Ask the Etiquette Expert: How to Eat at Your Desk Without Offending Others

One teammate's morning ritual is what the rest of the team dreads daily. What to do?

Dear Jacqueline,

Every morning one of my co-workers brings in a fried egg sandwich for breakfast. Not only does he make a considerable amount of noise unwrapping it, the stench of grease and overcooked eggs wafts through the office. I know I need to say something, but how do I approach him and what are the guidelines (if any) around eating food at one’s desk? Sincerely, Stuck with the Smell

Dear Stuck with the Smell,

Many people eat at their desk and they have no idea how offensive the smell (or the noise) can be. Here are a few tips to help you handle the situation with tact and diplomacy.

Look at it from their side: First of all, consider that your co-worker is probably not aware of the problem his eating habits are causing within the office environment. From his (or her) point of view, there is no problem, so you’ll have to start there.

Set up an office policy: If your workspace is large enough, or already has a kitchen or staff room, you may want to send out an overall message that food is to be stored and eaten in the kitchen area only and never at one’s desk unless you’re working on a tight deadline. This may solve the problem without having to face the offender directly.

Related: Why You Should Never Eat Lunch at Your Desk

Have a candid conversation: You may want to save yourself some time and aggravation and address the problem head-on. Gently explain how certain food odors are disruptive to the workplace and request that food be consumed in the kitchen or break area.

This question leads us to the etiquette of eating in the office. If you’re the one who likes to eat lunch at your desk, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:

Avoid strong foods: Eating strong-smelling foods, especially those made with garlic and onions, create odors that linger long after the meal is consumed, and can follow you on your clothes and breath. Stash a toothbrush and mouthwash in your desk for use in such occasions.

Related: The Rules for Eating Lunch at Your Desk

Choose your food carefully: Some leftovers create especially-malodorous fetor when heated in the microwave—like fish. Leave particularly-smelly foods at home, and consider bringing in more neutral options like sandwiches or salads.

Eat politely: If you have ever eaten lunch next to someone who smacks their lips or slurps their soup, you know how offensive eating sounds can be. And don’t get me started on chewing with your mouth open. Remember your manners, and that you are eating in public, not in your own home where no one can see – or hear – you. Don’t slurp your drink or chew ice, and avoid overly-crunchy foods.

Keep it quiet: The packaging your food arrives in could also distract co-workers. If you work in close proximity to others, try not to rattle paper bags, such as chip bags. Remove the food to a plate or napkin so as to consume it quietly. When finished, dispose of all food wrappers and containers. Do not leave them on your desk for insects to enjoy or others to view or smell.

Related: This Is How Dirty Your Office Desk Really Is (Infographic)

Keep your area clean: The average desk harbors 400 times more bacteria than the average toilet seat, with the area where you rest your hand reporting 10,000,000 bacteria, according to a study by University of Arizona’s germ guru Dr. Charles Gerba. The next highest dirty areas are the telephone, water fountain handle, microwave door handle and keyboard. Using a disinfecting wipe on these areas can reduce bacteria by 99.9 percent.

It is always healthier to get away from your desk and take a break to eat, but if you do need to eat at your desk, remember to be considerate of others.

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