If you work in an American office, you have probably eaten at your desk at some point in the recent past. We overworked, underslept, and overstressed American office workers are so paranoid about untethering ourselves from our cubicles that the “sad desk lunch” has become a meme — “lunch,” which in theory would entail an actual break from work, instead involves the hurried, hunched-over-your-desk munching of a subpar sandwich, perhaps while keeping a panicked eye on the emails piling up in the meantime.
That’s pretty much the opposite of how they do things in Germany, and an article in Der Spiegel last week offers an insightful — and pretty funny — lesson in these sorts of cultural differences. It’s written by Philipp Alvares de Souza Soares, a Manager Magazin editor who is currently at the Washington Post on a guest-reporter program.
The text is in German, but with some Google translating and minor cleanup you can get the gist pretty easily (this is a very approximate translation):
The ritual begins every afternoon at about 12:30. Colleagues disappear into the office kitchen or in front of the door, the microwave jingles, the scent of cheese fills the air. For many, it is now time to take “desk lunch” — which often means that the left hand holds a sandwich, while the right types or uses the mouse. … In the USA, the ritual lunch with colleagues has already become an exception in many places. An office institution that is slowly passing away. Studies see the proportion of “desktop diners” (as social scientists call this species) among workers at already over 60 percent. The blog saddesklunch.com now records especially sad microwave meals. It’s not only the souls of the gourmands which suffer: desk-lunch-eaters tend to consume more fat, which is unhealthy in the long run.
You can practically taste his sadness and puzzlement at this strange American practice. That’s likely in part because, in Germany, lunch with colleagues is a very big deal. I did a fellowship there that included a couple of work placements, and while I didn’t work in any German offices, a bunch of my fellow fellows did, and in an email thread about this article they reminded me how seriously Germans take this tradition: “On the regular German office side, I would go so far as to say that a desk lunch is not even an option,” said my former colleague Christina. “There is just no way you would ever do this because it’s NOT DONE. Definitely had to go to the cafeteria everyday at the Auswärtiges Amt [Foreign Ministry, where she worked at one of her placements] (or maaaaaybe a vendor outside like once a month), but even at DGAP [a think tank], where we had no cafeteria or lunch room, no one ate at their desks. We would just see the entire organization decamped to the Nordic Embassies’ cafeteria down the street every day at lunch.”
Perhaps unsurprising, given that some (but not all) stereotypes about Germans are steeped in truth, there was a regimented feel to these communal lunches, my colleagues reported. Many Germans really, really like eating at exactly the same time every day, and have trouble deviating from their habit. “Frank Bornkessel [who runs the central kitchen at a Mercedes-Benz factory in Stuttgart] says it’s impossible to change Germans’ eating times,” noted one English-language Spiegel Online article from 2008. “The age-old 12 p.m. appointment will remain an eternal German habit — it just can’t be changed. Bornkessel has tried. He wrote e-mails to co-workers noting that lunch isn’t any worse at 1 p.m., that the selection is no smaller, but that cafeteria lines are definitely shorter. Still, nothing’s changed. Eighty percent of the meals sold in the employee cafeteria go through the cash register between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.”
So it went for my former colleagues. “I would go with the guys in my office every single day at 11:50 a.m. on the dot,” said one. “Mainly we ate in silence or they made fun of me for eating a salad” — that Spiegel Online article makes a point to note that, among German office workers, “Nobody likes celery” — “but sometimes we would get coffee afterward and actually chat. Regardless, it was very important to the office to all go together.” But while it’s frowned upon to not eat with colleagues in many German workplaces, it’s often also frowned upon to discuss work-work itself during lunch. “We never talked about work topics at the Kantine [cafeteria] — it was taboo,” said another colleague. “Instead, 80 percent of the discussion was about about the next Ferien oder Weltreise” — that is, the next trip a given colleague had planned (most professional Germans take the concept of planning and going on vacations as seriously as they take the concept of communal office lunch — that is, very seriously).
Because I worked mostly with expats rather than Germans, I never experienced any of this; indeed, I had plenty of desk lunches during my time in Berlin, though I don’t remember them being sad. From an American perspective, though, I can’t decide whether the practice sounds better or worse than a desk lunch. Sure, the first couple of days it might be fun to go eat with colleagues — but every day? As something that feels, owing to the prevailing social norms, like an obligation? With a stigma against talking about the one thing you all genuinely have in common? I could see it getting old quickly. How many times do you want to hear about your colleague’s most recent vacation?
There’s no “right” way to do office lunch, of course — this is just a useful reminder of the important ways subtle aspects of our culture to which we don’t give much consideration can affect our lives. There must be many Germans who met their significant others as a result of these goofily formal kantine trips. There must also be a lot of other Germans who would love to use lunch to chip away at some outside project that could, if only they had the time to work on it, be very important to them. And for Americans, how many of your colleagues do you wish you knew better, but feel weird about asking to lunch since that sort of thing just isn’t done in your office? At the risk of sounding like some sort of lame PSA, both cultures could probably learn something from the other.