Friday, January 15, 2016

Comparing the culture of lunch

In 15 years of my career in Pakistan in various organizations and kinds, I don't recall a single work day when I had taken lunch alone. I also do not remember any special effort I had to make for this to happen. It was just the way it was. Whether they were free lunches extorted from good-natured bosses, or diarrhoea inducing meals in office cafeterias, lunch breaks in Pakistani offices were expected to be communal. And if any one of us ever brought a home-cooked meal, it was unimaginable not to share. No one would leave the table hungry, even if s/he wasn't hungry to begin with. Working lunches were also taken together, where everybody pretended to be working but in reality were just eating and chatting like usual.

In my first week of working in Canada in an office environment, I realized that a significant difference in the corporate culture here is the omitted tradition of eating together. People prefer to eat alone and communal meals are occasions planned in advance and pre-booked on e-calenders after deliberations.

Lonely me would stare at my lonely sandwich and lose all appetite.

It took me a couple of days to realize that this wasn't because people are busy or unfriendly. They simply possess a heightened sense of consciousness and respect for each other's boundaries. Lunch time is considered private downtime and your meal is considered only yours. Everyone's space is sacred and uninvited invasions are deemed to be abrasive.

To put things in my own perspective, I started recalling times when my private emotional space was frequently violated in Pakistani workplaces - during times other than lunch times. (some) Male colleagues ogling and commenting on my 'non-religious' clothing; female colleagues unabashedly asking very personal questions; and unfamiliar colleagues spreading toxic rumours about me just because I wore western clothes, smoked and had an eyebrow piercing (or was it because I was a woman?). As a result of my rational memorization, I decided to embrace the trade off between enjoyable lunch hours and respectable work hours.

All said and done, I only had to share my thoughts about the stark difference in lunch culture in Canada with a few colleagues and my e-calendar has started filling up with lunch invites. My sad sandwiches have started tasting slightly better in the company of other wonderful people, even though I secretly crave to taste their food.

On still-lonely lunch days, I am learning to enjoy my boundaries and continuing to craft unfulfilled plans of better cooking.