Monday, August 3, 2009

Dinner: Reservation for One, With No Reservations

Recently I've become aware that an occasional habit of mine seems to be attracting some attention among my peers, and I thought it was an interesting opportunity to explore a fairly widespread social stigma: eating alone.

My reasons for eating alone are rather practical...actually I'd say they're all practical. Here's the general way it goes: Weekday night. Tummy rumbles. I'm hungry, I need food, I don't have dinner plans with anyone that night. Rather than wait to eat until I can find someone to eat with, I'm going to go find something to put in my belly to make it stop cantanker-ing all over the place. This doesn't go to say that I never take time to text/call a friend and ask to grab a bite. I do quite often. But every once in awhile, grabbing something on my own is just a foolproof solution to a not-so-complex dilemma: hunger.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not an antisocial toad who prefers the company of her chicken salad and Wuthering Heights to a dining companion. Actually, I wouldn't bring Wuthering Heights to a meal with me, anyways. The more I dine alone, the less I try to have distractions about to hide behind. I feel like bringing a distractor to a meal, whether that be a newspaper, a book, an Amazon Kindle, what have you, just draws attention to the fact that many people feel self-conscious about eating alone. So, don't bring the distractor, don't give anyone the chance to assume that you have any shame whatsoever about a perfectly normal activity.
It's just as Carrie Bradshaw says in the episode of Sex and the City where the girls try to tackle various dilemmas revolving around the theme of "faking it": "I decided instead of running away from the idea of a life alone, I'd better sit down and take that fear to lunch... So I sat there and had a glass of wine alone. No books, no man, no friends, no armor, no faking."

The horror of eating alone isn't a new theme. There's an episode of Friends that centers around Rachel's inability to dine by herself in public, which ends when she eventually does, only to see a guy she had gone out with and his "weirded out" reaction to her solo situation. It's referenced again seasons later, when Rachel is toying with the idea of bringing up her baby alone. "You can't possibly do this alone," Ross tells her. "I mean, come on, you can't even eat alone in a restaurant." "I can too eat by myself!" Rachel protests. "When have you ever?" "When certain people leave the table and I'm not finished!"

Do people really even notice us when we're eating alone? And if they do notice, do they think all the horrible and judgmental things we apparently assume they will? Well, it's important to remember first off and take into account the "Spotlight Effect": the tendency to believe that people are paying greater attention to our behavior and appearance than they actually are. (Sounds to me like the "egotistical effect"). I read an article about this from Psychology Today, where people were asked for their predictions about how others would respond upon seeing different demographics of people eating alone-- male, female, younger, older, etc. The study found that overall there wasn't a significant difference between how people were perceived when eating alone than when eating with others...people made snide remarks about the solo diners but also made snide remarks about the couples (for example, they went out because they needed to "talk"). That brings up a side thought about which I've often men and women more often than not bring their significant others out to eat to talk about serious issues, rather than do it in private, in hopes of not making a scene? A topic for another post, but interesting to think about nonetheless.

So this study basically leads me to conclude that you're damned if you do and damned if you don't, since apparently no one in our society can have a meal, alone or otherwise, without being judged. So the simple solution to that, of course, is to remind yourself: WHO CARES? Do you really care if that person you've never met, and probably will never see again, thinks that you've been rejected because you've chosen to have someone else prepare your dinner for you rather than doing it at home? And if you're out with a significant other, well, if you really are having that "serious talk," chances are if you're noticing the other people around you and giving them more thought than your conversation, you deserve to have your significant other question your relationship!

A caveat to this whole train of thought of mine is that I keep repeating the word "dinner" in my scenarios. Is there really such a stigma attached to getting your grub on alone, period, or is it heightened at different times and in different places? Since that's a pretty blatantly leading question, you know I'm going to go with the latter.

Let's take today, for instance. I've been writing this entire post from the coffeeshop, and in the past couple hours I've been observing those around me (empirically, not from the perspective of the dreadfully judgmental onlooker I've been defaming the past few paragraphs!). Here's some examples of the cross-section of those I've seen around me: A girl my age reading a book and drinking tea, an out-of-town couple who actually approached me to ask for some recommendations of what to do on a summer afternoon in Williamstown (I wasn't too scary and spinster-ish for them to approach, it seems! Perhaps because behind my many distractors-- laptop, occasional text conversaiton-- I'm not as pitiful). There's a gay couple across from me engaged in their laptops but more so in each other, which has brought a smile to my face (they're clearly not having "the relationship talk," no worry about people judging them for that!). But there have also been some solo diners, unarmed, sans distractors: A guy in his twenties, eating a slice of pie at the bar and staring out the window, no newspaper, no book, no shame. So they do exist at this time of day, albeit they are a rarer species than the couples cannodling over their chai or the middle-aged women engaging in some lively catch-up over tea bread. The solo diner seems to be accepted at this venue, at this time of day. I may have been received differently had I been sipping tea by myself rather than working on my laptop, but at this point I'm less likely to be observed as pitiful, more pretentious. (Is writing on your laptop alone in a coffeeshop pretentious? WHO CARES!)

Another venue at which I've tried out this daring little feat is lunchtime in our student center. It seems to be (a little less) widely accepted here than at the coffeeshop, but certainly not in taboo territory just yet. I'll venture a guess that the social allowances made for lone lunching are made here because lunchtime is the busiest time of the day: there's checks to deposit, letters to mail, things to pick up, phone calls to make, oh, and, food to be eaten. So if you can manage to fit some lunch into this aptly named time of day, kudos to you, and we'll turn a blind eye if you had to do it alone.

What about breakfast/brunch? This probably should have come between lunch and the coffeeshop (the coffeeshop being lowest on the public judgment and ridicule scale, lunch being above breakfast). Breakfast is the time where I see people on campus most often eating alone; usually its those unfortunate enough to have been forced to schedule an 8:30 class (it's not a choice!) and in need of some nutrients to make it through. This 8:15 am breakfast on a Tuesday morning in the dining hall isn't the same as a Sunday morning brunch, however, dining hall or otherwise. Perhaps most popular on Mother's Day and the mornings of weddings, this Sunday morning brunch is a time to be shared. College kids will gather around their omelettes and dish on the wild weekend happenings, parents will try to use the lazy morning to engage their children in some conversation, and if not that than at least in some healthy food choices. Couples will saunter to the nearest bakery or diner to enjoy their last few hours together before the drudgery of the work week begins again. This seems to be one of the most dangerous times to attempt to grab a bite alone, and could potentially turn your breakfast dish into eggs over uneasy.

The next potentially innocuous, potentially calamitous place to feast friendless seems to me to be the bar. Not as shocking to be seen alone as dinner but not as socially accepted as the coffeeshop, the bar seems like a place where the rules of society can either be thrown out the window or adhered to all too strictly. This is another good example of the study I mentioned above, where demographics were very important in shaping people's perceptions. A man having a drink alone could be viewed as a confident businessman unwinding after work, or a shark on the hunt. An attractive woman having a drink alone could be seen as either, as well, or could be perceived as trying to portray herself as that sumptuous seal the businessman-shark is seeking.

I think the exception to all this is airport bars, or airport restaurants any time of day for that matter. Anyone having a drink or a meal alone in an airport immediately gets bonus mystery points.

And of course, the icing on the stigma cake: having dinner alone. Dinner just screams socialization. The majority of dates are dinner dates (getting asked to a lunch date can't help but carry a note of rejection.) Dinner falls after work and before going out or going to bed; you're not supposed to have errands to do at dinnertime. And you're supposed to have allotted time to yourself before bed so tsk tsk to you for being so selfish as to want to push that time up a couple hours! If you're single, you should have fabulous friends to eat dinner with, and if you're part of a family, it should constitute your quality time for the day. (Sadly I'm afraid most families don't even get quality dinner time together). And I just read a half-dozen articles that claim people will eat more sensibly if they eat with others rather than eat alone. Web4Health states that "Those with eating disorders are more affected by their environment than by their own real feelings and needs. This is the reason why they may eat sensibly in the presence of others who eat sensibly." Couldn't this work just as well the other way around, though? If you're around a bunch of people who are eating burgers when you're eating a salad, aren't you going to want a burger too? I can prove this phenomenon, which has happened to me about a zillion times in the past month or so, while I've been attempting the South Beach Diet (a feat I'm sure will deserve the attention of another separate upcoming post). But the point here is, if it's more convenient, healthier, and completely not weird to me to eat dinner alone, why aren't there more people who feel the way I do? Or, if there are, why won't society let them feel comfortable with their choices?

Another caveat to my experience: We all see the world through our own personal lens, and I happen to be one who sees through the rose-colored glasses of being half of a couple. This certainly doesn't give me "go me!" rights; I'm sure single people who can eat alone confidently are much more self-assured than I. But my reference to the episode of Sex and the City awhile back centered around Carrie's lack of self-confidence not as much about eating alone...but about being alone, in the greater sense of the word. Does this fear of not having a significant other simply manifest itself in a correlative fear of not having a dining companion? Or is someone who is part of a couple just as prone to being self-conscious about eating alone as someone who is single? I can't answer that question for everyone, but I can say that for me being in a great relationship does give me some degree of confidence in the rest of my life, and so it just follows that that confidence would spill over into being able to eat alone comfortably. But I can say, hopefully objectively, that even were I single I'd still feel just as fine grabbing a burger by myself. Which brings me to the conclusion that this is clearly a personal matter of comfort zone and choice, but please, if someone has made the choice to eat on his or her own, reserve your judgment and focus more on asking yourself why you feel uncomfortable.

Image from ehow.


  1. I'm in total agreement! Sometimes you just need time by yourself. It's almost empowering to go out and have enough confidence to eat lunch alone. Everyone is watching because they are more insecure :)

    Just stopping in from SITS today :) Merry Christmas!!

    My personal blog:

    If you are ever interested in a new blog design, I would love to work with you in 2010!

  2. Thanks so much! Merry Christmas!

    I might just take you up on that! I'll let you know.

  3. Good post. I feel weird going to a restaurant on my own. But occasionally I do and it never turns out as bad as I anticipate. I always have to take a magazine of my mobile phone with me though... LOL

  4. I go to the movies alone all the time. Occasionally dine alone. I never force having something to do. If I'm in the middle of a great book, I might bring it along. Or not. I'm flexible.

    In the last few months, I've gotten used to doing a lot of things alone. And, in some ways, I prefer it.

    One day, I'm going to travel alone.

    THAT will be interesting.

    So glad I stopped in from the SITS link up! Hope you had a great holiday!

  5. Visiting from SITS. It's been a long, long time since I ever went anywhere alone. Between husbands and kids and grandkids but sometimes, sometimes I think I would like the solitude. Interesting post.