Decoding lunchtime at work

Is this break a social outing or a time to climb the corporate ladder? Understand your colleagues based on their mealtime habits
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First Published: Sun, Dec 30 2012. 07 07 PM IST
The gregarious. Illustrations by Jayachandran/Mint
The gregarious. Illustrations by Jayachandran/Mint
Douglas Adams, an English author and satirist, profoundly said, “When people you greatly admire appear to be thinking deep thoughts, they probably are thinking about lunch.” In fact, two punches (old jargon for attendance swipes) and one lunch is how some cynics would describe a day at work. For the average employee, the typical workday circles around lunch. So, here’s a take on how different employees approach the sacred hour. Offices with vantage views of the lunch-hour trek came in handy in compiling this.
t The gregarious
This group is my favourite. They are seriously committed to their version of the daily lunchtime kitty party. Group members come from departments far and near and flock to a set table. The attachment to this table is so strong that other employees steer clear, lest they get a barrage of nasty vibes from the original contenders. Lunch is consumed amid loud laughter, well-meaning banter and animated discussions. The constitutional post-lunch walk to the petty shop or the paanwallah for the “afters”—“chikkis”, cigarettes or mint—is mandatory. Don’t miss their loud “see you tomorrow’s” before the group scatters for far-off departments!
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t The ‘take it as it comes’ variety seekers
For them lunchtime is an adventure. Repeating company is an absolute no-no, and new tablemates are sought out as a matter of course. You find many eminent corporate leaders in this category; they believe this is a must-do and impose their selves on unsuspecting employees with the avowed purpose of getting feedback and keeping in touch with the aam (ordinary) employee. “When that happened most of us just shut up and ate our food. Only one valiant guy would probably wear a strategy hat and indulge in some verbal jousting with him,” said one hapless employee to me about a hijacked lunch hour.
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t The fastidious ‘dabba’ worshipper
Nutritious food, complete with salads, greens, buttermilk and the ubiquitous ‘phulkas’, come carefully cooked and lovingly packed in “warm ware” straight from the hearth at home. The less fortunate depend on some enterprising outsourced alternative. Opening the multi-storeyed tiffin carrier and discovering the surprises of the day is in itself an adventure. When the fare is sparse or pedestrian, watch their face fall! The magnanimous among them reluctantly offer the priceless treasures to around-the-table pals, but at the grave risk of finding an empty vessel when it returns.
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t The sitting ducks
While the corporate climbers stalk their lunchtime prey carefully, this variety usually ends up as the hunted. They could get caught as they slink by the boss’ cabin to be treated to a half-hour or so of unmitigated haranguing on some deed not done or done badly. Else, equally badly, they could get pounced on by an internal customer or some other persevering soul who has an agenda to fulfil or a score to settle. Sitting captive with the said aggressor, they consume their lunch complete with directions, suggestions and often threats for accompaniments. Not very good for digestion.
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t The ‘Tam Brahm’ brigade
These pernickety gentlemen must eat in the first “round” or ‘modal panthi’, as it is so aptly known in the Tamil lingua franca. Piping hot food and a sparkling clean canteen are a must for them. Not for them the ignominy of waiting for a table to be vacated or the mess as it is cleaned. Delay them from their “on the dot” luncheon date and watch them get testy.
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t The corporate climbers
They believe in using the lunch-hour productively. Not for them the meaningless chatter of friends or the soulful silence of eating alone. This genre hovers outside a lonely boss’ office to give opportune company to him at the cafeteria. Equally fervently they schedule client meetings, employee feedback sessions or even corporate intelligence gathering around the lowly lunch. Their lunch calendars are a veritable sea of appointments and meaningful dialogues.
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t The connoisseur
For them eating is akin to meditating. Food is eaten with total mindfulness, and usually, though not always, alone. Fiercely protective of their solitude, every minute of the lunch break is cherished and every morsel savoured. Find them cocooned in a bubble of self-indulgent gastronomic contemplation.
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t The late ‘lateefs’
At the other end of the spectrum are the last-minute heroes. They suddenly remember, in no small measure, due to the persistent rumblings of their bellies or the contented burps from the neighbouring cubicle, that lunchtime has come and almost been. The mad rush to the canteen, to catch the catering staff before they hang out the “closed” sign, is passé and wolfing down the leftovers ‘de rigueur’. They eat to the accompaniment of the clang of cleaning armies and are last out of the sacred venue before the shutters are pulled down.
t The ‘can’t be bothered to walk’ or ‘too busy to break’ orderers
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These employees are truly the office boys’ boon, or bane, depending on the size of the tip they hand out. Sitting at their desk, their greatest exertion is to extend their hand to punch numbers on the internal phone line to place their order and then pull out their purse to make the payment. Not for them the warmth or camaraderie of the lunch hour.
Recent studies, especially in the West, indicate that communal lunch breaks at the workplace are an endangered practice in the virtual world. In fact, one study even showed that “one-third of employees have lunch at their desk each day” and “another one-third takes no lunch, or only occasionally”.
But for those who enjoy a well-deserved break at work, this is indeed a sacred hour. Go all out and protect it. Resonating with a popular McDonald’s advertisement, “It’s your lunch. Take it.”
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.
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First Published: Sun, Dec 30 2012. 07 07 PM IST
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