You are with whom you eat
June 24, 2018 4:54 PM   Subscribe

How food is used to create a sense of identity and belonging has been well documented by anthropology for over a century. Change how a people eat -- or what they eat -- and you change the people, is the anthropological axiom at hand. So, how is food being used to create a culture of belonging coupled with extremes of self-sacrifice in Silicon Valley?
posted by clawsoon (31 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
Damn. This is extremely creepy, though I suppose not unexpected in corporate-land. And it became exponentially worse when corporations were deemed "a person." A salutary article.
posted by MovableBookLady at 5:24 PM on June 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


“People schedule you?”

I love this author's bafflement and horror. Because, honestly, this is one of the worst things about working in an professional/office job these days. The advent of google suite (and thus calendars) makes it really easy to schedule meetings, which means people can just get something on your calendar without checking with you first. And in a lot of workplaces, it's not really acceptable to decline those meetings.

In my old job, I would regularly find myself in 5-7 hours of meetings/day, which would just appear on my calendar. The sense of having no control over your schedule, and yet still having expectations associated with a role where you do have control over your schedule, really wears you down after a while.
posted by lunasol at 5:58 PM on June 24, 2018 [10 favorites]


The gold standard for the scrappy pre-unicorn startup is Ramen Profitable. The idea that a successful funding round pays for just enough for the founders to survive until the glorious launch surviving for months on a diet of mostly freeze dried ramen cups.

More code macho than the issues of fruit in the article is "Flat Food". That is anything that can be slipped under the door of the office or bedroom of a hero programmer working 24 hours straight through the long holiday before a vital demo presentation. This is perhaps on the wane due to the healthy food emphasis at the big five.
posted by sammyo at 6:05 PM on June 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


In my old job, I would regularly find myself in 5-7 hours of meetings/day, which would just appear on my calendar.

That can be usually defeated by putting time into your own calendar for specific tasks. I do that all the time, and let people know that if it shows I'm busy, it's real, and needs a good reason to hijack my time. If it shows I'm "tentative" (in outlook) I can usually move that task or meeting to another time.
posted by tclark at 6:22 PM on June 24, 2018 [10 favorites]


What's interesting is that my experience has been the almost exact opposite. I work at a large tech company with a cafeteria and engineers eat at roughly the same time every day and socialize while doing it (though people do mostly eat with their teammates). My last job was a ~100 person tech company and most people either ate at their desks or didn't eat lunch at all. The job before that was somewhere in between--my team tended to eat together and not work, but I think many people ate at their desks. I do also wonder if there's a difference between technical non-manager roles and non-technical and/or manager roles. (We don't know what Valerie's job is, but apparently it involves private jets, so it's a safe assumption it's not like my job.)

I'm also curious about the role of company shuttles on the West Coast. If you're someone who takes a Google bus, are your hours fixed in a way that people those of people who commute by car are not? And how does that impact boundaries around how long you spend at work? (I'm in NYC. I think we get some of that effect from commuter rail, at least in parts of tech companies where the average age is a bit older.)
posted by hoyland at 6:47 PM on June 24, 2018 [3 favorites]


Working while eating lunch is terrible for your digestion. You've basically got a little factory in your body working away at the food, and distraction, worry, and stress can really mess it up.

Early in my career I worked with this guy who had lunch at his desk who would freak out if someone came to him with something work related while he was eating. I talked to him about it and he explained why and suggested I do the same.

It is not always easy to pull off in stressful Silicon Valley, however.
posted by eye of newt at 6:53 PM on June 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


Huh. I work at a staff job at a university, and we don't get a paid lunch break. We can take a lunch break, but we have to come in early to make up for it, so almost nobody does. Instead, we have a half-hour "paperwork time," when we can eat lunch at our desks while we're answering email and catching up on notes. However, if something comes up (say, if a student signs in as a walk-in during my paperwork time), then we have to take care of it, even if it means skipping lunch. I have an emergency supply of almonds and granola bars for when that happens.

I don't think this is about creating a culture or whatever, though. It's just the work norms for low-status university employees, because work norms for low-status people in the US suck.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:56 PM on June 24, 2018 [15 favorites]


I worked at Apple for twelve years back in the eighties to early nineties. It was not like this. At all. Though the author’s allusion to cults was right on. Back in the day, Apple purchased a huge tract of land south of San Jose. They planned to build a huge campus there including apartments for the employees. Live at work. We jokingly referred to it as Jobstown. Maybe we weren’t that far off. The idea of employees as fungible resources was good. My observations of a lot of the current tech employees here in the Bay Area, and especially here in San Francisco is that they appear to be really homogeneous and hence interchangeable and expendable. This was starting to happen at Apple in the early nineties. Extensive college recruiting, bring them in young, work them to death, then bring in a new batch. Mainly single guys in their twenties, living alone in an apartment, all their friends were people they worked with, so why not stay at work. The companies used this to their advantage. The ironic thing in those and these unironic times, is the notion of labor, labor rights, etc. were anathema to tech workers. Hey we’re changing the world!
posted by njohnson23 at 7:00 PM on June 24, 2018 [10 favorites]


Huh. I work at a staff job at a university, and we don't get a paid lunch break.

Are you hourly? My lunch break is not paid, either, but the standard is to take an hour (I work 8-5 but get paid for an 8-hour day, with unpaid lunch noon-1pm most of the time). When I was salaried at a different white-collar job, the standard was still to take an hour lunch but be at work a total of nine hours (9-6). At either of those places a half-hour lunch, with leaving a half-hour earlier, would be acceptable but a bit of a problem in terms of office coverage if it were an ongoing thing.
posted by lazuli at 7:40 PM on June 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'm salaried. I could work 8-5, but I don't want to get in at 8:00, and we can't be on the clock after 5. We can stay after 5 to finish things up, but those can't be your official working hours.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:48 PM on June 24, 2018


my experience has been the almost exact opposite

Same here. I work for the same kind of company as you, hoyland, and I often eat lunch with my teammates. At peak lunch hour, it can be hard to find seating in the cafes because everyone is there. If I'm eating by myself with a laptop out, I'm probably reading MeFi... It was at the smaller company with no provided lunch where I usually just ate alone at my desk.

If you're someone who takes a Google bus, are your hours fixed in a way that people those of people who commute by car are not?

Definitely. I notice that when I visit the offices in CA, they empty out by 5 because everyone's gone to catch the shuttle. In NYC, most people subway, so they don't all follow the same schedule.
posted by airmail at 7:50 PM on June 24, 2018


Instead you have baskets of free apples at Apple

Oh, they got rid of that.
posted by pwnguin at 7:53 PM on June 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'm salaried. I could work 8-5, but I don't want to get in at 8:00, and we can't be on the clock after 5.

There is no clock for salaried employees, right? I'm pretty sure your university doesn't have any 8-5 policy with HR. High strung manager who doesn't trust anyone they can't see actively screwing them over? Sure.

“Of course there is a lunch hour! But . . .” here she paused, steeling herself, before she spat out the caveat, “they schedule you!”

A worker who's calendar is so busy it does not admit a lunch hour has two options. First, decline the goddamn meeting. Second, schedule your own damn lunch hour meeting as busy. Calendar management among my colleagues is abysmal. We have weekly meetings to discuss the delivery timelines of capital investments slated for next year. We have M/F team meetings, even though nobody's regularly working weekends, and standing meetings to reserve conference rooms 'just in case.'

Unfortunately, one result of these choices becomes an astronomical level of divorce

My casual observation is that an equally large matrimonial problem is the price of homes in the area. Kids look at their savings after two years on the job and realize it'll be some time before they can afford a down payment in SV. So they look to Austin and Portland's markets as their FOMO outlet. That's a Faustian bargain in some ways -- incomes in those cities is also lower, and there aren't dozens of recruiters hounding you to consider their contracts. But virtually everyone I know with a fiancee or spouse has said they'd like to move so they can buy a home.
posted by pwnguin at 8:13 PM on June 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


I thought it was just common convention that you'd set up a calendar event for when you could be expected to be on lunch. It's not like they haven't invented recurring tasks. I wouldn't want my very-not-Silicon-Valley company to insist that I take a particular lunch hour just because that's when my coworkers want to eat lunch. I usually prefer not to, because I'm not routinely hungry midday and I'd rather leave earlier, but I will give my employer that we absolutely don't have a corporate culture that says I can't, just that I don't necessarily have to. The culture-of-actually-being-able-to-take-breaks thing is more the problem than the "does this need to be on your calendar for people to know you're doing it" thing.
posted by Sequence at 9:02 PM on June 24, 2018


He touches on this a bit with the fruit and junk food, but a lot of companies also seem to have developed a culture of constant snacking. Between that and time-scattered desk lunches, it can feel like you're trying to work in a cafeteria even when you're at your desk.
posted by smelendez at 9:39 PM on June 24, 2018


I worked in Silicon Valley since the early 1990's. In my experience teams within companies have their own lunch cultures. I've been on teams where most everyone went to lunch most days and I've been on teams where most people didn't eat together for various reasons such as some people just not eating lunch or exercising instead.

When I worked at a certain movie rental company, there were years when I went out to lunch with team mates most days. Then there were some years where I got sucked into a meeting vortext of 7+ hours of meetings most days (including meetings to discuss why more work wasn't getting done) so I made up an acronym and scheduled a daily lunch meeting for it. That worked most days but sometimes got overridden. In those days whatever work I got done was in the morning before everyone showed up or in the evening after they went home.

In years when I lunched with coworkers a lot, a lot of business got done informally. There were fewer people involved, no power point, and you could often be more candid than in a real meeting.

Nowadays I work for a company which caters lunch twice a week and everyone sits down and lunches together. The seating doesn't lend itself to groups staying together, so every time it's a mix of people from across the company, maybe engineering sitting with finance and sales. People will sometimes bring their spouses, friends, kids or whoever. It's a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.

So really it's who you work for and who you work with. That first job out of college is probably hard to get, and you'll need to pay your dues. You won't have a history of knowing that if person X (who is proud that s/he only needs 4 hours of sleep a night) is VP of whatever at some place it'll be a slave shop. But after that, if the job market is good, choose to work with people you like and who value having a real work-life balance. That's my advice at least.
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 10:06 PM on June 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


I moved to the Valley from New Zealand in the mid-80s ... at work there was something missing, eventually I realised it was morning and afternoon tea time, when everyone sits down in the break room and has tea or coffee, a twice daily 15 minute break where a lot of the informal communication in the work place happened .... if I'm ever boss of more than myself we're going to do that, at least once a day
posted by mbo at 10:42 PM on June 24, 2018 [5 favorites]


That can be usually defeated by putting time into your own calendar for specific tasks. I do that all the time, and let people know that if it shows I'm busy, it's real, and needs a good reason to hijack my time. If it shows I'm "tentative" (in outlook) I can usually move that task or meeting to another time.

That’s how it should be. At my old job, people would just schedule over things if they couldn’t see what they were, or if they could see that something didn’t have any other attendees. Yes, it was toxic.
posted by lunasol at 10:58 PM on June 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


France, Paris, international corporate headquarters (been at several now, not much difference between them), consultant director position: roughly 7.5-hour workdays (35-hour legal workweek, I'm at 39 so the extra hours are compensated with extra paid days off). Caveat: I get my work done, and well, so no one pressures me. In any case, I never pressure my own teams about lunch or break time. Indeed, the time you take for lunch is generally the last thing anyone will gripe about; good managers (which, granted, is also a caveat) will focus on meeting goals within the legal workday. Legally we can take up to 1.5 hours at lunch; culturally, if you don't do it too often and work your hours, you can actually take 2 full hours for lunch. Once or thrice upon a time I may have had a 2.5-hour lunch. (We trekked across Paris to go to our favorite kebab *grin*.) I tend to stick to 1.5 hours max now; usually more than an hour though. We also have two coffee breaks: one in the morning, and one at tea time. Depending on our workload, coffee/tea breaks are 15 minutes to half an hour each.

It's pretty darn nice.
posted by fraula at 4:32 AM on June 25, 2018 [9 favorites]


The advent of google suite (and thus calendars) makes it really easy to schedule meetings, which means people can just get something on your calendar without checking with you first. And in a lot of workplaces, it's not really acceptable to decline those meetings.

In my old job, I would regularly find myself in 5-7 hours of meetings/day, which would just appear on my calendar. The sense of having no control over your schedule, and yet still having expectations associated with a role where you do have control over your schedule, really wears you down after a while. [emphasis added]
I'm at a university right now, and this is basically how it is for me. It is absolutely not acceptable to decline a meeting invitation, and it's not unusual to be involuntarily scheduled for so many that hitting deadlines becomes a problem. (I've noticed this goes hand in hand with being voluntold to work on more projects than I've got time for.) They do, at least, cater the meeting if they hold one between 12 and 1. My department (which deals exclusively with online education) likes to think of itself as being a kind of mini tech firm, though.

I'm salaried, but my 45-minute lunch break isn't paid (this is only the second job I've ever had with an unpaid lunch break, and it drives me nuts) so I prefer to eat at my desk while working and then just leave 45 minutes early, because fuck you for not paying me. But honestly, when I do desk jobs I prefer my "break" to be going for a walk or moving around in some way; when my job is very physical I will actually sit and rest and eat. I'm also legally entitled to my two fifteen-minute (paid) breaks, but at this job I usually work through these, because of the aforementioned deadlines... and being on perpetual contract means I'm always vulnerable (every second contract is non-union part time so they can skirt the union rules of having to hire me permanently after two consecutive years of full-time hours on contract, but they still give me the same workload I have when I'm on a full-time contract, and I'm expected to hit the same targets).

This contemporary workplace dynamic around the lunch break, which is not limited to the tech sector but is by most accounts more extreme there, comes from the same place as the embrace of soylent, which I've written about in a different context:
You know Rob Rinehart, that guy who makes that Soylent meal replacement gunk? Remember that time when he wrote that thing about getting rid of his kitchen? There’s a reason he’s the subject of a fair amount of ridicule from the population at large, and it’s only partly because of the ridiculous name of his product, although the name is a symptom of the same problem. What’s revealed both by that blog post and the product name is a complete and utter contempt for the human experience, a rejection as unnecessary and wasteful a set of cultural touchstones and rituals in which many, even most people find deep meaning and community.
My gf is a gym rat and often isn't home until 8pm or later, and by that point I'm hungry enough to chew off my own foot, but I insist that we eat dinner together more evenings that not (we split cooking duties as close to 50/50 as our schedules allow for a given week). She thinks this is absurd, that I should just eat without her, but I think that shared time together is important "relationship maintenance". (A term I borrowed from her; she is a great believer in "maintenance" activities; things you will *sometimes* do even if you don't want to or aren't in the mood for, or even if it will be bothersome to you for some other reason--i.e., being goddamn starving from waiting so long to eat--because your partner wants to and/or because doing so will help maintain or even strengthen your bond.)
posted by Fish Sauce at 6:34 AM on June 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


There is no clock for salaried employees, right?
Nope. Being salaried means that I don't get paid overtime. There's still a clock, although it's an Outlook calendar rather than an actual punch-clock. I am required to mark out my calendar in advance with the times that I will be there. The available times are between 7:30 and 5:00, Monday to Friday. If I stay late or work on a weekend, that's unpaid overtime. I must start and end on the half-hour. I am allowed three half-hour paperwork slots a day, one first-thing in the morning, one at lunch, and one last thing in the afternoon. I can mark out time for other approved projects. (These have to be special projects. If I just get behind on my email, I need to finish that up on my own time.) Otherwise, my schedule is open, and any student with a computer has access to it and can make appointments. I don't have the power to approve or disapprove student appointments, and they can be made anytime up to an hour before they occur. I get an email if someone makes a same-day appointment. If a student walks in without an appointment, I'm required to see them, even if it's just to help them schedule an official appointment. This is all official office policy, and conforming to it is one of the things evaluated in our annual performance reviews.

I could come in at 8:30 and take a half-hour lunch. Nobody does, because there's no place to go, and you just end up spending it sitting at your desk answering email anyway. A couple of people take hour lunches and go somewhere, but that doesn't work for me, because I can't get there at 8:00. I've been taking a college class every semester, and the ones that work meet early in the morning.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:11 AM on June 25, 2018


This is hell, isn't it? We're living in hell.
posted by corvikate at 7:35 AM on June 25, 2018 [3 favorites]


A worker who's calendar is so busy it does not admit a lunch hour has two options. First, decline the goddamn meeting. Second, schedule your own damn lunch hour meeting as busy.

Coming in to say exactly this. If you're too busy to manage your own calendar hire an assistant to do that for you. I promise that I and others like me are competent enough to click "decline" on your Outlook invitation.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:24 AM on June 25, 2018


I'm not in a position to hire an assistant--not entirely sure what I'd need one for, either; there are enough bullshit jobs in this department as it is. I'm also not in a position to decline meetings from my director. That is not done. That is a thing that gets me written up by HR for insubordination and makes me unemployed next time my contract is up for renewal, which is twice a year. Guess where 90% of my meeting invites come from. I'm not some management level dude who just doesn't know how to use a calendar, I'm the one who actually does the work management is assigning being told by my boss, or just as often my boss' boss that I better get my ass into that meeting room at the appointed time or maybe my contract won't be renewed, regardless what I else I have to do. Right of refusal is not something I actually have at my job.

I believe this was explained not once, but twice, but maybe third time is the charm?
posted by Fish Sauce at 10:54 AM on June 25, 2018 [10 favorites]


Perhaps the companies chew through and spit out employees within four or five years of leaving school because that's when they realize that setting boundaries with your employer is good for your mental health.
posted by clawsoon at 10:54 AM on June 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


Fish sauce: apologies, i was speaking to the general crowd at large. I was using your words as a convenient illustration of the problem that others have. Apologies if it came across as a direct address, i was not reading carefully enough to realize a need to make that more clear.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:04 AM on June 25, 2018


I work for an international company and with teammates from all over the US and the world - so declining lunch time meetings can't really be done. Eastern timezone lunch time is 9am pacific time for example.

However, of all the corporate indignities, lacking a set lunch time is a minor one in my opinion. I've done the lunch in, and the lunch out thing - no restaurants around any of my many past office locations are hurting for people leaving the office around lunch time, and many days I'd rather browse the internet anyways.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:15 PM on June 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


One of the best bosses I've ever worked with always blocked off 12:00-1:00PM in Outlook as a repeating meeting, every day, and always either ate lunch in the break room or went out to lunch with someone. As a result it was socially acceptable for everyone else in the company to do the same (absent some really compelling, hair-on-fire reason) and in many ways I think the cornerstone of the company culture was everyone sitting around and not talking about work and generally shooting the shit for an hour. I certainly stuck around that company longer than I would have because of it, and I know others did as well.

That lesson stuck with me, and I've seen the same thing on teams inside bigger organizations (where the "culture" really exists at the level of the team/department, not the company); the teams that you probably want to be on are the ones where everyone stops working and goes out to lunch (or stays in or whatever) together. The team where everyone is heads-down at their desks, crumbs dropping into their keyboards... probably not the plum assignment.

And really all it takes is a manager or team lead who has both the ability and the willingness to set their own work down for an hour and set the example that doing so is acceptable. But if that attitude doesn't come down from higher, it makes it really hard for anyone else to do it, too. Which is stupid, because the value anyone is actually managing to extract from their employees by making them sit at their desks and eat is, I'd argue strongly, very minimal indeed.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:16 PM on June 25, 2018 [3 favorites]


If anyone would like to recommend reading about food from an anthropological perspective, I'm all ears. Something like "Thinking, Fast and Slow," written by an academic for the lay audience.

The idea of shared food norms building shared identity is interesting to me. My fiancee and I have extremely, extremely different food norms, and I wonder how that will affect us as a family. We've gone up to the brink of separate groceries a few times, because we're so dissatisfied with eating each other's cooking.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:10 PM on June 25, 2018


Ugh, the writing in that article really bothers me. It's all kind of faux anthropological with out really being convincing or tying everything together, even if it has some interesting ideas. And all those damn choppy fragments.
posted by blue shadows at 11:56 PM on June 25, 2018 [4 favorites]


For people who are "invited" to a large number of BS meetings which:
  • your presence is not critically necessary,
  • you would like to decline,
is it possible to bring a laptop or notepad and do useful work while you participate in the polite fiction that you are attending the meeting?

I've seen that done a lot by busy VCs and senior executives who "need" to attend lots of meetings - they are physically present, and available if absolutely necessary, but unless they are called upon directly, they are virtually always working on something else.
posted by theorique at 9:48 AM on June 26, 2018


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