Rules of Survival

It’s Wednesday morning and you are at the office on your PC diligently catching up on e-mails from the holiday weekend. Suddenly, you hear that all too familiar “bing”, signaling you that you have a new email. Frustrated that your morning rhythm has been interrupted, you go to your inbox to see the all important email. In the subject line you see “Department Potluck Friday 11:30am”. What is your first emotion? 

If you posed this question to me several years ago, my first emotion would’ve been fear. There was a time when the thought of an office potluck was completely overwhelming…for several reasons. As a high strung Type A germaphobe with Crohn’s, there is almost nothing that I hate more than a surprise potluck. Honestly, those two words together almost seem too cruel to even be real.  While you may know what people will bring because there is a sign up sheet, you never know what ingredients were used to prepare each dish.  You also don’t know the cleanliness of the preparer.  Then, when you add all of that to the fact that you are typically given several days advance notice of a potluck, you can definitely understand the panic.  Fortunately, I have developed a strategy to deal with office potlucks. 

It may be hard to believe, but there really is a science to surviving an office potluck.  If done wrong, you risk becoming sick and ruining relationships.  Let’s face it, every office has politics.  So, if you improperly handle an office potluck, you could insult someone and damage your career opportunities.  I learned this lesson at my first office potluck.  I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was an intern working for the city, and it was the summer before my freshman year of college.  The ladies in my department decided to arrange a birthday potluck for me.  At that time, my Crohn’s was not diagnosed so I had no idea when or why I would become violently sick.  The director of the department circulated a sign up sheet so members of the department could select the items they wanted to bring.  Once everyone had the opportunity to sign up and bring an item, the final food list consisted of turkey, dressing, mac and cheese, greens, yams, gooey butter cake, pot roast, homemade chocolate cake, and soda.  I can still remember my excitement when I saw the menu because it contained all of my favorite food items.   

When potluck day finally arrived, I was determined to eat a little of every food item…no food would go to waste on my watch.  Friends, things did not end well.  To make a long story short, the food went down smooth but came out fighting.  I became very sick and projectile vomited the director’s dressing that was a family recipe that she was very proud of. I am not sure if it was more upsetting to the director that I projectile vomited up her dressing, or that I did it on her…either way my summer internship ended early. I also think running out of the conference room holding my backside while my stomach sounded like it was loudly devouring itself also didn’t help. 

As I have shared before, my road dealing with crohn’s has been an interesting and sometimes painful one. I still shudder when I think about the times I forced myself to eat something that I knew would make me sick, solely because I did not want to answer questions. Once I was at a banquet with my husband’s boss. When they brought around the food to our table, I didn’t touch my plate because it was full of things I couldn’t eat.  His boss asked my what was wrong and I shared that I had crohn’s. I thought that would end the conversation…the night of fun was just beginning.  She quickly waved down a waiter and said “she needs a good salad”, and turned to me and said “everyone can eat salad”.  Afraid to correct the Vice President of Human Resources for a major corporation, I simply smiled.  Before I could blink, the waiter returned with a plate full of the greenest and leafiest lettuce I had ever seen in my entire life. Once the plate was handed to me, my husband’s boss turned to me and said “eat up”.  She literally watched as I took fork full after fork full of that darn lettuce and stuffed it in my mouth.  Now, if you know anything about crohn’s then you know lettuce is the devil for a crohnie (what we call one another). It is like Superman’s cryptionite. Within an hour, I was doubled over in pain limping out to the car. By the time we made it home I was vomiting and barely able to walk.  I ended up spending 6 days in the hospital.

So, to keep you from being injured at office potlucks or banquets, here are my survival recommendations: 

1. Only bring what you can eat. For the office potluck everyone is expected to bring something. If you have dietary restrictions, pick an item to bring that you know you can eat. This ensures that you have something to eat when everyone else is scarfing down food, but you also look like a team player by contributing to the potluck. See, it’s a win win! My go to contribution is a bacon, sausage, and pepperoni pizza without sauce. Although very few people eat pizza without sauce…I don’t care.  My contribution to potlucks will always be something I can eat so I am not starving while everyone else is scarfing down food.  It’s my money…so of course I will only spend it on something I can eat. 

2. If you don’t know what’s in it, don’t put it in you. While a dish may look delicious and harmless, it may have mystery ingredients waiting to terrorize your body. Don’t assume that your nose or eyes can tell you all the ingredients. The best way to get information is to ask the person that brought the dish.  But, I acknowledge that not everyone feels comfortable doing this…for several of reasons.  You may be afraid to look snotty asking for the ingredients.  Or, you may be shy and not comfortable speaking at all. The reason for failing to ask doesn’t really matter. The takeaway is if you can’t obtain accurate information on the ingredients, don’t put it in your belly. 

3. Master the art of the mash up. You know how it goes, everyone gets in line and puts food from each container onto their plate. As you pass each food item, your nosey co-workers look to see what items you choose or pass up.  Feeling pressured, you put all the selections on your plate, even the ones you know you cannot eat. Faced with mounds of food, what do you do? Easy, you sit down among your co-workers, strike up a conversation and move the food around on your plate pretending to eat it.  This is actually a trick I learned as a kid when my parents insisted on stuffing me with vegetables. I would stuff my vegetables into dinner rolls or under the meat on my plate. The sky is the limit with this option.  Also, if you followed my first suggestion, you have one safe and edible item that you can eat.  If eaten correctly, no one will notice that you neglected the rest of your plate. 

4. Develop your story. Before I mastered items 1-3, I developed a canned story to explain why I did not eat at company potlucks.  When asked “hey, why aren’t you eating, don’t you like the food”? I would respond, “oh, I’m a germaphobe and psychologically I cannot eat food that other people have touched and picked over. The thought of skin cells falling into my food keeps me up at night. Also, I cannot eat food prepared by people I know have pets and have questionable hygiene.” Pause, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking “wow, that canned story seems so much worse than just telling the truth.” Shockingly, it is not. See, people seem better able to understand a co-worker being a germaphobe than a co-worker having crohn’s disease. While more people are talking about this illness, there is still very little awareness about it. So, I was completely fine being viewed as the weird germaphobe. 

5. At the first sign of trouble, GET OUT! If you fail to do any of the above recommended items, it is very important that you plan your exit in advance. You need to know the exits out of the room and the location of the nearest restroom. When your stomach starts arguing with you, get out immediately. Do not attempt to negotiate with your stomach.  And, for heaven’s sake, DO NOT ever underestimate a fart!  That could be a costly AND messy mistake.  

Now, I am sure some people are reading this thinking “maybe you should just be honest and disclose that you have crohn’s or other dietary restrictions.” That is a very reasonable suggestion. I mean really, why let unspoken rules force you to do something to your detriment? Asked another way, why let unspoken rules force you to eat or pretend to eat food when you really don’t owe anyone an explanation? Well, we live in the real world. While we can sit and debate about what the social rules or office political boundaries should be…the reality is there are current rules and expectations in place. In order to get to the top, if that is your goal, there is a game to be played. Let’s face it, eating and talking about an illness that involves crapping your brains out don’t necessarily mesh well. So, the recommendations above are your safety net. 

As I shared with you in a earlier post, I tend to dance to the beat of my own drum. So while I may have used these recommendations early in my career…I REFUSE to do any of them now (except item 1). While I don’t broadcast my illness, I have no problem declining food and completely devouring the one item I brought. I unapologetically decline food and drinks and while not rude, do not feel led to explain. When pushed on the issue, I simply state “no thanks”. No matter what form the inquiry into my refusal to eat takes, my response is always the same. This has been quite effective and people give up fairly quickly when I repeat myself. 

I cannot tell you which option to choose, because only you know your situation and office politics. Also, only you know how high you desire to climb on the corporate ladder. I can say that after several hospitalizations from food at office potlucks, I said screw the corporate ladder…I actually burned the ladder. I have learned any environment that requires me to comprise to my detriment, is simply not for me. 

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