In today's post, to enhance confidentiality, the identities of certain conversational topics have been replaced by fruit and vegetables.
We're fortunate enough to have a canteen at work, which I visit almost every day for lunch. I'm not alone. A lot of other employees use it too, including several of my team mates. We schedule our trips to the canteen at the same time, and sit down with our respective meals for a good chat. Or at least that's sometimes how it works.
Ten years ago my team was rather larger, and a lot of us used to head to lunch. But the mainstay of my dining circle was my two colleagues [X] and [Y], and we'd generally find ourselves eating together each day as others came and went. Our lunchtime conversations were varied and topical, often focusing on work because it was all around us, but also covering the day's news and more esoteric topics. You could never quite tell in which direction a conversation would go, perhaps starting out with [Pumpkin], then switching to [Strawberry] before moving on to [Kale].
Lunchtime chat could easily become a highlight of the day. We might well touch on something political, as a consequence of something in the papers, the conversation helped along by the fact that the three of us held quite divergent views. We might pick apart a project one of us was involved in, or discuss an intriguing rumour about the direction work was going, because that's what you do in an office. We might discuss places we'd been on holiday or our plans for the weekend. We might dissect a national issue, like [Lettuce] or [Leek], exploring several aspects and how various problems could be solved. But it was always the most fun when the subject matter turned to something more random, like the reason for [Cucumber], the best way to [Clementine] or whether [Chicory] actually exists.
No matter where the conversation started, there were certain themes we'd invariably return to again and again. We'd start off on [Banana] or [Watercress], for example, and all would be going smoothly until my colleague [Y] suddenly dropped in a mention of [Apricot] and there we'd stay, like a record stuck in a groove. [Apricot] was his favourite topic of conversation, about which he had much knowledge and many opinions, hence we could discuss [Apricot] repeatedly without ever quite going round in circles. Or perhaps he'd hijack the conversation by introducing [Tomato], which was his second favourite topic (although, obviously, [Tomato] is intrinsically linked to [Apricot] as the ensuing conversation would prove).
As time went by, and reshuffles and redundancies took hold, the broader lunchtime group thinned down to simply [X], [Y] and myself. It became more of a challenge not to allow the lunchtime conversation to drift into [Tomato], or especially [Apricot], and I got quite good at dropping in a random [Lime] or [Pepper] at the crucial moment to nudge the topic in a different direction. I much prefer a conversation to be a learning experience, or a witty verbal joust, than to simply slide back into predictability at every turn. Having said that I do feel these conversations have allowed me to become far more of an expert on [Apricot] that I might otherwise be, which might well prove fortuitous as the years go by.
But once lunch reduced to just three people, this raised the more regular possibility that one of us wouldn't be there. And lunch with two is a very different conversational proposition to lunch with three. With three the dialogue can riff and glide and, with 50% more opportunity for an interesting reply. Importantly it also allows one of the trio to shovel food into their mouth while the other two maintain the chat, keeping the discussion flowing for longer. Lunch with two is a completely different matter, and how different depends on which of the three it is.
Often [X] was away. His job changed and took him abroad more often, leaving [Y] and I to have lunch together alone. And without [X] in the mix the topics of conversation changed somewhat. No longer did we end up discussing the lighter side of life, or dotting around the weirder side of life, quite so often. Instead our chat switched more to news and work, more normally the latter. I was one of the few people in the office who understood what [Y] actually did in his job, so he liked to bounce ideas off me, which was wonderfully supportive but a lot less fun than before. But invariably the conversation would later end up being about either [Tomato] or [Apricot], more usually bloody [Apricot], and I seemed powerless to divert our talk elsewhere.
When [Y] was away, [X] and I got to have lunch together. This was great, we had a lot in common, and a shedload of experiences to share. We knew a lot of the same people, and I was interested in what he was up to and he was interested in me. Indeed [X] is probably one of the best people I've ever met at understanding how I tick and asking appropriately searching questions, and I can do the same back to him. Without [Y] present our conversation switched to topics we'd never dream of discussing in front of an audience, like personal stuff and problems and issues and especially [Quince] and [Squash]. We used to look forward to [Y] being away, well I did anyway, and the news that [Y] was planning to retire promised a deeper more interesting future.
But then [Z] came along. To be fair [Z] had always been there, and had long been a member of the team, but had always eaten lunch on his own. Then one day, I can't quite remember why, [Z] wandered over to our table and joined the three of us for our meal. It might just have been a one off, but a pair of raised eyebrows shared with [X] confirmed we knew this wasn't going to be the case. An invisible wall had been broken, a long-standing barrier removed, and hey presto [Z] came to dine with us every lunchtime after.
Initially nothing too much changed, and the conversational bar remained high. The original three of us were still there, so variety and wit were still the watchword, and [Z] was perfectly capable of joining in. We could still debate [Pumpkin], [Strawberry] or [Kale], and especially [Apricot], but a fresh regular topic arrived in the form of [Peach]. [Peach] was one of [Z]'s pet obsessions, and he could always find a way to swing the conversation round to one particular aspect of it. What's more [Y] was pretty interested in [Peach] as well, so a lively exchange would begin and they'd end up discussing [Peach] while [X] and I increasingly looked on.
When [Y] retired we were sorry to see him go, of course, but [X] and I did wonder whether we'd get our lunchtimes back. Not so, [Z] hung around rather than going back to his solo lunch, and a different dining trio was born. But somehow the sparkle had gone. [X] and I would still introduce topics like [Gherkin] from the news or [Damson] from real life, but [Z] wasn't quite joining in as before, and we were never able to talk about the other people we knew in front of him. Instead a lot of [Peach] got discussed, and [Z] turned out to have two other pet topics, namely [Blackcurrant] and [Melon], the first of which [X] was also well versed in, so that came up a lot too. But lunch was no longer quite as fun, and occasionally a chore, when it could have been so much more.
These days [X] isn't around so much any more, his foreign trips and days elsewhere having become far more common. And this leaves [Z] and I to have lunch together, which we do almost every day, and generally it's just the two of us. For the first half of the meal, while [Z] is eating, it's almost impossible to make small talk at all. Any topic I introduce dies a death, however potentially interesting, brushed off with a brief comment and a return to chewing. We sit in near silence for ten minutes, it's almost painful, until the last mouthful is swallowed and conversation can begin.
Our lunchtime chat now too often involves work, and rarely mine, more likely his. Again I'm the useful sounding board to bounce things off, or someone to run through a plan and point out the holes or how brilliant it is. Lunch is no longer a break from work, more a continuation, and not the social break it was before. Or the conversation turns to [Peach], a subject I never crave pondering in depth, but this doesn't stop [Z] from always ending up there no matter where we start out. Or there's [Blackcurrant] of course, or there's [Melon], and no matter how I try to diversify there's rarely anything else.
The real problem is now [Melon]. [Z] could discuss [Melon] all day if you let him, it's almost like a religion, and I once made the mistake of mentioning I liked [Melon] too. Unfortunately my general interest has been misinterpreted as deep-seated enthusiasm, hence I end up on the receiving end of the latest news about [Melon] on a tediously regular basis. I've proven capable at knowing the [Melon] basics and nodding when relevant, which maybe is why my lack of zeal has never been rumbled. But blimey I'm sick of talking about [Melon] as if it were somehow important, every single day of the working week, and I've never ever plucked up the courage to say so to [Z]'s face.
Yesterday I had lunch with [Z], and we discussed nothing, then work, then [Melon], then [Peach]. It was even an aspect of [Peach] we'd discussed in depth before, but I let [Z] tell me again, because that's how lunch works these days. I'd quite enjoy having lunch on my own, to be honest, because you're never alone with a smartphone and that'd likely be more enlightening. But it sounds rude to say you'd rather have lunch by yourself, and [Z] is more senior than me so it's hard to say no, and there aren't that many other people around to have lunch with any more anyway. Perhaps I should start going out for a sandwich instead.