Friday, June 12, 2009

Eating al desco

As happens from time to time, even in summer, I was recently eating lunch 'al desco'. While I was eating-working, a student walked in my office to ask me a question, saw I was eating lunch at my desk, and said "Oh, I'm so sorry for interrupting your lunch. I'll come back later."

I was stunned. This has never happened to me before. In my experience, no student has ever before acknowledged that eating lunch @ one's desk means one is busy and therefore perhaps non-urgent questions can wait until another time.

I already had a very high opinion of this student, but he shot up even higher in my estimation after this incident.

Alas, his polite response to seeing me eating @ my desk makes him a rare beast indeed.

Memo to visitors: If you walk into someone's office and see them eating lunch at their desk, this probably means they are busy. If you aren't sure and ask "Are you busy?", this is more polite than not asking, but this question, however well intentioned, might elicit a glare, an incredulous laugh, sarcasm, or insincerity (just so you know).

I certainly can't speak for all professors -- perhaps there are some who so love their desks and offices (and office chairs!) that eating@desk is a pleasurable activity that is done by choice and that has the added benefit of attracting cute little rodents (and insects!) -- but I typically eat at my desk if I am so busy that my only other option is to skip lunch.

Lunch-skipping occurs now and then too, but it is not a good idea if I am teaching an afternoon class, and dangerous if I have an afternoon faculty meeting.

Yes, I know that I could close my door. I have tried that, but then people knock and
I either have to get up and go to the door to tell the visitor(s) that I am busy, pretend that I am not there even though it might be obvious that I am (causing emotional trauma to some, as I have learned from experience), or yell Go Away I Am Busy.

I once tried a Do Not Disturb sign, but some people didn't see it and knocked anyway, some saw it but wanted to know why I didn't want to be disturbed, and others told me later they thought I was probably taking a nap in my office. So maybe I need a Do Not Disturb Because I Am Really Really Busy Right Now and No I Am Not Sleeping sign.

I find all of these options less appealing and more time-consuming than having someone step into my office, ascertain that I am busy, and go on their way until another time when I am not in simultaneous mid-chew and mid-something-else.

None of this is a big deal, of course, and it doesn't punch a hole in my day if I encounter someone who starts talking to me without even asking if this is a good time to interrupt, but when I encountered a real live polite person this week, I realized how nice it was to have such an experience for a change.

That said, it's time for a poll:

How often do you eat lunch at your desk?
Sometimes (1-2 times per term or year)
Somewhat often (1-2 times per month)
Often (1-2 times per week)
Every day free polls


John Vidale said...

Odd, me being caught eating lunch at my desk seems a windfall to our graduate students. My hands are busy, and I can't run away - a much better than average opportunity to make a suggestion, get an opinion, or request some pricy perk.

I don't mind listening with my mouth full, and it's preferable to getting the pepperoni pizza oil on the key board. If I'm in the middle of doing something, I just say so, as I would at other times.

Susan B. Anthony said...

If my office door is closed, I AM probably napping. And I don't care who knows it!

plam said...

I'm like Susan B. Anthony. If my office door is closed, then I'm probably using my comfortable couch to take a nap.

I seem to be the only one who voted "never". That might just be self-delusion and not remembering instances of eating al desco. But I think I usually go to the nearby bench and eat.

My MSc advisor used to have a "knock or die" sign, but he seems to have mellowed out since then.

Kim said...

I'm supposed to schedule six hours of office hours between my 20 hours of classes. I often include lunchtime or the hour between classes, because I would rather be interrupted during lunch than when I'm trying to fit in some research time.

Genomic Repairman said...

I usually eat at my desk, but I am a lowly and humble grad student. If its nice I try to eat outside but right now with 102 degree heat, I shall take my lunch inside. Eight of us share and office with desks lining the walls of the room and a futon we snuck in a corner. Usually we do a lot of potlucks or just order pizza which gets interesting as the office then turns into Thunderdome. One pizza enters and eight full, pizza stained, and possibly bruised graduate students stumble out to go back to work.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

(1) I make it very, very clear to all my colleagues, trainees, and staff that if my office door is closed, it means don't bother me, but if it is open, then by all means come right in.

(2) Whenever I enter someone else's office unsolicited, the first thing I always say is, "Do you have a moment?"

(3) My office has a big glass window in the middle of the door. This is great, because it means that if someone knocks when the door is shut, I can shoo them off gesturally, without giving them any opportunity to try to engage me verbally.

lost academic said...

Really? It is rare to have someone show a vague degree of awareness and manners? Well, I guess that's true, but I for one and just about everyone I know would not interrupt someone's desk lunch or at least would apologize if the matter were urgent. Of the remaining people who would, a good 50% of them would realize at least by the end what they had done and offer a belated apology.

So a corollary question - when your door is shut, do you notice people pause but not knock/enter, knock before entering, knock before entering but not wait to be acknowledge, or just open the door?

Unknown said...

For me, lunch at my desk is a daily occurrence - a combination of habits from grad school (avoiding the cost of eating out and avoiding lunch altogether). It doesn't mean I'm busy, though - I find I don't work well while eating, so I usually work on trivial tasks during lunch (shopping for supplies, reading blogs, updating web pages - stuff I can stop and start easily.)

My office door is always closed, but that's to keep out the hall noise and the smell of bleach from the janitor's carts that end up parked next to my door. I keep a stack of notes to post on the door when necessary (please knock, be right back, go away - in a meeting, that sort of thing). I could avoid answering the door if I kept iTunes off - but that's not happening anytime soon!

Katie said...

I'd not heard the term "al desco" before - I love it, and will be sure to work it into conversation, if at all possible...

Anonymous said...

Like squawky, I also have a stack of post-it notes stuck to the back of my door - indicating both if I can't be disturbed, but also if I'm in the lab and which lab. So, people have learned to read the post-it notes - because sometimes there is no point in knocking.

Also, the first week of every new year I talk with my grad students about grants and grant-getting - how grants pay for everything in the lab including stipends. I have a big sign (of the "do not disturb" variety) which I stick on my door if I'm on the phone or writing a grant. As they understand how the grant process directly relates to their paycheck, if they see that sign, they act as guards and intercept anyone who comes near my door. A dozen or so guards, and no one gets through.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I prefer eating at my desk because I can catch up on work appropriate web sites (chronicle, cnn, bbc, etc.) AND eat in a very efficient manner (<15 minutes). It is a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the halls, and it gives my introverted self a chance to recharge before an afternoon of student/faculty meetings.

At PermaU, it seems that I will by necessity need to be more social... but giving up an hour for lunch a few times a week seems a small toll to pay to cross into the Happy Side of Politics road, right?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it is the culture of a university. Here at mine, if I'm eating my lunch, people always volunteer to come back later if they want to talk to me. Only one person persists in talking to me if I'm eating 'al-desco' (love that term!) and I just blame it on his general social inaptness. Otherwise, I've never had anyone persistently try to talk to me. Maybe I'm just that unsightly when I talk with food in my mouth.=)

butterflywings said...

Ha - al desco - love it!

Yeah, er, you would think basic manners/ consideration would make it obvious that you at least ask if the person is busy.
I often eat lunch at my desk, and the number of people who don't even seem to notice...just start talking. Aaargh!

I mean. Yeah. Watching people eat is not nice, people! (And nor is being watched eating).

I find there is another pitfall - the phone ringing. The choice being, answer the phone with your mouth full and sound retarded, or ignore a ringing phone. (I chose ignore the other day, and my colleague, who is utterly socially inept, informed me 'the phone's ringing.' I told him I was at lunch).

Kevin said...

On our hall, an open door means that the faculty member is in and can be interrupted. A closed door means the faculty member is not in or is too busy to take any interrupts.

The assumption is that all faculty are always busy, but can sometimes be interrupted.

I usually keep my door open, but even when I have scheduled meetings or posted open office hours, students are often apologetic about interrupting---perhaps they've been burned by rude faculty before.

george.w said...

A special place in heaven for that thoughtful student!

It's the same for staff. I usually have to flee the building if I want to spend time having a peaceful lunch with materials that require concentration.

What is it about having poured milk on cereal, and opened up a book with lots of screen shots in it, that says; "Please interrupt me"?

John Vidale said...

I'm mystified by the objections to interruptions to talk shop during an al desco lunch.

My only complaint is when my take-out phad thai noodles get unpalatably cold and gummy if ignored too long.

The possibility of a good scientific or educational exchange is what motivates me to show up for work in the morning.

I only shut my door for phone calls to avoid noise on conference calls or if reporters are recording the conversation.

Ms.PhD said...

Wow, this turned out to be a hot topic.

I usually eat al desco (I also love the term, btw) when doing experiments; sometimes while walking between experiments I'll scarf down a protein bar.

My advisors eat al desco, too.

In grad school I made a point to eat with fellow students as often as possible, and I think it really helped to have human contact outside the lab. I try to do it now as much as schedules allow, but I still feel guilty when lunch runs long and I have lots of work to do. Would definitely rather eat with people from outside the lab than the same people I see all day long, but most of my lab mates flock together day in and day out.

Really wish I had an office with a door.

And yes, if I poke my head into someone's office, door open or not, I always ask if this is a good time.

In lab I tend to interrupt whatever anyone is doing without any sort of polite preface, probably because when I first started working in a lab I wasted a lot of time being too shy to ever ask questions for fear of interrupting. In lab you are almost always interrupting! But when I'm there I want to get things done, and I'm usually annoyed to have to ask because it usually means the lab is very disorganized and I can't find something...

Anonymous said...

This is a matter of personal preference. I once emailed a professor a minor question instead of knocking on his closed office door. He stormed out of his office (as was his style) and said,"Why did you email me and not knock on the door?" I said it was so I wouldn't disturb him and he said when the door was shut, knocking was perfectly acceptable.

Anonymous said...

I think many people have different preferences on this. My husband was offered the opportunity to have his own office. He said he really likes the spontaneous synergy that happens when he's in the office with fellow co-workers. On the other hand, his biggest pet peeve was a student who would come in every day right when he was beginning his lunch, which he always eats at his desk. (He was also using this time to work on his dissertation.)

Personally, as long as someone understands that I may have my mouth full of food when I'm talking, then I can deal with it. If they don't want to see that, they then should let me eat my lunch in peace.

Anonymous said...

I almost always eat my lunch at my desk, because my lunchtime is almost always the only time I can exercise. Hence, I snack in the mid morning, and eat the rest of my lunch afterwards. How on earth do other people with young children fit in their exercise?

Kevin said...

To anonymous @9:30.
I get my exercise bicycling to and from work---it takes less time than taking the bus and ensures that I get moderate exercise every day. I have always hated exercise, so making it serve some other necessary purpose (transportation) works well for me.

I rarely have the time midday to go somewhere to exercise in any case, so trying to exercise during the lunch "hour" would certainly not work for me.

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

The only thing worse than "al desco" (which I actually enjoy, because then I don't feel guilty about surfing) is having to eat a sandwich, an apple, and a coke sitting at the traffic lights on the way to a faculty meeting at the other campus. Because yes, indeed, I'm bad enough when fed and watered, but a faculty meeting on an empty stomach would be cruel and unusual punishment....

Unknown said...

As a graduate student I'll be eating lunch at my desk most of the time, I'm sure, but I doubt anybody'll come looking for me like they would a professor (I'm not a TA).

I find it interesting that there's so few manners/so much interruption - if any of my professors' doors are shut I assume there's a reason and will leave a note, send an email, or come back during office hours if I can.