eating at work

A reader writes:

My question is an odd one. It is about a habit of hard-working and busy people: eating at work.

I have a sensitivity to low level irregular noise, especially people chewing, crunching, and rattling cellophane bags. (In fact, I am wearing ear plugs right now to drown out the sound of a young woman crunching chips and digging into her sandwich bag for them.)

I was diagnosed with significant ADHD 3 years ago, which is probably the root. I found a lot of people online are disturbed by the sounds of eating, so much so that they have made up a name for it: soft sound sensitivity syndrome.

Often in their posts, they mention that they don’t say anything to the person bothering them. I wonder how many of your readers would prefer co-workers not eat so much at their desks?

You would hate me. I am constantly chowing down in my office on something or other. Sometimes my desk looks like a buffet table.

I suspect you’ve already stumbled on the answer: ear phones. What do other people think?

{ 14 comments… read them below }

  1. Valerie*

    I think that you’ve given the only realistic answer out there. Unless you are working in an environment where eating is against the rules, (for example, in a lab, where crumbs might contaminate research?) there isn’t a polite or professional reason to ask someone not to eat at their own desk.

    The question-asker would hate me, too. The soft, sweet sound of chocolate bar wrappers is often heard near my desk.

  2. Anonymous*

    I agree with Ask a Manager.

    Even though “soft sounds” also bother me if they continue for a long time, I’d rather wear ear plugs than ask people to stop.

    My husband lowered his cholesterol levels by eating small meals throughout the day, and it wouldn’t be fair to ask anyone who does that to leave the room any time they want to eat…

  3. Evil HR Lady*

    I eat at my desk as well. Heck, now I telecommute and I still go to my kitchen, get my food and take it back to my desk.

    I second the ear plugs thing. And I also thank you, because I know someone who cannot stand to hear people eating. He also has ADHD and I never thought about the two being connected.

  4. Original Poster*

    Yep, I’m the poster.
    I thought I was the only one until I met a woman at a picnic who looked pretty stressed each time someone sat next to her with a plate of food. She said she had a very difficult time at her laundromat job with a woman who would eat or chew gum next to her.

    This seems to also be an issue mostly with people in lower level positions who can’t effectively control their environment, such as being able to put on headphones and ear plugs without upsetting management or they don’t have a private office.

    This isn’t about judgments for/against in my eyes..that people who eat are pigs or those who are bothered are overreacting. It’s just how to cope most effectively when you have limited control over the cubicle next to you.

    I thought it would be an interesting question to ask.

    Maybe the answers lie in the middle for both parties…asking the person next to you if you’re bothering them with noise or odors and putting in the earplugs if you’re getting stressed and the other person has made an effort.

  5. Anonymous*

    Would definitely not say anything as it will just ostracize you…

    I have a similar issue and reason why with noise, but with all kinds of noise, including conversations and phone calls – especially personal calls, MOST especially about medical issues – ack! I don’t want to hear about passing kidney stones or skin infections near the belly button, thank you very much.

    Ear plugs don’t work for me, since I can still hear everything and can’t tune it out, so I have a small mp3 player and Shure e2c ‘sound-isolating’ in-ear headphones ($60 and worth every cent, and very discreet). Since words distract me, I only listen to music without lyrics – best two for me are “The Living Sea” soundtrack (mellow) and “The Rock” soundtrack (adrenaline-pumping).

  6. Anonymous*

    I want to applaud the poster for being self-aware enough to not just write in ranting about obnoxious coworkers.

    I have a coworker who sat next to me during a two hour meeting with gum. By the end of the meeting, I wanted to stick my hand in this person’s mouth and rip out the gum, and then stick it on their forehead. I took nothing away from the meeting because I was too focused on not losing my mind.

    Two weeks later, during another meeting, they sat next to our boss, who immediately asked them to either spit the gum out, or chew less loudly. Sweet relief! Gum doesn’t seem to be the problem here though, it’s eating in general.

    I’d have to say you really don’t have a leg to stand on by asking someone to stop eating loud food, or eat somewhere else. Nowadays, some employees don’t have the pleasure of a real lunch hour, or need to eat throughout the day (it’s how I lost 30 pounds). Stick to ear plugs or an MP3 player and maybe take up meditation? It’s a random suggestion, but it helped me to focus on my own breathing rather than the obnoxious chewing next to me.

  7. John*

    It’s a tough one, but have you considered talking to your manager about it? Frame it in the light that you don’t want people to stop, just that it’s really annoying. Maybe you guys can find a creative solution.

    I know at a tech company that I worked at, in order to prevent too much noise traveling from cubicle to cubicle, they used pink noise generators. I didn’t even notice that they did until someone told me to listen closely to the silence. I found they actually help a lot.

    Maybe they can add mechanisms like that or change the cubicles to accommodate your condition?

  8. Rachel - I Hate HR*

    Don’t say anything about it. Things will not change and you will be ostracized by your coworkers.

    How about purchasing some noise canceling headphones?

  9. Love my headphones*

    This reminds me of the image of the duck flying over the lake. When a duck flies over the lake, whose fault is it that the duck’s image reflects on the lake?

    It’s unrealistic to ask that someone eating ask the person at the next desk whether they’re bothered by the noise of eating or the odors of food. We have to eat and we have to work. (Gum chewing is quite another thing altogether and I agree with Anonymous above on that).

    The broader solution is an economy that works for people in all manner of jobs. IMHO, someday an enlightened society will look back on the era of cubicles with compassion for all of us who work in them.

    For now, if this is a disorder with an ICD code assigned to it, then I think the bothered person could see whether ADA protections extend this far or not. If so, the bothered person could think about seeking the diagnosis and subsequent protection. Or get some good headphones — which is what I do anyway, and nobody even eats at a desk next to me.

    An emoticon for a contented person in headphones is [:-)

  10. Anonymous*

    I’ve never lived in Cubicle Land myself, so pardon the ignorant questions-

    How weird is it that people can leave their desks to have a cigarette, but not leave to eat?

    Given the research that shows that sitting for long periods of time increases muscle-skeletal damage and the health care costs and general crankiness that goes along with it, how weird is it that employers don’t require workers to leave their desks every ninety minutes for a ten-minute break, so they can eat, smoke or walk around the block just letting the wheels spin?

    Sorry- just had a momentary burst of common sense there.

    Lois Gory

  11. TAD*

    I don’t really think the person asking the question can ask other people not to eat at their desk if it’s allowed. Noise cancelling headphones are a good option. I have my own office, but I have a small fan/heater that I run sometimes just to drown out noise or to keep people from listening to my conversations. Gum chewing doesn’t bother me, but people who smack their gum do.

    This reminds me of a little issue I have with a relatively new employee. She came in right after my other employee went on maternity leave much earlier than expected. Because our network printer is located at the desk of the employee who was on leave, I put the new person at her desk until she came back from leave so she’d be closer to the printer.

    I don’t have my own scanner so sat down at that desk one day to scan something. There were a LOT of crumbs in the computer keyboard so we cleaned it out with canned air. A few weeks later I was helping the new employee move some stuff to her real cubicle and noticed that there were again lots of crumbs in the keyboard so cleaned it.

    This person is always snacking on Cheerios and such at her desk as well as eating lunch. I asked her not to eat frozen dinners and things like tuna salad over the keyboard, but used her scanner the other day and noticed the keyboard at her new station is crumby and a little greasy after only a couple of weeks. I eat lunch at my desk most days so I can’t really say not to eat lunch at her desk. Crumby keyboards are kind of gross, but you can’t exactly say it that way.

  12. sandy*

    Interesting answers from all. Even though I am the one who originally brought it up, I have been both sinner and saint in this area. Staying aware of how much it hurts me, my productivity and attention span allows me to be more empathetic of others’ needs. It’s a good hurt. :LOL:

    Yep, the white noise is very helpful. Ear plugs also, but not always practical in some situations.

    Tad had a good point in bringing up the crumb issue. I wondered if the person could be a very busy mom who can’t spare her lunch break to eat.

    It’s interesting to note that I have heard Europeans complain about this behavior. The guy complained about why Americans eat all the time and everywhere.

    Again, it probably goes back to the woman above so busy she uses her lunch breaks for errands and takes bites here and there at work. It really is an interesting issue. It may also be a sign of how stressful some people’s lives have become.

  13. Anonymous*

    Hi – I have the same problem. I brought in an MP3 and keep working. It is very annoying to hear her “crunching” with her mouth open, but, no one will care if you complain and you end up looking bad, not her. Don’t complain, just pretend it doesn’t bother you. Focus on yourself!!

  14. Gary*

    Every five minutes, my cubicle neighbor snorts, then makes a hacking noise. It's disgusting.

    Nothing you can do but learn to ignore it. Put some noise plugs in your ears, get a white noise generator and learn to live with it.

    Good luck.

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