Monday, June 15, 2009

Dining el desco Data

The results of Friday's poll about how often people eat lunch at their desk are very surprising to me. Who knew that so many people ate lunch at their desk every day or, if not every day, very often (1-2 times/week)? I certainly did not know there were so many.

I showed the results of the poll to a European colleague, and he said "That must be an American thing."

I suppose that the decision about where and how to dine is in part related to priorities about how work vs. personal time is spent. I would rather spend some time working in the evening or on a weekend than eat lunch at my desk, but I can see how others might prefer to be efficient with lunch time on weekdays and use this time to get caught up, talk to students, and so on.

During the week, I spend so much time talking to scheduled and unscheduled visitors to my office, I like having a bit of time away from that. When not attending a lunchtime seminar or meeting or teaching a class over that time period, I use lunch time to eat and chat with my husband or a friend or colleague about various topics of the day/week. For me, lunchtime, however brief, is a needed break in a busy day.

This topic reminds me of an incident in days of yore when I taught at a small liberal arts college, when I used to eat lunch every day with a particular colleague. We sat in a somewhat secluded common area of the department building and chatted about work and life and so on. Once some of our students realized that it was our habit to eat lunch in that particular place each day, they started stopping by to chat. I didn't mind this at all when the students wanted to stop by and have a conversation about something.

One particular student, however, liked to come by and use the time as an extra office hour and/our counseling session, and no amount of saying "Could we talk about this during office hours" could convince her that we weren't thrilled to share our lunch time with her and her problems. One day, this student told us in great detail about her complex relationship with her boyfriend. My colleague had just taken a large bite of his sandwich (he was hurrying through lunch so he could retreat to the relative safety of his office), when the student said "It must be so special for you to have students talk to you about these things". When she said that, my colleague spit out his sandwich in shock, so great was his surprise at the difference between his view and the student's view of the specialness of these lunchtime interactions. He did not stay long in the small liberal arts college world. I wonder where he eats lunch at his current institution; probably in a locked room or a faculty center.

In any case, I learned something from the poll, and I am still contemplating getting a large sign that signals my unavailability for visitors when I am eating lunch at my desk.

[note: comment moderation might be a little more sporadic than usual for a few days]

19 comments:

Alex said...

Ah, the student who shares too much...

I taught a late evening class once. We were the only class on that hallway in the evening. A student of the opposite sex would stay after class and share too much information (thankfully, none of it pertained to personal relationships, mostly about health and finances and academic travails) while I was packing up. I just mostly nodded and said "I see" and tried to get out. It quickly became apparent that this student blamed a lot of people for a lot of things. Thankfully, she considered me "one of the good ones" but I found the experience terrifying.

If I had been your colleague, I would have suggested having lunch in a place where that student wouldn't find us.

On a related note, I breathed a sigh of relief last week when another difficult student got an A. I was afraid that the student would get an A-, and then I'd have a Serious Problem on my hands.

Anonymous said...

I recommend one of those "will return at..." signs with the movable clock hands.

Kris said...

I'd be curious if your European colleague is continental Europe or the UK. I suspect UK colleagues would be more likely to lunch at desk, whereas the continent has a much more balanced approach.

Helen Huntingdon said...

This reminds me of a colleague I used to have who refused to grasp I wasn't at his disposal whenever he dropped by. He did have technical questions he legitimately needed to ask me, but he refused to put them into email for some reason even though a written medium was better suited to many of his questions.

His response to, "I'm doing X now; I can't talk to you," was to simply stand there and stare at me, for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. Admonishments from his boss had no effect on this. Do not disturb signs were invisible to him. Pointing them out had no effect. Blocking the entrance to my cubicle had no effect, as he would talk at me over my cubicle walls.

When I was on a time-critical deadline for a few weeks where my boss had told me explicitly to work on nothing but the one project, he refused to grasp that "nothing else" applied to spending time on him as well, no matter how many scoldings from higher-ups he got. We tried putting a chair in the approach to my cube with a do not disturb sign on it, but he simply pushed it out of his way.

The only thing that finally worked was building an elaborate barrier out of office furniture blocking the entire approach to my cube. Some coworkers asked if it wasn't annoying to climb over when I needed to get in and out, but it wasn't nearly as annoying as the siege of the invasive coworker.

Dana said...

For some of us early career people we don't want to spend the money buying lunch very often. Unless the weather is very nice there isn't really anywhere besides my office to eat a lunch I have brought from home.

volcanista said...

I didn't have a chance to take the poll, but I usually eat lunch at my desk. It's because in most places I've worked, there isn't a central place for people to eat, so people end up scattered for lunch. When I've been somewhere with a good meeting place, people eat together more. These old science buildings didn't exactly prioritize group seating, though.

Anonymous said...

Remember not all the people who took the poll will have been in the US, so I don't think you can conclude anything about el desco regularity and locale. I am at a European university, in our group maybe 70% of people (staff and students) regularly each lunch el desco. The same proportion probably also regularly attend our scheduled coffee breaks and use that time for catching up with colleagues and getting away from the desk.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

That's fascinating data, as I know much too well the lecturers/professors who eat lunch el desco. Actually, a majority of mine did on a regular basis...I don't stalk them by the way. It's just that I hang about the department a lot due to the concentration of information/lectures there. It is actually rarer to see them eating out than anywhere else, but we do have a staff common room where the lecturers in our department can all socialise with each other at.

mixlamalice said...

It is definitely an American thing. When I was in France I ate with friends every day and usually took at least a one hour break for lunch, whereas here I eat almost every day at my desk and am done in 20 minutes. I don't enjoy it very much, but since almost everybody is doing that...

Actually in France, contrary to what most American would believe, people tend to spend really long hours in the office (partly because they take long breaks), whereas I have noticed here that most PIs and students are gone by 5 or 5.30 (which is pretty early to French labs standards, unless you have young kids).

Hanna said...

I meant to leave this comment on Friday's post, but was busy graduating. (whee!)

I feel like the al desco thing is conflating two things, eating at one's desk, and working while eating (or eating quickly so as to maximize work time). I answered every day (though actually 4 times a week would be the most accurate), but it's true only in the former sense, and not the latter. I'm a grad student with a shared office, and at least one of my officemates generally eats with me. So yes, we eat at our desks, but we take time to chat while doing so, and sometimes people from other offices come by and chat as well.

Since I'd rather bring my lunch than go out to eat every day, it is, without question, the most convenient place to eat. Where else _would_ I go?

Some days if it's nice we'll go outside, but I live in a place with Real Weather, so that that's often not an option. There is no common space anywhere in our building, with the exception of one very old and tattered couch on the first floor, which often gets used for office hours. I could cross the street to another building, but there's really no good spaces anywhere in the main math building, either. And again, if there's Real Weather going on, I'd really rather not leave the building.

We'll see what my habits become next year, as I think there will probably be more places one can sit and eat.

Principle Investigator said...

I almost always eat al desco, although I would be thrilled to join my colleagues for lunch if it were more the culture here. I don't have the time or money to go out to lunch, so I bring my own, but there's no place designed for faculty to eat in comfortably. We used to have a faculty lounge, but it has since been converted to a classroom. Now we share our lounge with the students, and let's face it, there are a lot of things you'd like to be able to discuss with colleagues without being overheard by your (even anonymous) subjects of conversation.

Anonymous said...

I try and eat lunch at my desk no more than once a week -- typically Thursdays when I do my admin paperwork. The other days I eat with colleagues. That time is just as, if not more, useful to my career than working while at my desk. You learn about new opportunities, department politics, etc ...

It is even more important for new faculty to do this for mentoring but also -- who gives tenure to someone they have never seen?

Anonymous said...

mixlamalice - I don't think it's an American thing...I've worked at different BigU's in the US and the "culture" really varies from one to another (and even from dept. to dept. and lab to lab). Some, everyone eats an hour-long lunch together and has a grand ol' time, and some everyone scarfs down lunch at their desks. At one school everyone left by ~5:30pm and at another one people rarely left before 8pm. I'm not sure you can say it's an American thing; there's too much variability. We need a much bigger n to draw a conclusion. :) Maybe if FSP did a poll where you had to designate both your country AND your lunch habits...

p.s. for students and postdocs with desks in the lab, eating at your desk usually isn't an option at all because of the "no food in lab" rule...

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments on the European/ American thing. I am from Australasia, and eating al desco is fairly common here, especially for those of us who bring lunches for home. While in France last year though, there was a wonderful group lunch thing going on at the research institute where I worked, which made me think the Europeans had a much better work/ life approach than we did. I didn't notice many people working late either, apart from postdocs who world over seem to have the pressure of work and competition . .

mixlamalice said...

"everyone eats an hour-long lunch together and has a grand ol' time"

That's what is making me saying eating at desk is kind of an american thing: as you admit, spending one hour for lunch together is "a grand ol' time", whereas there is nothing more common in Paris (and actually, if you spend only one hour for lunch, chit-chat and coffee, you're kind of in a rush).
Here some students eat together in a large room, but it never lasts more than 30 minutes and the lunch is mainly peanut butter sandwiches and chips. When I see that I always miss my jambon-beurre baguette. Good old time.

Concerning the hours, I migth be too conclusive but it seems to me that: -family values are more important here than back home and
- when the job is well done, everybody is happy and doesn't really care how it was done
while in France
- we always tend to say to ourselves (because we hear it from the government and from other countries every day) that we are a lazy people and so a lot of us overcompensate by actually working a lot (or staying a lot in the office which in France is not always equivalent).
- we also like "spying" on each other and gossip a lot: if someone leaves at 5, everybody (especially the ones that take 2 hours coffee breaks) is going to notice and say "woh, this guy is lazy". I believe that here nobody really notices (unless the guy is obviously doing nothing) and if so, will first say that the guy finished what he had to do, good for him.

Well I might be wrong, but I always enjoy looking at the differences between our cultures and trying to understand where they come from.

madscientist said...

I think that there are a few reasons why I eat at my desk a couple days a week:

1. There is no good place for faculty to eat. The lunch room that we have is filled with other people that I am not that interested in talking to. That is not meant to sound arrogant or anything - there are just a lot of loud people who dominate conversations and eat in the lunch room.

2. I like the people I work with, but I love my family. I would rather take a shorter lunch and work through if I could go home 30 minute earlier. I am also a work-a-holic.

3. I do go out to eat with friends and co-workers fairly often, so I don't feel like working at my desk a couple days a week is crazy or antisocial.

A. Non Mouse said...

I'm surprised that fewer people didn't reply in the original comments that they exercise over the lunch hour. As Anonymous pointed out, it is the best time for those of us with young kids to sneak some exercise in (I don't count my two block walk to work as exercise!)

Jennifer said...

I just stumbled across your blog today...I am an undergraduate doing a research internship this summer. At the lab I am working at in Germany, everyone in the group goes to the cafeteria and eats together. When I was doing a similar program at an American university, we usually ate at our desks, but alone.

Sarah said...

At any rate, I liked some of the vadlo postdoc cartoons!