I have a close family member who has a food allergy. It is life threatening. This means that every meal prepared somewhere else, by someone else, involves a high degree of trust and can create a high degree of anxiety. “May contain nuts” is a joke to some, and a warning sign to someone with an allergy and an epipen.
So why am I writing about this on my blog? Because I think about how someone with an allergy is treated a lot, and because I think about the world of work a lot. Perhaps learning from the one can be transferred into the other.
I never cease to be surprised as the reactions of others; a teacher whose own child has an allergy told me a story about another child and another teacher, a teacher – who tuts every time the epipen comes out and an ambulance is called. “What a lot of fuss”.
Advice no 1 Don’t tut when another’s need – for data, for extra care, for extra time, whatever – causes you inconvenience.
It is challenging when others decide to take responsibility “I checked the packet, you can eat it” It is so much easier in every way when the packet is provided for the choice to be made by the person who is doing the eating and risking. Every incident is preceded by a reassurance that the food can be eaten. A recent holiday experience where “je ne pensais pas” – peanut oil in the homemade mayonnaise.
Advice no 2 Don’t do the deciding for others about what’s best for them. Even if you think you are being helpful.
Restaurants – we know the good ones, where they cook it themselves. A well known pub “we take pride in our home cooking” refused to serve us. The “chef” was so nervous he came into the restaurant and said he didn’t want a death in the restaurant (!). He wasn’t confident to cook a steak and a jacket potato, because – actually their home cooking was not prepared by them.
We went to a celebrity chef restaurant where the young waitress came out after our meal, poked the person with the nut allergy and said “so, you’re still alive then?”. And mock wiped their brow.
Advice no 3 Don’t joke about another’s vulnerability if they aren’t joking about it. And even if they are, read the situation.
Recently, we went out. The waitress was efficient, ie everything was on time, but there was a lack of confidence transmitted to us. A subtle inference in the tone of voice, an implied shrug. Because of this we spoke to the chef – he said “I will cook it, there are no nuts in the kitchen tonight; you can be confident”.
I made a joke at the end of that meal regarding a “low fat espresso”. My joke. She came back and explained to us that espresso was “very dark coffee” and ” we could have milk on the side”. She then leaned in, smiled and revealed it was her first night and she was learning.
When our waitress confided it was her first night; I was able to see behind behaviour that made us roll our eyes a little. She was terrified; her first customer was someone who could die if given the wrong food. She didn’t know what ingredients were in each dish. She thought we were genuinely asking for a low fat espresso. Our experience (the food was utterly delicious) could have been improved 100% by the restaurant manager standing with the new waitress when she came to our table and introducing her, letting us know it was her first night and that she was learning. It would have set the scene; she could have been honest when she didn’t know, needed to ask or check and we could have been more relaxed.
Advice no 4 Don’t chuck new colleagues in the deep end. No-one wins.
Where we feel safe to eat is where people don’t joke about the allergy, where people do not expect to make choices on behalf of another about what is safe, where information is offered up about ingredients and where respect is offered to the situation, and – that is all.
Advice no 5 Do please take time to understand and respect another’s unique needs, honour vulnerability. Give the space for others to make their own choices – they know, we don’t need to decide for them.