mob pressure to join coworkers for lunch

A reader writes:

I’m a new employee at a software company. I’d thought I’d seen every eccentricity possible in the high tech workplace, but here’s one new to me:

Every day at 12:30 PM one of my co-workers approaches my cube to announce, “Lunch time! We’re going to lunch!” There’s an air of importance and drama in this statement. But it turns out that all everybody’s doing is grabbing their lunches from the fridge and sitting together in the lunch room down the hall. So I’ve declined a few times — a couple days I wasn’t hungry at exactly 12:30 PM, a couple times I just wanted to go for a walk instead.

Well! I really stepped into it!

If I decline the invitation of the first co-worker to go to the lunchroom, then a second co-worker will mosey over to my cube to announce “Lunch!” If I decline the invitation of the second co-worker, there are peeved expressions all around: it seems I have ruined everybody’s plans by choosing to spend my mid-day hour without them.

Let me be clear: we’re not factory workers doing delicately timed shift work. We’re salaried professionals allegedly empowered to come and go as our work allows. I’m completely baffled by the anxiety I seem to provoke with my refusals to lunch with my co-workers. I think I’m being polite and impersonal — how can I reassure my co-workers the day will proceed fine whether or not I join them in the lunchroom?

I quite enjoyed this question. Is literally everyone eating together except you, or are there other hold-outs as well?

Despite my firm belief that this is ridiculous, if it’s literally everyone I’m going to recommend that you suck it up and eat with them occasionally — maybe once a week. You’re apparently in a culture where this is expected and refusals are taken personally. While I agree that it’s ridiculous, you are likely to find that participating on occasion will pay off in terms of your professional relationships, ability to get things done in your office, and possible even advancement in this company. As someone who generally prefers to eat on my own (usually at my desk, while working), I totally sympathize with you. But if this is the culture there, it’s the culture, and that stuff really can impact other aspects of your job.

However, it sounds like you might already be eating with them some of the time, and it’s your preference to simply not do so every day that’s causing the kerfluffle. If this is the case, (a) you have really bizarre coworkers who have lost touch with normalcy and (b) you can likely solve it by being straightforward: “Sorry to miss it. I’ve got some stuff I have to take care of at lunch today.” … or “I promised myself I’d finish this piece of the project before taking lunch today.” … or whatever excuse you come up. Give them some sort of reason to grab on to, and it won’t feel as much like a snub to them. (Not that it should feel like a snub, but that’s another issue entirely.)

Alternately, you can address it head-on once and hopefully not have to do it again. For instance: “Hey, I don’t mean to offend you guys when I don’t eat with you every day. I really like eating with you all, but sometimes I like to take walks at lunch, so don’t be offended when I’m not there every day.” And if you really want to soothe them, be extra friendly on the days when you do join them.

I, for one, would go crazy, so good luck with it! (And let us know what happens; the part of me that takes pleasure in such bizarre situations is dying to know how this evolves.)

{ 7 comments… read them below }

  1. HR Wench*

    Work cliques are annoying as heck. I always know when someone is on the outs with their clique – they immediately start taking lunch at a different time than they have in the past. I love that I have the excuse of being in HR and therefore am not expected to be too much of a “buddy” with anyone.

  2. sandy*

    When I read those comments, you sound like you’re not a people person and these group diners very much *are*. I’m one who needs that downtime to think about problems without solution pressure.

    Like others have said, let them know you need your down time. If they’re true “people persons”, they’ll probably understand. As well, AAM suggestion of occasional joining in is great also.

  3. Anonymous*

    Our office took a coworker out for lunch. It is his last week. I have heard him talking about me, so I did not go. I also do not like some of the people who went, so that is another reason I did not go. I pretended to be ill and took leave for the rest of the day. Was I wrong for this?

  4. fishlips*

    We have a group in our professional business that all eat at 11:30 no matter what time they came in or what they are working on it. People are very odd about their patterns and don’t even know it.

    Those of us that don’t participate are very much the “do-ers” of this operation and tend to eat around 2-3pm too!

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