.

And all because of food.

Food bonding

I've often experienced the same type of "food bonding" at places where I've worked. When someone celebrates their birthday, for example, and brings in cake to work, people look forward to teatime. They usually sit around a table, sing "Happy Birthday" together and enjoy the treats.

Or there are those times when everybody works late, chasing a project deadline, and someone arrives with a box full of cupcakes or doughnuts. That person was often the office hero – at least for a few minutes! Or, to celebrate the successful completion of a project, we'd have a rooftop barbeque or everybody went out for pizza on a Friday.

The flipside to food

I can't say that I always enjoyed the gatherings around food because I had an eating disorder when I was younger and I got severely anxious around food. I did everything possible to protect my secret – even something as drastic as literally running from the office when a colleague served birthday cake.

Where there's food there's often talk about calories and diets, weight and appearance. Those conversations sent my anxiety skyrocketing and all I felt was guilt and shame. I was unable to enjoy the food. Or experience the loving intent with which it was offered.

Wake up and smell the fish

Then, of course, there's also the contentious issue of smelly food. There's always that one person in the office heating up their broccoli or fish in the kitchen, or – worst – eating an egg sandwich!

Odors are not the only offensive thing about food. There's also the little matter of table manners and how to eat in a way that's not offensive to others – and I know I've just poked a massive hornet's nest there!

What's perfectly acceptable to one person, based on their culture, upbringing and tradition, might be extremely offensive to another. In some countries, people burp after a meal or slurp while they eat to demonstrate they think it's a good meal. In other countries, burping and slurping are considered rude.

What's good food etiquette in the workplace?

So, what do we need to consider when combining food and work?

  • We need to be tolerant of cultural differences in food etiquette.
  • Accept that some people might prefer not to eat with others because they suffer from social anxiety or an eating disorder... or it's just not something they enjoy doing.
  • At office functions, make provision for people with different eating preferences without making a fuss about it.
  • Be sure to mention allergens in the food, especially if it's an exotic dish and people might not know what the ingredients are.
  • Be considerate regarding the choice of food you take to the office, and how it smells.
  • If you have to travel for work, make sure that you read up about the cultural expectations and food etiquette of your destination.

Food is much more than the nourishment it provides. Food represents our likes and dislikes, habits, tradition, culture, and history. It tells us something about who we are and where we come from.

Sharing food is an opportunity to sit together and do something that all people need to do: eat. It's a way to show our humanity and our generosity, and it's a wonderful way to build a community and all just be human together.

Our "Food and Work" Twitter chat

During Friday's #MTtalk Twitter chat, we discussed how to build community and culture in the workplace through food. Here are all the questions we asked, and some of the best responses:

Q1. What word sums up food at work for you: celebration, friendship, embarrassment, fear... ?

@MarkC_Avgi Essential. Not sure how we could do without it, and we need to be thanking farmers for providing it to us! Food at work…often eaten at my desk, until I learned I needed to get out of the office for some fresh air and a change of scenery. Seldom went to restaurants or fast food outlets, and did not eat in the cafeterias when there was one.

@llake I have three words – communication, collaboration, and cooperation. Workplace gatherings that include food foster these areas.

Q2. Do you prefer to eat with colleagues or to eat alone? Why?

@SarahH_MT Generally I prefer to eat and take a break alone, to switch off from work. If I eat with colleagues the work talk continues and I don't get a mental break. However, that's different than sharing a more social meal with colleagues which can be lovely.

@southbaysome Since I work from home, I prefer to eat with colleagues anytime I get the chance.

Q3. What's your favorite way to share food at work?

@CaptRajeshwar Open-boxed meals. Share without asking to keep extras. Know what they like and lack. Do some homework. It builds trust and bonding.

@ColfaxInsurance (Alyx) I love potlucks. Each of us bringing a dish that we love and sharing it with everyone while trying the dishes that they love is so personal.

Q4. How would you handle a colleague who not only shares, but also pushes their food practices onto you or others?

@PdJen I politely respond that everyone’s body is different and that what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another.

@BRAVOMedia1 I've experienced this more with the "drinking" games. Sure, I can enjoy a nice glass of wine, but overindulging with a work group just doesn't work.

Q5. How should we meet the needs of someone at work with an eating disorder?

@SoniaH_MT Since eating disorders are highly personal (and sometimes painful), if the coworker has disclosed the disorder to me, I would ask them how they'd best need me to support them and do that.

@ColfaxInsurance (Alyx) It's important to remember everyone has their own struggles. Be polite and respectful, offer your assistance so they can accept it if they so choose, but don't push it. If it becomes life-threatening, escalate it to someone who can do something.

Q6. If you have allergies or intolerances, how do you navigate food at work?

@MikeB_MT Ask. Listen. Learn. And offer alternatives.

@Midgie_MT As I am just recently off gluten, it is challenging me to be mindful when food is being shared. Rather than jumping in and taking a piece of whatever is offered, I have to pause and ask. Often times it means I miss out, yet, it is a choice I am making.

Q7. How have you used food to build community at work?

@llake When meeting with prospective donors, I provided refreshments for the time of day. I often send food to my husband's work, which is in a communal setting. "Healthy" is an individual experience, so I send a variety.

@SarahH_MT We would go out for lunch once a month or so; it allowed us to get to know each other and relate on a deeper level. At Christmas, we would take it in turns to share food/drink with other teams. This was great for building community across depts.

Q8. How can we use food to encourage greater collaboration and inclusion at work?

@CaptRajeshwar Every month we had a food party on Friday. Everyone given chit for food to prepare. Everyone bring qty as requested and all share different regional delicacy.

@BRAVOMedia1 How about Summertime "Hand-made," Custom Pizzas for Friday afternoons? If I worked in an office, I'd like that along with weekly massage therapy available, and gourmet pizza.

Q9. How can we use food to help a team member experiencing a crisis?

@MarkC_Avgi Many people will say they have a "go-to" food for when they feel sad or stressed and it does help them. Many TV shows have reflected people diving into a container of ice cream when upset. I can’t say I have such a "comfort food."

@MikeB_MT This occurred recently. I knew the family of a co-worker dealing with a crisis. People volunteered to bring meals in or donate to restaurant gift cards while they dealt with the difficult times.

Q10. What role can food play in a virtual workplace?

@Yolande_MT I celebrated my 50th birthday during lockdown. My amazing colleagues brought their own treats + tea to their desks - and we had a fantastic virtual birthday party. I can't even describe how loved and cared for I felt. Kaiser, my dog, also joined us.

@SarahH_MT It is possible to use food virtually, such as we saw during pandemic lockdowns (virtual tea parties, virtual social events etc). Some people loved these but others endured them so I'm not sure if there's a role for it in the future.

To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat over here.

Food and work resources

To help you prepare for the chat, we've compiled a list of resources for you to browse. (Note that you will need to be a Mind Tools Club or Corporate member to see all of the resources in full.)

Never Eat Alone
Cultural Intelligence
The Seven Dimensions of Culture
Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands
Religious Observance in the Workplace
Leaders Eat Last
Avoiding Cross-Cultural Faux Pas
What Are the HALT Risk States?
How to Run Successful Lunch and Learn Events
Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions

Coming up: community building

Food is an exciting motivator to unite us for work celebrations and other social functions. It prompts us to connect with others, form new relationships, and solidify lasting memories when preparing to leave. For our next #MTtalk, we're going to discuss community building in the workplace and why it is essential. In our Twitter poll this week we'd like to know why you join real or online communities.

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