Author Keith Ferrazzi sold more than 400,000 books and attained "thought leader" fame awhile back by telling professionals they should Never Eat Alone. Lunch is for connection not nutrition, he insisted. Many introverts, reacting with a groan, snuck out the back door of the office to eat their sandwich in peace anyway. 

But we felt guilty about it. What about all that valuable networking we were missing out on? Would our careers be stunted? Or horizons limited? Our colleagues offended? 

According to a recent and deeply relieving Wall Street Journal piece by Yale School of Management professor Marissa King, the answer is most definitely no. For some personality types, and for women and minorities in particular, a solitary break may be far more beneficial for your performance, peace of mind, and overall career trajectory that small talk with colleagues. 

Forced friendliness is exhausting. 

This isn't just one professor's opinion. King cites a recent study to back up her claim. The researchers followed 103 employees for a week, both monitoring whether they were social or solo at lunch and asking colleagues to evaluate the subjects' energy levels at the end of the day. 

"Either socializing or working over lunch left employees more exhausted than simply relaxing with a true lunch break," writes King. Company-mandated events were the most draining of all, the study concluded. "This is true for both introverts and extroverts," she adds, though I'm willing to bet introverts are more excited to hear the news. 

And it's not just quieter types that are particularly exhausted by chit-chatty lunches. Women and minorities often need to put more effort into these gatherings, which can feel less welcoming for them, King points out.

"Fear of being seen as different or not being understood may lead minorities to attend lunches and parties out of a sense of obligation," she explains. This makes them both more tiring and less likely to lead to genuine connections for many in these groups. 

Should you go solo more often? 

All of this is a pretty clear argument for bosses to give up on forced team "fun" at lunch and make get togethers and team-building activities strictly optional. But it also suggests individuals should think a bit harder about what they do with their lunch break. 

Science shows gathering with real friends is one of the best stress busters out there. Even small talk tends to make us happier than we predict it will (though over the long haul more meaningful conversation is linked with greater happiness). And meeting a cool new connection or work buddy is, of course, great. No one is suggesting you become the office hermit if you're not so inclined. 

But there's just as much compelling science showing that most of us need more solitude than we get (even you, extroverts) and that a complete break from the professional leads us to feel markedly more refreshed and ready to tackle the rest of the day. 

So don't let Never Eat Alone guilt prevent you from skipping the break room banter when you feel like it. Sure, you might miss out on a bit of networking. But all the evidence available indicates that what you lose in connection, you'll more than make up for in energy and sanity. 

Published on: Nov 5, 2019
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