Team Eating

I’ve never been any good at team eating. And I’m not referring to those idiotic competitions to see who can eat the most hot dogs in under a minute (which I believe are individual events anyway). Not that I think I would be any good at those, either. I belch too often to get any kind of rhythm going.

A group of friends eating at a restaurantNo, where I fail is at business dining. Oh, I can make it through an isolated lunch or even an occasional dinner. It’s the day-to-day eating events that leave me stymied.

The company lunchroom is as terrifying to me as a high school cafeteria. I never get to sit at the table with the cool kids or even the audiovisual club. And since a tuna sandwich takes approximately three minutes to eat – maybe five, if you have carrot sticks or yogurt, there’s no good way to stretch it out.

You’d think that my usual strategy – bringing along a book – would allow for some first-class work-related eavesdropping. But no. People get suspicious if you don’t turn the pages, and any book worth its tiny paper package of salt will prove distracting right before the team eaters get to the really juicy stuff – and I don’t mean ripe peaches.

If the lunch culture at the office (and here I’m not referring to yogurt) involves dining at local establishments, the problem is even worse. Even if you want to be a team eater, only the truly pathetic will attempt the “Can I come too?” ploy. It works, in the sense that hardly anyone has the meatballs to say no, but it only leads to groups of employees hustling out a fire door that’s not near your desk the next time.

If you’re a brave soul and decide to eat out alone, trusty book in hand, you may encounter the horror of sauntering into a restaurant where a tableful of your co-workers have already gathered. At that point the only thing to do is nod politely while the other diners pretend their mouths are full and wave a cordial fork in your direction. If you’re a grump, you can hope they flick salad dressing in someone’s eye.

But by far the worst team eating events are picnics, cookouts, pizza parties, and other mandatory frivolities put on by the company. These may be billed as voluntary events, but believe me, they aren’t. If you do decide to forego the games of water balloon volleyball or bingo (with prizes “donated” by your suppliers) in favor of retreating to a cool, dim nearby watering hole, you leave yourself open to being the object of whispered, eye-darting conversations in the lunchroom for at least the next month. Plus, you’ll have to avoid making eye contact with everyone else who slunk off to the same watering hole.

What’s the solution? Is there a solution? A number of people I know just read their books and ignore coworkers back. Some eat at their desks, though honestly, you’ve got to get out of that hell-cube sometime or you’ll grow corners.

Maybe the best solution is to take a large batch of brownies – they don’t even have to be home-made – and offer them around. Brownies are a kind of currency that buys you a place at the lunch table. Especially if they’re “special” brownies (depending on where you work, of course). Oh, and mix it up. Cupcakes, cookies, doughnuts – anything suitably sweet says, “Invite me!”

Then feel free to dish about someone else who isn’t there. You’ll be a team eater in no time.

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