Working lunches – with Aspergers!

 

Occasionally my business meetings unavoidably take place in a restaurant at lunchtime.

I find these to be at best uncomfortable and at worst, extreme sports, but the bane of my life regardless.

The challenge

Although I enjoy a wide variety of cuisines, I don’t particularly enjoy ‘eating out’ at restaurants.

  • They are often more crowded than I am comfortable with
  • This often gives rise to sound levels that I find quite distressing
  • I also seem to take much longer than anyone else to select from the menu
    • There’s so much detail
    • and I tend to over analyze a menu as though it was a business plan!

These are just some of the challenges that I face when going out to eat with my family.

The anxiety of a ‘working lunch’ makes a family restaurant visit seem like an afternoon nap!

 

The juggling act

A working lunch imposes an element of socializing that is absent from client meetings in an office.

  • It isn’t just business anymore
  • There is the elaborate costume party of social eating
  • ‘What are you having?’ ‘Oh, I’ll have the same’
    • Sometimes this script is helpful in cutting down my menu selection time
    • But often this results in a dinner course that I don’t particularly like
    • Or worse still, is a dish that I like but isn’t prepared the way I like it!

 

Take it away

For me the purpose of a business meeting, is to discuss business, my client’s needs etc

  • Food on the table, which I am expected to eat, is just an annoying distraction
  • I’m not talking about the socializing that accompanies all this yet
    • I’ll get to that later!
  • I’m talking about the clutter on my work area, which in this case happens to be a restaurant table

When my food arrives my instinct is to do one of three things.

  1. Immediately move my plate to the next table and abandon it
  2. Ask the waiter/waitress to take it away as soon as it arrives
  3. To throw my plate at the nearest wall (if my anxiety is particularly high)

 

The eating symphony

So the food is now in place, the drinks have been served and the costume party begins.

Everyone else now, instinctively and effortlessly follows a magical script.

  • A script which I have never seen
  • Never been coached on
  • But which I know exists!

They move back and forth between business talk and social talk.

  • The social talk punctuates the business talk
  • Then the business talk punctuates the social talk
  • While this is taking place, I am having to manage the acute anxiety of having to constantly change my line of thought

 

The eating challenge

Everyone else is managing to balance eating and speaking with the greatest of ease.

  • They eat during a pause, when someone else begins to speak
  • Or remarkably, manage to speak whilst eating, without revealing a mouthful of food!

My performance is a little different

  • I am trying to follow the conversation and process the information
  • At the same time I am trying to manage the anxiety of having the conversation flip between business and social
    • Which is usually right at the point where I was going to make an interjection
  • The transition from business to social talk is somewhat of a relief
    • But there is still the anxiety of having to ‘keep up’ with the small talk
  • I don’t know how to eat and talk at the same time, at a business lunch
    • I find it hard enough just eating and listening!
    • I notice that I always eat much slower than everyone else
    • Which makes me feel very self conscious and wish I’d chosen one of the three options above
  • Eventually I do manage to turn my attention back to the food on my plate
    • But then I generally get totally absorbed in eating, unless the food is especially bad
    • I can easily eat for 5 minutes without looking up from my plate
    • How I would love to be able to press a pause button, finish my food and then continue the talking!

But I usually get pulled back into the conversation with a:

  • ‘What do you think?’
  • or even worse, that dreadful deafening silence and/or assorted non-verbal artillery

 

Coping Strategies

I have been experimenting with some strategies to reduce my anxiety at the dreaded ‘working lunch’

  • I order smaller dishes
  • Dishes that are more bite sized
  • A jumbo sized salad eliminates the transition anxiety between starter to entree
  • None of which usually bear much correlation to what I would have preferred to order

One-on-one ‘working lunches’ are of course much easier.

  • These are just office meetings with funny shaped and funny tasting cookies

I also do much better with evening scheduled business dinners

  • There seems to be an unspoken agreement for greater informality in the evening
    • This sometimes gives me the opportunity to use my social secret-weapon!
    • My special interest and detailed knowledge of a wide range of movies
  • There is usually far less switching between social and business talk
    • Because it’s mostly social talk
  • The other dinner guests are also generally drinking alcohol
  • So at a certain point, I can switch to guttural response mode
    • These are purely mechanical
    • But quite well rehearsed
    • and quite convincing

 

Epilogue

I don’t just find ‘working lunches’ uncomfortable.

  • I find them wholly unnatural and absurd
  • Who in their right mind chooses, let alone enjoys, to do this?
  • The answer to this question is…….. almost everybody!

For the 99% of our species who are not Autistic, socializing is a powerful instinct.

  • My anxiety that arises during these ordeals is nobody’s ‘fault’
  • Working lunches are just an occasional, uncomfortable necessity

 

I will continue to develop and refine the coping strategies outlined above.

I am also working in being more mindful of the neurological differences at the table.

Given the challenges that I face, I am also very grateful that I am even capable of surviving a ‘working lunch’, albeit often in silent pain.

 

 

11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. itsbridgetsword
    Jul 31, 2012 @ 15:24:49

    You really captured it! Whenever possible, I go online ahead of time and pick my menu selections so when I’m at lunch, I can asses the small talk from behind the shield of my menu, then order in a decisive manner.

    Reply

    • Simon
      Sep 18, 2012 @ 07:43:27

      That’s a good way of preparing, I do the same. Also, some restaurants have pictures or even 360 degree views on their website, helps the place to become a little familiar upon arrival by viewing these beforehand 🙂

      Reply

  2. spectrumscribe
    Jul 31, 2012 @ 16:28:26

    The shield of the menu and I thought it was just me 🙂

    I don’t understand why restaurants make place settings BEFORE handing out their enormous, heavy weight menus? The menus are too big to hold up so the plate just gets in the way. 😦

    Come to think of it, I feel like throwing those menus at the wall too!

    Reply

  3. Violets Diary
    Aug 02, 2012 @ 18:16:09

    Gosh. I’m not on the spectrum, but I don’t like working lunches either. I don’t mind having lunch with colleagues but I’d rather do the business at a meeting with nothing more complicated than a drink. Also thanks for the insight about the menu. It always takes my son a long time to choose from a menu & he gets anxious because everyone else is ready to order we will try to be more patient

    Reply

  4. spectrumscribe
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 14:18:26

    Thanks Violet.
    I experience menu anxiety even at family restaurant outings. But my family is quite patient and understanding with me. I often make a joke about it, which helps lift the anxiety.

    Sometimes I can’t even bear to look at the menu if it’s the wrong shape/size/weight/style/font… etc, so I just let my wife order for me! 🙂

    Reply

  5. HFLifeMom
    Sep 14, 2012 @ 17:01:42

    I’m NT (supposedly) and I think working lunches are a pain in the neck. I never order what I really want because I don’t want to eat messy food or something too expensive. It’s awkward to take notes at lunch, but I forget most of the discussion if I don’t. I’m usually still hungry when I leave.

    Reply

  6. spectrumscribe
    Sep 19, 2012 @ 02:34:32

    I’m a big fan of picture menus, but they can be a 2 edged sword!

    Some picture menus don’t have a picture for every dish, so I end up trying to figure out what the ‘missing’ dishes are!

    Other times it might not be obvious (to me) from the picture, what the dish actually is and it may not be clear which description goes with picture (don’t ask)

    So I generally only eat at familiar restaurants and then order the same dish (or pick from a very small group of tried and tested favorites) every time.

    I’m smiling as I type this, as I remind myself that I am describing who I order food at a restaurant, not planning for a job interview or a family vacation! 🙂

    The joys of Asperger’s Syndrome….

    Reply

  7. Mados
    Feb 02, 2013 @ 05:24:27

    Although I haven’t had to have ‘working lunches’ in a cafe or restaurant (Thank God), I have similar issues to some of what you describe with any cafe/restaurant meeting, including social catch-ups: it is difficult to alternate between socialising and eating, I’m eating too slow (because of distractions and having to socialise), and it is too noisy and overwhelming. I use the following coping strategies:

    1. I eat an entree only – I won’t have time to eat any more than that, and I can always order a little thing more. It looks better and is less comment-attracting than leaving a half meal. (also, hunger is the least of my problems – I can eat later)
    2. Order food that is easy to eat (‘bite-sized’ as you say). No salad or tall, complicated sandwich for me – it requires too much attention and balancing skills for a situation that is highly distracting and potentially anxiety-inducing. A small pizza or Tapas are optimally easy meals.
    3. Have a rule-of-thumb for menu selection, like: I’ll chose A. If A is not available, then I chose B. If B is not available, then I chose C.
    4. Always take-away cup for coffee – it is easy to handle, always consistently the same weight, shape and size. (and I can even take it away!)
    5. Try to place myself in a the least noisy and most distraction-free spot, close to some calm persons if possible
    6. Wear ear plugs before I even go in (I can hear most things with them, they lower the overall noise level a bit and help filter away distant conversations ~ helps to focus on just one at the time)
    7. Have an excuse ready so I can leave when I need to (but you probably can’t do that with a working lunch)

    All the above coping strategies don’t make the situation problem free, but they all help make it a bit easier.

    Reply

    • spectrumscribe
      Feb 03, 2013 @ 08:15:01

      I always order my coffee ‘to go’ too, even if I’m going to be drinking it in the coffee shop.

      I hadn’t thought about it before, but I can see that in my case, it’s about consistency rather than disliking china mugs or cups.

      Breakfast coffee at home is always out of a mug and always the same mug!

      Reply

  8. David Archer
    May 06, 2013 @ 13:45:59

    Choosing something from a menu takes me for ever. Will I make the right choice, will it be what I really want, Will it fill me up, and omg i’m holding everyone up. The very idea of socializing with people fills me with anxiety.

    Reply

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