The first time I ever taught a course on singles (called “Singles in society and in science”), I suggested that the students go out to lunch or dinner alone. They were really into the course and they upped the ante – they insisted it must be dinner, not lunch. Some went further – they went to a really nice restaurant. Another decided that all props were off limits – he thought it would be cheating to be able to read, for example.
Since the assignment was my idea, I thought I should do it too. So during the same time period when all of the students were headed out to dinner on their own, I went there too.
We had a great time exchanging stories afterwards. That was many years ago (in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the late 90s) but I now realize that one of the main themes of our experiences was that the people who were most uncomfortable were not those of us who were dining in a nice restaurant on our own. It was everyone else.
The uneasiness started with just telling other people what we planned to do. One student described her roommate’s reaction: “You have got to be kidding!” Then there was the matter of trying to get seated. One person was totally ignored by the hostess, who just assumed she was waiting for someone else to show up and join her. Another was led into a separate room with no other diners – until she objected.
Now I have to confess that I did feel a bit uncomfortable, but I think it was because I was the only real diner in the entire restaurant! I chose a new place to try out for the experience, an upscale spot, but I guess it hadn’t caught on. Other than serving me, the restaurant personnel spent the evening serving one another.
I have been thinking about this because Cosmopolitan magazine just featured a story by Jen Doll, “Just one? A girl’s guide to going solo.” The reporter opened by admitting that even though she considers herself “an independent, relatively self-assured, fully grown-up” person, when she goes to restaurants, movies, bars, or the gym, she always has company. So she set out to try each of those activities, and more, on her own.
For me, a highlight of her restaurant experience was that when she walked into her neighborhood restaurant, she found that most of the other diners were…other people dining solo! I wish someone had been keeping track of restaurant diners over the years. I wonder whether, with the increase in the number of single people and the rise in people living alone and perhaps a lessening of self-consciousness in an era saturated with social media, the prospect of sitting in restaurants on your own is just not as daunting as it once was.
The reporter was not as eager to head out on her own as my students had been all those years ago. Like my students (and me), she learned something in the process. Here’s how she describes one of her experiences going to a bar by herself:
“Then into the bar came a woman who sat herself down next to me and opened a book and ordered dinner, all in one smooth move. She was by herself, but entirely unperturbed about that. She was the dining-alone person I wanted to be, effortlessly sipping her drink, underlining passages in her book, talking to the bartender — who eventually brought her a free dessert — and generally having the most wonderful of solo times, an outing that seemed even better because she was alone. She was alone not just for an experiment, not just because she was hungry, but because this was what she wanted to be doing, right here, right now.
“I drank my wine and watched her and felt my alone endeavors pale in comparison to hers, until suddenly I realized I was doing exactly the same thing I’d feared others would do to me. I was judging myself.”
When Singled Out was first published in 2006, a reporter wanted to write a story about it for Cosmo. She talked to me at length, asked all the right questions, and tried and tried to pitch it. The editors could not be persuaded. So maybe something else has changed over time, and it is not just restaurant diners who are increasingly open to the solo experience.
Woman eating sushi image available from Shutterstock.