The other day, with some time to kill, I decided to have coffee in a local café. Finally sitting down after too much dithering, I wondered what made me choose that particular seat. Was I avoiding busy tables, unconsciously attracted to certain people or perhaps afraid of appearing indecisive? Or was it because I was eating alone? That made me start to think about why we do anything – I’ve always been fascinated by why people act the way they do.
So, sitting there, I indulged in a bit of ‘people watching’. The first thing I noticed was that all those dining solo had a ‘crutch’, i.e. their phone or a newspaper. Eating alone, even if it’s just a coffee, still seems to have a bit of a stigma attached to it. Solitary eaters appear to need some form of protection from the pitying stares of those lucky enough to have companions.
Funnily enough, whenever I’m in a café or restaurant with a friend, I never notice other people. I’m usually too busy in conversation to spare a pitying look for those sitting on their own. In fact, I’m sure there were times when I would have preferred an empty seat to my dinner companion. In those cases I would probably have looked on with envy!
What People Think
That said, many people are anxious about eating out alone and try to avoid it. They imagine that others would see them as without friends, lonely or socially inept. This has also led to the idea of lone diners being depressed. Several studies have been done looking at the health effects of eating alone, but the data are based on specific age, gender and nationality groups. No one size fits all.
Many young college or university students often say they feel uncomfortable eating on their own and worry about how others perceive them. However, a study done in 2008 showed that there was no difference in what people thought of those eating alone or with companions. This has been backed up more recently by a small survey of 17 to 25 years old college students, where only 12% of them thought eating alone in public was ‘pretty weird’.
Leaving home to go to university or college can be difficult. Good social interaction is an essential part of the whole education experience. While eating with others can be an enjoyable way of developing social skills, eating alone may itself be important in establishing a person’s independence. Students often need to travel on their own, and solo travellers, whether it be for work or pleasure, will regularly eat alone. Luckily, there are many helpful tips online to make eating alone an interesting, varied and enjoyable experience. Blogs have detailed the challenges of eating alone in public. Most end up surprised that they find a new appreciation for the food they eat and the people around them.
Students need to learn to be comfortable in their own company and this confidence can transfer to how they get on with others. Social skills are vital when it comes to succeeding in a new environment. Perhaps most importantly on the enjoyment of their whole college experience.
So, maybe solo dining is something we should all try every now and again. It gives us time to get to know ourselves better, because social skills should start with ourselves.