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Ask Mister Manners: The smell of my co-worker’s lunch is bothering me. Can I say something?

As employees return to the office, an age-old issue has come wafting back, too.
Woman eating lunch at the desk.
How to eat — and deal with someone else's — fragrant lunch at work.Xsandra / Getty Images/iStockphoto

For the millions of Americans working entirely or partially from home, some elements of office life are truly worth missing. A reason to put on shoes, for starters. Leftover birthday cake in the communal kitchen. Post-weekend dishing with our work friends.

The list of things we don’t love about return to office is probably twice as long: Sitting in traffic. Awkward elevator conversations. Paper jams. Loud phone talkers. Bad fluorescent lighting.

And then there are issues far more complex. Among them, the scent of our lunches.

While there are some aromas that enjoy near-universal appeal (freshly baked brownies, buttery popcorn), even crowd-pleasers like bacon and coffee can have their detractors. And for those ingredients that are acknowledged odor offenders, they can still be capable of provoking joy for many. Onions, for example. Brussels sprouts. Tuna salad. Hard-boiled eggs. Garlic.

With consensus about what smells good and what does not being so hard to come by, the appropriateness of certain deskside food choices is no sure bet.

(Mealtime with Mister Manners is a column that delves into a smorgasbord of modern-day dining dilemmas.)

Are we all out of practice?

For work-from-home warriors who vow they will never again park themselves in a cube farm, being free to eat whatever they want whenever they want has been liberating. If their workday meals are odiferous, so be it. (Only your cat knows for sure.)

And though the office microwave is seeing far less action than it did in the past, there are still entire sectors where remote work is not a possibility. Or where hybrid work is now the norm, with team members showing face one, two or more days a week. And whether they are brown-bagging it or doing takeout, those who eat at their desks may be making unintended incursions into a commercial space’s air quality.

The 'Lunch Box Moment'

The matter takes on an added dimension when the food in question originates from a country beyond U.S. shores. Liverwurst. Kimchi. Curries. Surströmming. Iru. Limburger cheese. The phrase “Lunch Box Moment” was coined to recognize the pang of embarrassment experienced by first-generation schoolchildren — particularly those from Asian backgrounds — who found themselves isolated or ridiculed for bringing cuisine from their family’s culture to school. And years ago though those incidents may have been, the scars often run deep. Unwitting co-workers who make even a passing reference to such foods as looking “interesting,” risk stirring up memories many would rather leave in the past.

So, before you say something about someone else’s native cuisine, be sure there’s no cultural bias behind your sentiments (scentiments?).

Scents and sensitivity

On the flip side, if the smell of a colleague’s daily go-to is driving those in the vicinity to distraction or queasiness, the fan of strongly scented food should not be vibing: “I like it, so deal with it.”

In a perfect world, we’d all have our own private offices with ventilation systems so effective our meal choices would leave nary a trace on the air. Since that’s mere fantasy in open-plan 2023, we must remind ourselves offices are shared spaces where we commune for one primary purpose: work.

The office-food quiz

If you’re unsure whether your meal is stirring nostrils in an unwelcome way, start with these questions:

  • Is your lunch so fragrant it’s changing the flavor profile of other food while it’s in the refrigerator?
  • Does the microwave require airing out after you warm your meal?
  • Do your dish’s aromas linger in the air even after the meal is done?
  • Are there people in your office with strong scent aversions or a condition known as hyperosmia? This can be particularly true for those who are pregnant. (Don’t watch this infamous clip from "The Office" on a full stomach.Hyperosmia can also affect those prone to migraines or someone undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

If you answered yes to any of the above, chances are good you’re upsetting more than a few co-workers.

Ensure you don’t knock their noses out of joint by following these guidelines:

  • Wipe down the microwave after use and don’t keep pungent items in the fridge overnight or longer.
  • If you suspect you’ve gone nose blind to your cuisine’s boisterous bouquet, ask those in the immediate vicinity whether they can detect it and request they candidly let you know if it becomes bothersome.
  • Be responsive and understanding if you are approached by those who are sensitive to the aromas in your food.
  • Time your lunches around when others will be out of the office.
  • Wipe down your desk and tightly wrap and seal any food containers when through; securely tie your garbage bag and discard in a kitchen area — not in the bin beneath your desk.
  • Enjoy lunch away from your desk — whether in a designated office dining area or outside.
  • When all else fails, save the truly redolent food for when you dine out or at home.

Last but not least, for the offended, remember: Different does not equal bad. If your aversion to a certain smell is simply because it is unfamiliar to you, open your eyes to the possibility you might actually like the dish if you tried it yourself.

Variety is the spice of life, and though we don’t want to intrude on others with our lunches, surely we can all do with better fuel at work than a quotidian cream-cheese and jelly on white.