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Background

  • I've been "good" friends with a co-worker for 2 or so years now.
  • We have lunch together, from nearby food vendors, every day.
  • After some recent events, I've decided I want to create some space between us and discontinue the habit of having lunch together everyday in particular.
  • Having lunch together became more of a habit of necessity as it saved us both from venturing out alone, conversation was a bonus (and is somewhat stale nowadays).

How would I go about doing this without making it obvious that I am simply avoiding them?

Criteria:

  • Meeting one or two days a week would still be okay, just not every day.
  • As this is a coworker, I don't want to antagonize them by making it clear that I am severing all ties - nor do I want to sever all ties.
  • They haven't done something particularly egregious that would justify a complete separation, but personally I feel I just want to create some distance.

Things that are not an option:

  • Blaming it on meetings I must attend (I have no meetings).

  • Blaming it on "too much work" (I don't think it will 'stick' as a credible genuine excuse for more than a couple days).

I'm struggling to think of ways that will not become transparent avoidant excuses sooner or later.

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    @incog76 at one stage, I was open to the idea of the friendship continuing outside of work but the coworker only enjoys the practical benefits of having someone who they can sit with during lunch time (doesn't seem interested in socialising outside of lunch times). they are very shy. we're lacking enough interests in common to keep up conversation. I would prefer to create distance now as... something about our interactions is making me uncomfortable. I don't believe they feel the same. – user18489 Jun 5 '18 at 4:28
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    If you're not planning to eat lunch with them, what would you do for lunch? Do you have another group of friends or would you be eating alone (where they can see you eating alone)? – scohe001 Jun 5 '18 at 5:40
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    @scohe001 uh... good question. I was planning on eating alone most days (places where I know they wouldn't see me) and also some days with 1 or 2 other coworkers who seem amiable to having meals together once a week/fortnight to 'catch up'. they don't really interact with the coworker in question so it wouldn't be awkward to say "today, I'm having lunch with [so and so]". One or so days a week I might eat at my desk under the pretense of being "busy" too. I really don't want to make things awkward between us and am really unsure how to approach this while avoiding that :( – user18489 Jun 5 '18 at 5:49
  • Would it be an option to go out and have lunch both with this coworker and other coworkers? So it is not a one on one thing. Might help him meet other coworkers and the whole taking distance thing might result naturally from it. – Robin Jun 5 '18 at 6:44
  • @Walfrat I only said that to give more background to how my view of the friendship progressed vs how they feel about it. this person is shy but has a circle of friends outside work. they are overweight and I think it's anxiety of eating alone that makes our arrangement beneficial. this is a benefit for me too. I don't want to distance myself over resentment. rather, recent attitudes and discourse has made me feel like this isn't a relationship I want to continue. I want to spend my lunchtimes maybe as a means for some personal reflection, at least for now. hope that clears it up. – user18489 Jun 5 '18 at 7:18
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TL;DR: This is a habit and as such, him noticing you pulling away is unavoidable. The quickest and easiest way to break a habit is deprive him of his reward for a period of time. I'd suggest being straightforward and taking a two week break from the lunches and then approaching him about cutting down the days.

Why keeping it "inconspicuous" is hard

It's funny that you call this a "habit," because that's exactly what him inviting you and then eating lunch with you every day has become.

According to NPR, a habit is formed from 3 parts, called a "habit loop":

First, there's a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold.

This is lunchtime at your work or his stomach growling or a glance at the clock right around noon.

Then there's the routine, which is the behavior itself

This is his invitation or him going over to your desk or however you begin your lunch.

The third step...is the reward: something that your brain likes that helps it remember the "habit loop" in the future.

This is you eating lunch together, namely his opportunity to socialize (which from what you said is rare) while also getting a break from work. If he likes you it's probably also getting spend time with you.

Because this is a habit and probably near automatic for him at this point, a sudden absence of your lunchtimes will immediately standout to him. He will notice that you're distancing yourself, no matter how you do it. As such, I'd like to challenge the premise of your question. I don't think it's possible to be "inconspicuous" here. That being said, what's the best way to distance yourself without ruining the friendship and making things awkward?

Breaking the habit

The NPR article goes on to talk about how to break a habit. Namely by removing the cue and reward. In your case, it's not possible to remove the cue, but you can remove the reward. I would suggest that you spend a week or two without having lunch with him. After that long breaking his habit, when you go back to lunch with him again it will be far easier to cut it down to a day or two a week without him pushing for more. He may also find other people to have lunch with in that time! No matter what happens, two weeks without you will help break his reliance on you.

A "conspicuous" solution

To do this, I'd be straightforward and tell him in advance that you don't want to eat with him for the next two weeks:

Hey [friend], I feel like we've been eating lunch together a lot lately and I've been wanting to mix things up for a while. I have some coworkers that I've been meaning to catchup with and things have been getting crazier around the office so I won't even be able to leave some days*--how about we take a break from all the lunches for the next two weeks?

*Feel free to swap this whole sentence up to the star out for any other personal reasons. You've just mentioned in a comment that you want time for personal reflection--that would be something perfect to bring up here! Or that you want time away from all of work--coworkers included.

Note that I've given three seperate reasons for taking a break in that excerpt (all of them true from what you said in this comment) and none of them insinuating that your coworker is at fault for this situation. You want to try to make this about you (especially if they're shy/self-concious!).

Once the two weeks are up, tell him that you'll be willing to do lunch 2-3 times a week, but you've found that you enjoy a little time to yourself to take a break from everything work related. At this point, as explained, he should be far more amenable to not eating every day.

Best of luck!

  • hi! thank you so much for such a detailed response! there's some great theory behind this and along with some of the other suggestions around this question (like saying I want to cut spending and bringing lunch from home) it will definitely help ease this transition. thanks for clearing up the perspectives for me. – user18489 Jun 8 '18 at 0:11
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From your question and comments, I get the feeling you two eating lunch is purely utilitarian for him, it takes away stress and worries he has about eating lunch, alone or in company of others.

While it is nice he can fix that by eating with you, this does not make you obliged to be his defacto lunch buddy. You don't need 'good' excuses either, he might think it is a custom now that you two go out and have lunch together, so it is time he realises this is not the case. The best thing is for him to realise this on his own.

I suggest evading his calls for lunch before he makes them at the start. Since he kind of depends on you two lunching together, you could talk to him in the morning as a heads up sort of way. This also makes it clear that you are not trying to get rid of him.

Something like "Hey x, Just want to let you know I won't be able to accompany you for lunch today. I am meeting with some old friends who happen to be nearby." Or you have some errands to run. Or you want to have some time for yourself to think through some issue you are having. Or you have an important phone call to make that you need to focus on entirely. There are many things you can be doing.

As I said in my comment, saying that you are having lunch with others is okay as well. If he wants to tag along, let him, but don't focus on him in the conversations.

I don't think you can do this kind of thing 'cold turkey' where you don't have lunch with him at all for the next two weeks. He will notice that it is weird, and not believe all your excuses. This may hurt him, and this may damage your relationship.

Instead, I suggest you try to build this down steadily. Start with a few days you don't eat with him, be it alone or with other co-workers. And make the days you have lunch with him one on one less and less.

If you do it slow it will feel natural and situational and he won't feel ditched or anything. It will probably make him seek out others to have lunch with as well, since you have become less reliable as a lunch date.

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    hi! thanks for the answer. there's somewhat disparaging ideas between breaking the habit with a 2 week hiatus and letting it trickle down slowly, like you say. I will try to find a happy medium. I need to catalogue some reasons for passing up on lunch and practice actually delivering them without coming across as avoidant. thanks again for your help :) – user18489 Jun 8 '18 at 0:16

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