Proper Office Cafeteria Etiquette

The office cafeteria is a place where employees can meet up, relax, and even unwind. However, it can also be a place for bad manners to fester. Modern Manners Guy has 3 tips for proper office cafeteria etiquette.

Richie Frieman
6-minute read
Episode #232

Proper Office Cafeteria Etiquette

In my professional career, I've worked in large companies that had gigantic cafeterias with dozens of food and beverage options, as well as in small organizations of 6 staffers who had to fight over the tiny kitchenette. Obviously, the former is much better in terms of food options, but when you enter a new job, a sweet cafeteria isn't usually a make or break for accepting the gig. I mean, you'll never catch someone saying, "Sure, I'll take $20,000 less salary, because I'll tell ya, that cafeteria is amazing!"

But then you consider something like Google's headquarters, The Googleplex, which has a cafeteria that would make royal families jealous (incidentally, Google employees eat there for free).

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Regardless of whether you eat like a king, like our friends at Google, or slum it up, like I did at my first job after college, office cafeteria etiquette is just as important as regular dining etiquette.

I know what you’re thinking: “What? Come on, MMG, it's just me and the guys goofing around during our lunch break?"

Really? Is that the case? Well good luck when your boss catches you slurping the milk out of your cereal bowl, banging on the back of the bowl to get that last Lucky Charm stuck to the bottom. Need I say more?

So with that, check out my top 3 Quick and Dirty Tips for proper office cafeteria etiquette:

Tip #1: I See Unmannerly People…

Let me start off by saying that the office cafeteria is like an oasis. The cafeteria is designed to allow employees to dine comfortably, socialize, and take a break during a long and arduous day. However, sometimes people take that concept a bit too far. As I said before, I've worked in a small office of 6 and a much larger setting of over 4,000, and even though they provided very different experiences, there was one major similarity: Everyone views their lunch break as "my time!"

And it is, or should be, but within the boundaries of reason. When you're dining in the office cafeteria, you are still on the clock and that mentality should remain throughout the meal. Should we really bet Mike $5 that he can catch a meatball in his mouth after tossing it up in the air? No.

I mean, I want to say “Yes” so badly because we all know it will splatter across his face, which is hilarious, but the proper – and professional – answer is of course "No."

See also: Is Your Employer Legally Required to Give You Lunch Breaks?

It's like being on a date, watching someone eat, and it totally changes your view of them. When someone slurps down their pasta, smearing sauce all over their chin, the last thing you want to do is lean in for that garlic kiss. Same thing goes for your coworkers. I had a lunch meeting with a very top executive once, who I really admired. Ordinarily, he’s a super polished guy, but when it came to eating, his habits were similar to my 7-month-old’s. He licked his fingers, ate with his hands, and used enough napkins to make a whole forest of trees cry. 

When you're in the office cafeteria, you have to remember that you're still at work, you're still amongst coworkers, even managers, and that the office cafeteria is a public place where everyone can see you. Keeping these points in mind, you should treat the office cafeteria as any other work-sponsored event where proper business etiquette trumps that of your annual Super Bowl party. Use the same manners you would while dining out professionally, albeit with a little more relaxation. But the general precepts of personal hygiene and etiquette should remain intact. And yes, this includes not announcing to the table you just passed gas. Gross!

Tip #2: The Working Lunch

The working the lunch is your employer’s best ploy to make you think you’re getting a lunch break, all the while getting as much productivity out of you as possible.

Heads up: You're not getting a break, you're working!

In a lunch meeting, you’ll be talking and eating at the same time (well, preferably not in the exact same time), but a "working" lunch has laptops, charts, notes, and is all about, well, work. But let's put the part about being tricked by your employer aside and focus on the actual etiquette of a working lunch.

As I said, the working lunch is meant to accomplish more than just allowing you to finish your turkey club. I had a working lunch two months ago where someone brought a fish enchilada. First, let me say that I love both fish and enchiladas, so that’s a combination I could totally get behind. However, this was a poor selection for a working lunch. The smell of oil, fish, and melted cheese filled up our entire area of the cafeteria, despite its high ceilings. It was like a dark cloud of funk hanging over us. Not to mention, the coworker whose brilliant idea it was to bring a fish enchilada to this meeting was eating this monstrosity with his hands. In other situations, this is perfectly fine, but he was also touching his laptop keyboard, fellow colleagues’ papers, and so forth, leaving grease stains all over the place. And of course, he couldn't help but chew with his mouth open.

When you’re at a working lunch in the cafeteria, you don't want to order something that you can't set aside for a couple of minutes or that will be hard to chew during a conversation. As I said in Tip #1, a workplace cafeteria is a public place where all eyes are on you. That is doubly true at a working lunch. And as your colleagues watch you gorge down a meal, they’ll gradually pull their work farther and farther away from you. And that may translate into less responsibility on the project, and in turn, less visibility with the boss, and being passed over for a promotion…you see where I’m going with this?

So save the (awesomely delicious) sloppy meal for another lunch break when work is not the main focus.

Tip #3: A Date in the Cafeteria

Dating in the workplace can be a very touchy subject. For one, there's the obvious awkwardness of having to ask someone out with whom you work, and if they say no, having to see them all day, every day. Secondly, there’s the uncomfortableness of breaking up with someone and then having to face them day after day. But even with all the potential pitfalls of dating a coworker, I'm still a romantic and always advocate following your heart. Just be prepared for the baggage that may come with it.

When you are dating someone in the office, you will want to have lunch with them too. Makes sense. So you head down to the cafeteria, grab a table for two and put your minds somewhere else, other than the office. However, that’s where it should end. One Modern Manners Guy fan told me about two of his coworkers who were dating. They treated the office cafeteria as a romantic getaway, cuddling up together in a booth. Now, I did say I'm a romantic, but I also believe that there is a time and place for public displays of affection.

If you're in the middle of Central Park having a picnic and love is in the air, there is no reason you and your special someone can't "enjoy" your time together. (Clothes on though, folks.) Or if you’re dining at a nice restaurant and want to pull your sweetie close to you like a cheesy jewelry commercial ad, then go for it. However, when you are in the office – let alone in the office cafeteria – the level of PDA should be toned down drastically. And when I say “toned down,” I mean just don't do it. This isn't high school where people feverishly rush to make out in dark corners during the break between classes as if they'll never see one another again. When you dine in the office cafeteria, make your professional side shine brighter than your burning passion.

Do you have a great story about improper office cafeteria etiquette? Do you have any offenders in your office? Post all the details in the comment section below or on the Modern Manners Guy Facebook page.

As always, if you have another manners question, I look forward to hearing from you at manners@quickanddirtytips.com. Follow me on Twitter @MannersQDT, and of course, check back next week for more Modern Manners Guy tips for a more polite life.

Man Eating Spaghetti, Working Lunch and Cafeteria Date images from Shutterstock