Workplace Culture

The Last Word: Tossed Salad Insults

By Rick Bell

Apr. 7, 2014

It was lunchtime. I had just scored a burrito the size of my forearm from my favorite taco shop and got on the elevator to the 12th floor when I was joined by three women. One of them hit the button for the seventh floor, which I think is home to an insurance company’s administrative offices. A fourth woman entered as the doors closed, also bound for the seventh floor.

“What’cha got there?” a member of the trio asked their late-arriving colleague. The smell of warm burgers and hot fries wafted across the car just as I noticed their McDonald’s bags; no such odor drifted up from the fourth woman’s meal.

“I got a salad,” she offered with a slight sigh in a low, monotone reply. Apparently she was steeling herself for the impending response that she knew was coming.

“A salad?!” barked the trio’s expert in haute cuisine. “Whaddaya want with rabbit food? You tryin’ to lose weight? You got yourself a man now?”

“I’m just watching what I eat,” the lone girl replied somewhat sheepishly — I guess because she chose to nibble on veggies rather than a No. 6 combo from Mickey D’s.

A rapid-fire Q-and-A ensued regarding booty size and their appeal as boy magnets, prompting me to ponder the grilling I’d get if they knew I substituted quinoa for rice on my burrito. But rather than bailing on this awkward elevator trip, I tuned out the chatter on fresh greens, posteriors and boyfriends until the door slid open at seven. As they filed out, I felt the sense of relief you get at the grocery store after slipping past one spouse dressing down the other for grabbing the wrong type of laundry detergent: “I told you perfume-free! Can’t you remember those two words?”

Now, I know friends razz each other. We’d be a boring lot indeed if we didn’t occasionally zing each other over our favorite music or the growing stack of dirty Tupperware on our desks.

Whether it’s a cross-country call from a colleague gloating about the weather, teasing someone on a bad hair day or questioning a repetitive lunch choice, ribbing can build enduring workplace relationships.

We quickly learn colleagues’ foibles and favorites; some have taken those observations and lifted needling to high art. Entire sitcoms are based on workplace digs, and let’s face it, no matter how uptight we get, jokes and laughs help loosen up an all-too-stressed-out workplace.

But the line between pushing the envelope and pushing someone’s buttons can be paper-thin. And crossing the boundary into bully territory is just around the bend from that.

Perhaps I’m taking the elevator banter a little more personally than I should, but I’ve been there. Several years ago I ballooned up to being 40 pounds overweight because of poor food choices and a lack of exercise, leading to an assortment of aches, pains and stress. That kind of bulk isn’t easy to lose either.

Doing a 360-degree about-face with your eating habits is an incredibly difficult task, especially at lunch. Making the choice is one thing, but following through and maintaining a dietary lifestyle turnaround — especially when it’s so much simpler to chow down on fast food at your desk — is an entirely different story.

Perhaps worse, according to a recent study from GrubHub, 40 percent of employees admit to occasionally skipping lunch because of heavy workloads; others don’t do themselves any favors, the study adds, by prioritizing work over nutrition and postponing their meal until late in the afternoon.

Yet the majority of people who do eat lunch can get mighty sensitive when their choice of foods and eating habits is called into question. I get defensive, and judging by her immediate reaction, I suspect the woman on the elevator did, too.

Food choices can be a sense of ethnic and personal pride. Laugh at my homemade dumplings heating up in the microwave and you’re trampling my heritage. Crack wise about my salad and you’re assaulting my personal preference to take a stab at a healthier lifestyle.

I’ve harped often enough in this column about the value of managers encouraging healthy, fit employees. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But this time I’ll take it a step further: Kidding a colleague who opts for a salad over a sloppy joe — even if it’s all in good-natured fun — is still in bad taste.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director.

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