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I saw this picture today, in which one of the officials has a platter of cold cuts next to him during an official (presumably hours long) meeting.

I remembered the meetings of the good old days, especially those between people from two companies. The host company would prepare a platter of cold cuts (as sandwiches) or pretzels or other finger food. I was in this situation both for day-long meetings (although lunch was provided separately) or in 2 hour meetings.

The questions are:

  1. When is it polite for one to eat from the platter.
  2. How much is it polite to eat?
  3. Is it impolite to not eat at all?
  4. Does anything change in the case of online meetings? - if the people are connecting to the meeting from their own computer, is it impolite to temporarily turn the camera and microphone off while eating?

The last 3 times, I had one piece of what was on the table after the host asked a second time that we eat, underlining that the food is free (it is invariably the same joke).

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The short answer is: this is entirely culture-based. Not merely on country, but company. The place I currently work, nobody would eat on camera for remote meetings; the last place I worked, you'd get a good-natured heckle if you refused to eat on camera. So it all depends on what sort of environment you're working in.

Also something to consider: few people are willing to be the first to grab food without special prompting. You'll often see a sort of 'social dance' when food is present and someone wants some of it. They'll point at the food, adopt a confused face, and ask a nearby peer "Do we just grab a plate?" - even when they know it's okay. Once I realized this, that there's generally a gaggle of people that want to eat but don't want to be the first to grab something - I just started grabbing something without worrying about it. It's amazing how often, after I grab a bagel/donut/cookie/soda/whatever, that a half-dozen people immediately queue up after me and grab one as well.

Another good rule of thumb is: don't eat significantly more than the average person. If there are, say, catered mini-sandwiches, and everyone seems to be grabbing 1 or 2, don't grab more than 2 or 3. This is actually a kinda important rule, not because of company etiquette, but because it's ingrained by human tribal evolution (if one person was scarfing down all the village's food...)

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When is it polite for one to eat from the platter.

It's subjective. If the platter is already present when the meeting starts, you're usually free to eat whenever you feel like it. You will know best when to take a bite, or when not. Obviously, you shouldn't eat while you're presenting. But if you're listening, you can eat or take a bite out of something. If someone suddenly addresses you with a question while you're still chewing, no big deal as long as you don't start talking with a mouth full. Basically, behave like you would with any other person. But if you know that you'll be involved in a discussion, you can maybe take a bite before, or just wait until after that involvement stopped.

If you're still uncertain, then just watch how your host handles it.

How much is it polite to eat?
Is it impolite to not eat at all?

As long as you're respectful of the snack-needs of other people, don't worry about it. Not eating is just as fine as eating.

Does anything change in the case of online meetings? - if the people are connecting to the meeting from their own computer, is it impolite to temporarily turn the camera and microphone off while eating?

Definitely turn the microphone off while eating or drinking during an online meeting. Personally, I find it a bit more difficult to eat during online meetings, because of the visual focus. If people are going to look at your webcam, they'll see only your face and if you're biting into a roll of bread, that's all they see. Again, it's highly subjective. But a video conference usually has 5- to 10-minute breaks ever 1-2 hours, just because it's so much more exhausting than a face-to-face meeting. Therefore I suggest to eat during those breaks, and not during the meeting. Taking a quick sip is usually no problem with a muted microphone. But don't worry if you forgot to mute it.

Again, highly subjective. Because you can also be in day-long video conference with your team and they'll eat, drink and smoke during the video conference.

If in doubt, look at how the host behaves.

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Disclaimer: I'm based in Germany, but have mostly worked in international companies, which might change the cultural norms.

If the company provides food during a meeting (as opposed to in a break room), the usual expectation is that you eat it. If you're not sure (maybe the food is intended for the break, after all), ask the meeting organiser or follow your boss' lead. And of course, you don't have to eat the provided food, for any reason.

If you decide to eat in a meeting, make sure you:

  • eat neatly (if you know you're a messy eater, stay away from messy food)
  • eat moderately (don't stuff yourself, leave food for everyone else)
  • don't eat when it's your turn to talk or your turn is coming up
  • avoid asking a direct question to someone who's currently eating (it might be polite to wait until they're done, or alternatively address the room at large)
  • pick a seat to the sides or in the back, so you don't distract anyone looking at the presentation or whiteboard

Some companies also may have lunch meetings (official or casual), during which people may bring their own lunch. However, if the company doesn't provide the food or expressly invites it, it's best to ask the person organising the meeting. If it's allowed to bring your own food, take care not to bring anything smelly or noisy.

In remote meetings, the situation is slightly different because everyone sees everyone in close up on the screen, so it seems safer to refrain from eating in remote meetings at all. An exception are meetings where you can turn off your microphone and camera, but even in that case, keep in mind that someone might ask you a question which would require you to unmute yourself and turn on your camera.

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These are not hard-fast rules, but if you follow them, you will not make a faux pas.

When is it polite for one to eat from the platter.

Either when invited to do so, or after someone else. Try not to be the first.

How much is it polite to eat?

Try to eat lightly, as if you are snacking and not as if you are eating a meal. Also take small bites, so that if someone asks you a question, you can quickly swallow and reply. You don't want to have people waiting for you to finish chewing.

Is it impolite to not eat at all?

It's considered refusing hospitality, and this can be a mild to major faux pas, depending on the culture. If for some reason, you cannot eat what is offered, take some on your plate anyway, and pick at it a little, so it looks like you've eaten a bit, even if you haven't.

Does anything change in the case of online meetings? - if the people are connecting to the meeting from their own computer, is it impolite to temporarily turn the camera and microphone off while eating?

Obviously don't eat while presenting. Keep the microphone off unless speaking, and if you must eat during the meeting, turn the video off, but try to limit this. Better to keep your video off for a few minutes, eat, then resume video than to go on and off. Also, as above, take very small bites so that you can quickly answer if called on.

Again, there may be some leeway on these rules, but if you do follow them, you won't make any embarrassing mistakes.

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