Lunch culture seems to vary a lot from place to place.
I will admit to sometimes eating lunch at my desk, even though it is seems a highly unusual thing at European universities. But these days it is rare for me to do that, partly because most people aren’t and partly because it is just nicer to take a moment and eat properly.
At my university, and it seems the other Swedish universities I’ve been, there are two main options for lunch. We have a well stocked kitchen (if you don’t count cutlery, which is always disappearing) with a couple of fridges, a bank of microwaves and of course a couple of coffee machines.* It is all very civilized with dishes and some dishwashers for which the responsibility to empty rotates through the departments. So even if you bring a lunch, it is rare to eat out of containers at your desk.
The second common option is a cafeteria in one of the adjoining buildings. There are various other spots at varying distances but especially in winter people tend to stick to the closest, easiest option.
Now that things are back in full swing, I am again noticing the divide of where people tend to eat. Most of the professors in our department eat at the cafeteria while post-docs and grad students eat in the lunchroom. I find the food at the cafeteria generally pretty poor. Usually there is a meat, fish or vegetarian option that you can choose between or a number of sad sandwiches or salads. The food tends to be overly salty and yet bland. I’m not a fan. I’m no longer poor but I am cheap (ie I want value for my money). So the idea of spending more than the equivalent of $10 a day on food I don’t really like seems ridiculous.
For me my dislike of the cafeteria option means I generally bring my lunch and eat in the lunchroom. I like having somewhere to go for lunch and it has meant that I’ve gotten to know some people that I likely wouldn’t have. However, I always wonder if I am missing out on some component of the department inner workings by not joining the gang that heads to the cafeteria.
In response to improving communication in the department, the head suggested we have departmental ‘teacher’s lunch’ on Tuesdays last winter. We are small group so it is actually possible to chat over lunch in a meaningful way. It is an informal meeting with no real agenda but it does give everyone a platform to share information. I’ve learned a lot about how the department and higher levels of organization work by having lunch with my colleagues once a week. I’ve also gotten to know them better. Sure I eat cafeteria food once a week but it seems worth it.
Now that the academic year has started, we’ll have Tuesday lunches again. I don’t look forward to the food but I’ll keep up better with what is happening in the department than if I didn’t eat lunch with my colleagues. Before these lunches, I would think about whether I should make an effort to join the cafeteria crowd but now it is just easier to know that it will happen on Tuesday.
In my experience, these kinds of causal meetings can alter the way people interact. It certainly helps department politics to sit around and chat on a regular basis, rather than just have formal meetings. Lunch and coffee breaks are an obvious point where people can have a chance to interact and feel apart of something beyond their own research group. For one, I’m glad we’ve started collectively going for lunches and it makes me feel more apart of the department. But I’m still glad I also get a chance to mix with everyone in the lunchroom too.
What is the lunch culture at your department? Do you think it matters?
*Swedes take their coffee seriously