Power ordering: What to eat when you’re out to lunch with your boss

In 1969, Vogue’s Book of Etiquette offered this piece of advice about eating at the office: Don’t do it.

“Even though he may have the most polished of manners, a human being eating is not a particularly attractive sight,” maintained the unnamed authors. “A brilliant actor or actress can transform the activity into an engrossing spectacle, but few of us possess such talent. If you are allowed to eat at your desk, you should not abuse the privilege, but eat quietly, and clean up immediately afterward.”

Sadly, no office employee would consider eating at a desk a “privilege” now. Unless you work for Tom Ford, who dissuades his employees from eating in the office because he doesn’t like being around the smell of food, the act is either an expected or necessary public performance.

What you might not realize is that some of the power plays that shaped your high school cafeteria experience are replicated in the workplace lunch setting, too. Decisions about what to eat and how much—which come with obvious consequences to your health and well-being—are highly influenced by a need to be liked. And when you dine with the person who has the greatest influence over your career, he will likely indirectly control what you eat.

The bahn mi is the message

Lenny Vartanian, a psychology professor at the University of New South Wales, is an expert on the impact of external factors—and especially social pressure—on eating behavior. Though he hasn’t investigated the interplay of food and power dynamics in a workplace, he says that a couple of general truths about eating and social cues would probably apply.

We all know the person who pulls the I’ll-order-last move at off-site lunch meetings, hoping someone else will opt for the self-righteous steamed veggies with tofu first.

When you make choices about food, you’re trying to control how people view you, says Vartanian. “You’re communicating something specific about yourself, and a greasy burger says something very different from a salad.” In this way, your lunch is like an extension of your wardrobe or statement facial hair.

Managing impressions through food choices can be a fairly conscious act. “You might realize that if you’re eating ribs and getting sauce all over your hands and on your shirt, that’s not a good look,” Vartanian explains. But other times, someone’s not aware that they’re making selections because they want to be seen as the type who prefers nutritious, light foods, which are tied to things like perceived intelligence or because they want to conform to stereotypes about masculinity (by eating red meat and heavy meals, for example) or femininity (by grazing on salads and fruit).

Follow the leader

The next principle applies in situations that are less habit-based and more uncertain, like a client meeting at a restaurant or any meal in a job interview situation. At such occasions, people tend to look for a point of reference to decide what’s acceptable to eat and the appropriate portion size.

This type of modeling is usually less conscious than the desire to control how others will judge your food choices.

“We don’t say ‘Hmm, whom should I follow?’ in the same way that if you saw people running out of an office building screaming fire, you wouldn’t have to consciously go through, ‘Well, they’re running that way and they seem to know what they’re doing, so I’ll follow them,’” says Vartanian. “You just go with the flow.”

 Decisions about what to eat and how much are highly influenced by a need to be liked. 

In the case of a meal, the person pointing the way to safety, saving you from social stigma, will be the one who holds the most power and authority in the room. So your boss would probably be the first person you’d look to, Vartanian hypothesizes. It doesn’t matter whether your bigwig knows anything about food. If the CEO has bad eating habits, you’d still follow his or her lead, “just as people tend to buy cars endorsed by a sports stars who know nothing about cars.”

Because there’s plenty of evidence that people model and even synchronize the eating behavior of others in order to ingratiate themselves, “one could also imagine that copying your boss’s food choices might improve relations,” says Suzanne Higgs, a psychobiology researcher and professor at the University of Birmingham. Whether such modeling is a deliberate form of currying favor or totally below one’s mindful awareness—or some mix of the two—is unknown.

How closely you model your eating after your boss might also say something about how much friction exists in your relationship. In her recent review of studies about why people follow social norms, Higgs reports on one 2009 finding that compared the modeling response to a friendly confederate (an actor playing a study participant but hired by the researcher) to an unsociable one and found that mirroring was more pronounced—presumably in a greater effort to gain approval—when there was tension between the confederate and actual study participants.

 “You definitely see a connection between the position of a person in a corporation and what they have for lunch.” 

A different study found that people with low self-esteem and who scored high on a test measuring empathy were more likely than others to follow and mirror a confederate, perhaps because their need for social acceptance was higher. “If we have a strong habitual or personal norm and are not terribly concerned about how others see us then we may be resistant to modeling effects,” Higgs writes.

The dictator at the table

Oron Franco and Ben Rioux are private chefs who’ve worked for CEOs. Both can describe power plays around food and corporate leaders. Neither is familiar with research into eating and social pressures, but their observations align almost perfectly with those of psychologists.

People do mimic CEOs in their orders and habits, both say. “If I were to generalize about the clients I’ve worked for, about 90% of the time, when given a menu, the CEO will go for the steak, or maybe a heavy pasta or lobster,” says Franco, “and I’m only talking about men.” A chief executive’s dining partner will order a similar meal, but it will not be one of the same value if the CEO’s steak is pricey, unless perhaps the CEO is dining with the CFO. “You definitely see a connection between the position of a person in a corporation and what they have for lunch,” Franco explains.

In situations where a powerful CEO is acting as host, or taking a lower ranking colleague to dinner, you will never witness the boss ordering a light meal with water and the guest asking for the lobster with wine. Franco imagines that out-ordering the boss this way could invite negative interpretations. “Or the CEO might think, ‘Okay, this person sticks to what he wants,’ and see that as a virtue,” he adds, “but I’ve never seen anyone have the nerve to do it.”

Other standard CEO moves include ordering off the menu—asking for a sole menuière at an Italian restaurant, for example—and making others wait before eating at a business luncheon, says Rioux. He’s witnessed heads of companies ignore the food on the boardroom lunch table for 30 or 40 minutes letting it get cold while they hold conversations. “All CEOs do this and even with very important guests,” says Rioux. Once the meal finally begins, the guests will eat more slowly than the CEO and then allow their plates to be cleared, abandoning any uneaten food, the very minute the chief executive is finished eating.

When the head of a large corporation hosts a banquet, they will insist that everyone’s food is served the way he or she likes it, he adds. “If the CEO is hosting a dinner for 500 people and likes fish well-done, it’s well-done for everyone, not well-done for one and done properly for the other 499,” Rioux explains. He also knew a corner office guy who ate kosher and expected all of his top managers to follow suit when eating in his presence.

 On Wall Street, if the CEO orders steak at a company lunch, the other 12 employees at the table will too. 

At hedge funds, where it’s become the norm for a private chef to handle breakfast and lunch for management, the CEO dictates the menu and it’s usually light and boring meals for the daily grind, Rioux explains. And many CEOs eat small amounts throughout the day rather than one meal. He recalls that a former client, John Thain, the former CEO of the New York Stock Exchange requested a turkey sandwich every single day of his tenure at NYSE. “I’m sure that’s what he’s still eating now,” says the chef. “He knew a lot about food, but it was a turkey sandwich with light mayo that he wanted at lunch.”

Franco claims that when a tech entrepreneur and a venture capitalist meet over a meal, he can identify who has ordered what based on their choices. The investors are like all money guys, he says: they want the macho steak or heavy pasta. With entrepreneurs, it’s almost the exact opposite: they’ll almost always pick the healthier option, the creative vegan or vegetarian dish, or the food that’s local and sustainable.

Rioux, too, sees generally younger tech CEOs as more curious about food. “They’ve got less to prove,” he remarks.

On Wall Street, if the CEO orders steak at a company lunch, the other 12 employees at the table will too, says Franco. But if, for example, the 12th person goes for the vegetable dish, “someone is definitely going to make a joke at their expense,” he says. “Around that table, that last person will be marked as the weak and unassertive one.”

Both chefs agree that measuring and being measured by the people we dine with is inevitable. “We look at the person and think, how long does it take you to finish the meal? Are you taking big bites or small bites? Are you having soup and sipping and making noise?” says Franco. “People notice it all a lot more than they think.”

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