Socializing and food

My brother recently wrote a blog post about the social custom of “going for coffee” and how non-coffee-drinkers, like Mormons (or rather people of the LDS faith, to be more accurate), miss out on some significant networking opportunities because of their choice not to drink—or be percieved as drinking—coffee.

His post grabbed my attention and made me want to write a response, but as with many things that start rattling around in my head, what I really wanted to write started morphing before I could finish writing it. Originally I started writing about how Coffee (the concept, with a capital C) has diverged from the literal coffee (the beverage). Having coffee with friends these days could mean tea, cocoa, soda, juice, or a bagel and water. Mormons and others really shouldn’t sweat the semantics—just accept and extend invitations for Coffee.

But where I really think this post is going is a broader examination of food in society in general. You see, I have several strikes against me when it comes to social food consumption. I’m LDS (no coffee, tea, or alcohol), a vegan (no meat, dairy, or animal products of any kind) and, until recently, unemployed and watching every penny. An invitation to dinner, a party, a church activity, a reception, to go for a coffee, or any other social gathering becomes a veritable minefield. I imagine it’s much the same for those who have food allergies, special diets, or other reasons why they might not be able to participate fully in food.

I try not to be a pain in the butt about it. As a person with a very stringent diet I don’t expect everyone to anticipate and accommodate me. If there’s something I can eat, great! But if not, it’s no big deal. At least not to me. But it often bothers others. Some see it as their failure to be a good host. Others somehow see it as a threat to their own omnivorous lifestyle and feel a need to justify their choices (or belittle mine). Some even feel the need to tell me just how delicious the food is, and that I should try it. It’s almost impossible to convince people that I’m just fine and am happy just enjoying the company. It really gets tempting to just avoid social situations where there will be food.

The problem is pretty much every social situation includes food! It’s expected, I think. And no matter what other social activities may be included in the event, it seems like you have to at least sample the food or someone is bound to be bothered, insulted, or outright offended–even if it’s just going for coffee at a neutral coffee shop.

To a degree it’s understandable. It’s perhaps even a bit egotistical to assume that people would want to spend time with us for us alone. We feel like we should give them other reasons to spend time with us than just our company. I see this in my own family, actually. Having one sibling in town, we try to get together regularly. But somehow we never feel quite right inviting them to stop by for a just a visit–just to talk. It’s got to be for dinner or dessert.

Involving food also changes the context. What would your first assumption be if a co-worker asked you to join them in the park across the street so they could talk to you? I’m willing to bet it would a different assumption than if they asked you if you wanted to go get a coffee. You’d probably be a little nervous, wondering just what was so important they couldn’t just tell you at the office.

The presence of food is meant to put everyone at ease, to signify that this is meant to be a relaxed situation; no pretext. It’s the universal code: informal situation, relax and have fun.

But it’s unfortunate that those who can’t or won’t participate in the eating element are made to feel unwelcome or discouraged from participating at all. And I’m not sure where the change needs to come from. Can people learn to not be bothered by someone who is not eating or drinking, but is otherwise enthusiasticaly engaged in being social? Can we design some sort of “foodless chat” event and have it catch on?

Can people like me learn some coping strategies, like sneaking an empty glass or someone’s emptied plate to hold to give the illusion of having eaten, or learn some slight-of-hand to slip some food we’ve brought ourselves onto a plate? Or find ways to handle it with humor (“I’m the designated dieter”)?

I’m not sure what the answer is, but perhaps we can at least be a little more aware of the various reasons why people may want to be involved in the activity without participating in the food. We can help them feel welcome and, if we’re personally aware of their food “issues”, help run interference for them.

I’m open to advice here. Are there ways that I, as the one with the troublesome diet, can put others more at ease and reassure them I’m not secretly holding a grudge because there’s nothing there I can eat? Are there better ways of handling these situations I’m not aware of? Please, jump in and comment!

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