Working in an office is a series of indignities you’re forced to endure with people you’d never choose to spend time with if you had a choice. From pretending to laugh at your boss’ terrible jokes to gritting your teeth and smiling as an idiot presents your best idea as his own, not to mention all the inappropriate at-desk flossing, nail clipping, and personal phone calls—if you were to build a human zoo to study us at our lowest moments, it would look just like a fluorescent-lit, cubicle-lined, white-collar office.
Lunchtime is when office workers are at their worst. Like dogs who forget their domestication and will snap their owner’s hand off if he tries to reach for their food, lunch is when people abandon the last of their human decency and reveal the monsters they truly are. Unlike in restaurants, where walking through the door is like signing a social contract that upholds some level of appropriate behavior, the false sense of privacy you maintain all day via those cubicle half-walls also lets your neighbor fool himself into thinking he’s all alone with that chicken parm.
There are thousands of kinds of weird eaters, but only a handful that become straight-up sociopathic when you put them in an office environment. They don’t all mean harm, but if you’ve ever had the bad luck to sit near one of these people, you know how much pain they can cause. Here, we describe the ten worst lunchtime offenders, and tell you how to fight back.
You’ve been looking forward to your leftover 100-layer lasagna all morning; in fact, you made sure to only eat half of it last night so you’d have enough for a good lunch today. But when you make it to the fridge, the only thing in there is the empty paper bag you brought it in, left just to mock you. The Thief has struck again. Though you’ve always thought you worked with a pretty average group of schmucks, the Thief’s stealth and ability to elude capture for years has you wondering if they’re all secret criminal geniuses. While no one’s ever figured it out, we’re going to reveal the Thief’s true identity: It’s the big boss. Surprised? The most compulsive thieves are always the ones who don’t actually need the things they take; they do it for the thrill, which is what makes them so dangerous.
Counterattack: Even if you could prove it was him, the Thief’s status puts him above any form of office justice. So what’s a poor lunch-bringer to do? You can cross your fingers and pray that he skips over over your goodies and targets someone else, or you can boost your odds by making your food look as unappealing as possible. Store liquids in unlabeled mason jars, and swap out your nice new Tupperware for recycled cottage cheese containers.
The Stink Bomber
You’re sitting at your desk, minding your own business, when you first start to sniff. As you sit, confused and disoriented, it continues to waft, gaining strength until it’s a full-on nasal assault. It’s this guy’s lunch again. We can get down with some pretty ripe foods—who doesn’t love street meat, fish tacos, or tamarind curries?—but there’s a time and a place for those weapons-grade aromas, and it’s not while your neighbor is trying to decipher a spreadsheet. Bringing that stuff into the office is olfactory napalm, taking down anyone in the vicinity with extreme prejudice. The reason for this obliviousness? Sensory adaptation. When any of your senses are exposed to an extreme stimulant for a too long, your brain gets tired of processing the information and basically turns the volume down, so you start thinking it’s not so bad after all. As he perpetrates his lunchtime terrorism, going through his head is, Really, this Stilton funk isn’t so bad! Nobody’s going to notice it.
Counterattack: While some people will try to throw a passive-aggressive “Mmm, what smell’s so good?” and hope that simply drawing attention to his odorousness will shame him into submission, it’s more likely to backfire. Remember, this guy doesn’t understand basic social values—couch your disapproval in niceties and next time he’ll just bring an extra portion of his tuna surprise for you.
The Brown Bagger
Fact: Bringing your lunch to work is thrifty, convenient, and a hell of a lot healthier than running out for yet another dollar-slice meal. But every office has that one guy who turns brown-bagging into an Olympic event, packing a three-course meal in his custom bento-box tupperware, complete with full-sized bottle of Sriracha and mini pepper mill. He’s got a knife roll in his desk to slice up some last-minute tomatoes for that sandwich, and will monopolize the toaster oven for half an hour—he may as well lay down a tablecloth and candles. He’s never met a gadget he doesn’t like (Banana keeper? Got it.) and has downloaded every productivity app out there to make sure he’s living his Best Life.
Counterattack: We’d never advocate a life of crime, but you’re going to have to start hiding this guy’s Tupperware. Enough of those expensive containers go missing, and he’s going to start rethinking bringing them in at all.
The Loud Chewer
A close relative of the coffee slurper who has you contemplating murder by stapler in all your morning meetings, the loud chewer makes noises you didn’t think were humanly possible while taking down an unassuming-looking sandwich from the corner deli. How does he make turkey and cheese on a roll sound like a pack of hyenas let loose on a Vegas buffet? We’ve never gotten close enough to get a good look—the noise would be too deafening—but we’re assuming it involves an extra row of teeth and a state-of-the-art sound system installed behind his tonsils. There’s something unpleasantly intimate about hearing what goes on inside someone’s mouth, especially when it’s forced on you without warning—like an old college friend Instagramming his colonoscopy.
Counterattack: You’ve got headphones, now’s the time to use them. If you want to go old-school (literally—we’re talking grammar school-level tactics here), anonymously emailing him a picture of Mr. Ed at the feedbag might get him to reevaluate his life choices.
The Nosy Neighbor
We get it: It can be tough to make chitchat in an office, and food’s an easy topic of conversation. But does she always have to strike the exact second you’ve got a mouthful of pad Thai? All of a sudden you’re being interrogated—What are you eating? Where did you get it? Have you tried drunken noodles? Have you heard about her trip to Bangkok?—as you surreptitiously try to not choke on a shrimp. We’re not calling for a lunchtime vow of silence, but a little respect for your meal’s privacy shouldn’t be too much to ask. There’s a reason the water cooler’s the traditional office conversation starter, not the fridge.
Counterattack: Next time she strikes, answer freely—no matter what you’re chewing on. For someone who makes eaters her conversational targets, she’s horrified by people who talk with their mouths full. Hit her once with some truly horrific see-food, like split pea soup or spinach salad, and she’ll never talk to you between noon and two again.
The Fast Foodie
So your office is directly above a fast-food joint. All of your coworkers have decided to politely ignore the fact, or at least keep their McNugget habits confined to the privacy of the handicapped bathroom stall—all except this guy. He’ll proudly stroll through the office when lunch rolls around, Dollar Menu haul in hand and French-fry stench wafting from his person, and proceed to eat at his desk as if it were prime rib au jus. He’s so self-confident in his frugal feast that you start to question your own life choices—can you really afford that ten-dollar green juice habit on your salary? His lack of inhibition also makes him the guy who comes up with the “so crazy it just might work” idea when your boss needs it; you could learn a lot from him.
Counterattack: Respect. He’s so far above your level, all you can do is stand back in awe.
The Fad Dieter
The last thing you want to hear from the payroll department is “I’m sorry, I’m just on Day 3 of the Blueprint Cleanse and I’m having a hard time focusing right now” when you’re all trying to do is get paid. And yet there are so many people that not only go in for diets like juicing or the GOOP detox, but also bring their baggage into the office and make you a part of it. She’ll try to convince you that it’s not so bad—she feels so clean and the food’s actually really delicious—all while burning holes in your Diet Coke and with her eyes. Counterintuitively, she’s always the first one to get out-of-control wasted at the holiday party—kelp salad just doesn’t soak up the booze the way pepperoni pizza does.
Counterattack: Do nothing. The diets themselves are punishment enough. Besides, her willpower’s going to give out in a day and a half anyway, and then you’ll never have to hear about it again..until the next trendy diet comes around.
Get your sandwich at the deli on the corner? He knows of one that’s twice as good just two blocks further away. Tacos from your favorite truck that only comes around once a week? His guy comes tomorrow, and they’re a dollar cheaper. He’s got an opinion on every Chinese lunch special in your Seamless delivery field, and he’s constantly taking himself out for incredibly fancy meals just to boost his Yelp 100 list. Every story he tells ends up with an account of the Yelp review he wrote about it afterward, and he tries to get you to follow his Instagram account, @Eatz4Lyfe, at least once a week. Fact: He only stopped admitting to liking Guy Fieri when Pete Wells eviscerated him in the New York Times—but he still religiously checks where the Triple D has stopped every time he goes to a new town.
Counterattack: Your first instinct, as a reasonable, food-loving person, is to respond to his ludicrous claims of illuminati status in kind and school him with your knowledge. Don’t fall into his trap! The thing he wants most in the world is another “equal” to talk shop with, no matter how insane or ill-informed his conversation is. What you need to do is play dead, conversationally speaking. Fake absolute boredom and ignorance about who Eric Ripert is or why Cuban sandwiches are better in Miami, and he’ll quickly lose interest and move on to a more alluring target.
The Pastry Pusher
The first time home-baked cookies show up in the office kitchen, you have to double-check to make sure it’s not your birthday. You go out of your way to thank the person who brought them in, and you eat three more than you meant to because you can’t help but pick one up every time you pass by. But by the sixth time that jumbo Tupperware shows up, you’ve learned the real story: the Pusher is a wannabe baker whose lack of willpower is equaled only by her surplus of chocolate chips. She can’t help but try out the latest Christina Tosi recipe, but she knows that keeping the results in her house will only end in a late-night Girls-and-compost-cookies binge. So she brings it to the office, where she knows there are plenty of borderline dumpster divers who will eat anything that gets put in front of them, and walks away feeling virtuous for foisting that diabetes onto someone else.
Counterattack: Pretend to go on a raw-food diet and talk loudly about how much better you feel since you gave up processed sugar; not only will she think twice about continuing to flaunt her own indulgent tendencies, but you’ll also peer pressure yourself out of mindlessly grabbing a bite the next time you walk past. You wouldn’t want to get caught cheating on your brand-new lifestyle by Bob in Accounting, would you?
The Gym Bro
His desk is a graveyard of half-empty beef jerky bags and Muscle Milk containers, and he pounds three hard-boiled eggs every day at 2:30pm, precisely 45 minutes after his lunchtime gym session wraps up. He regularly lugs in a full Trader Joe’s bag of “supplies,” and will inevitably forget about the economy-sized tub of Greek yogurt he stashed in the back of the fridge until the thing has turned green. It wouldn’t be so bad if he wasn’t also silently judging you every time you walked past him with a bag of chips; you just know that he’s also the guy who offers unsolicited advice on everyone’s form, and stands around next to the weights more than he actually uses them. He’s all show, no go.
Counterattack: Sports science is notoriously contradictory; what’s deemed healthy by one study is a nutritional nightmare in another. If you can’t stand his smug all-protein regime a minute longer, email him the results from the latest research that claims tortilla chips are the secret to boosting muscle mass. At least then you’ll be able to join him for some nachos the next time he’s powering up after the gym.