dining alone stigmaHow do you feel about walking into a restaurant on your own? I don’t mean just a fast food restaurant, but a real, sit-down-and-take-your-time sort of place. If your answer is not entirely positive, how do you explain your negative feelings? Are you worried about what other people might think of you if they see you eating alone?

When I first started doing research on single life more than a decade ago, one of the first sets of studies I conducted with my colleagues was designed to address the question: What do other people really think of you when you dine alone?

The research was very careful and systematic. It was never published, though, because all of my predictions turned out to be wrong. The ways that solo diners are judged turned out to differ hardly at all from how couples or pairs of friends or groups of three people are viewed.

In the study, we took pictures of sets of four people – two men and two women each time – as they ate dinner in a restaurant. Some of the sets of people were young adults, and others were middle aged.

We used photoshop to airbrush out one or more of the people at the table. So, some pictures included the original four people, others included just two people (sometimes a man and a woman; sometimes two men; sometimes two women); others included three people; and the key pictures included just one person dining solo.

What was important about the technique of photoshopping is that each diner had the exact same facial expression and posture in each version of the photo. That way, if other people judged the solo diners more harshly (which is what we expected), it wouldn’t be because the solo diners actually appeared more despondent than the coupled diners did.

We showed the pictures to hundreds of other people, and asked them to rate the diners in the pictures. We also asked them to offer their own thoughts as to why the person was dining alone (in the solo diner picture) or with the other person(s) in the other pictures.

People looking at the photos of the solo diners did sometimes offer just the sorts of harsh judgments we anticipated. For example, they said things like, “Doesn’t have any friends;” “He is lonely;” and “She looks depressed.”

More interesting were all of the positive and nonjudgmental assessments that were offered. For example:

  • “Wanted to relax.”
  • “Traveling.”
  • “He seems to be enjoying his dinner.”
  • “Enjoying a few peaceful moments.”
  • “She just wanted to eat by herself.”
  • “Wanted time to ponder.”
  • “He is secure.”

When we coded the comments that were made about the male-female pairs and compared them statistically to the comments about the solo diners, we found the same mix of both positive and negative comments, and in the same proportions.

Examples of positive comments made about the couples were that they were having a “fine, quiet conversation;” that “they enjoy spending time together;” or that “they are very close.”

The more negative comments about the couples included:

  • “He thought he liked her.”
  • “She is upset.”
  • They went to dinner “to have a talk because their relationship needs some mending.”
  • She went to dinner with him “out of obligation – she’s married to him.”

No matter what we did to try to compare the solo diners to everyone else (not just the male-female pairs but the other pairs and groupings, too), we just could not find any way in which the solo diners were viewed more harshly than any other sets of diners.

Have you seen the 1984 movie, The Lonely Guy? In a key scene, Steve Martin walks into a restaurant on his own, and a spotlight suddenly appears and follows him to his table. So do the eyes of all of the other diners, who become speechless as they watch the spectacle. A comic exaggeration, sure, but it seemed to resonate with many people who dare not dine alone.

I wonder, though, whether that feeling of dread is changing. Are more people dining solo? I don’t know that, but it would be interesting to find out. A recent story in the Washington Post noted that diners often bring their digital devices with them, almost treating them as companions. Do those devices make it easier for people to dine solo without feeling self-conscious? That was suggested by one of the people the reporter interviewed.

The observation I most appreciated was offered by Sherry Turkle, a leading scholar of the place of technology in our lives. She gave a thumbs-down to digital fiddling while dining out, saying, “Having a solitary meal in a restaurant is a basic spiritual practice. It’s classic way to experience moments of solitude and to refresh and restore and gather yourself.”

Maybe that will become the 21st century sense of solo dining.

Dining alone image from Shutterstock.com.