The perils and pleasures of dining alone

The Globe and Mail

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Rory Dean vividly remembers the business woman dining at a Toronto pub during a rowdy dinner rush. She’d taken out a laptop and was perusing spreadsheets as she ate her meal alone.

“It was brutal to watch,” said Mr. Dean, 30. “I felt as if she was on display.”

The Montreal artist couldn’t peel himself away as he imagined the woman’s thoughts: “‘I’m not eating alone, I have my Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.’ Why would you do that to yourself?”

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For Mr. Dean, eating dinner alone in public might be the most vulnerable thing an urbanite could do: “I feel as if you’re basically announcing to others around you, ‘No one will eat with me.’”

Even as she fiddles with her smartphone in between gulps of shiraz, Tweets photos of her meal or, more rarely now, reads a book, the solo diner continues to face scrutiny – particularly now, as festive parties fill restaurants ahead of the holidays.

A quick search of “dining alone” regurgitates a tidal wave of cultural anxiety. One advice column, titled “How not to feel humiliated when dining alone,” includes tips like shielding yourself from “wait staff pity” with a magazine, eavesdropping mirthfully on “bitter marital brawls” and actually pretending to be a food critic: “This puts you in a position of judgment – always empowering.”

“Table for One,” a particularly voyeuristic photo gallery featured recently in Vice magazine, showed forlorn loners in diners and fast food joints. The photos appear to have been snapped surreptitiously with a cell phone.

“One may eat alone in the privacy of one’s own home, but to eat alone in a public place is to invite suspicion of personal failure at best and deviancy at worst,” wrote New Zealand blogger Brian Edwards, quoting Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape.

The act has been stigmatized largely because eating has traditionally been communal: “When people think about solitude, they’re thinking about going out into nature like Thoreau and Walden. Or they stay in, [where]you’re not worried about your hair or spilling some soup on your shirt. When people are out by themselves, they feel like a target of evaluations,” said Chris Long, an Arkansas social psychologist who has studied loneliness and solitude.

Glances from fellow diners aside, there’s also the scorn of wait staff. The 1984 Steve Martin dud The Lonely Guy features a restaurant host loudly demanding of Mr. Martin, “How many in your party?” before swiping cutlery away from the second seating as a giant spotlight descends on the lonely guy.

“The solitary diner ... is low on the restaurant’s priorities; the solitary diner eats more quickly than other patrons – he is anxious to end his shame,” Mr. Edwards wrote in his blog piece.

This perceived indignity means few Canadians dine alone at supper: According to the NPD Group, which tracks the restaurant behaviour of 100,000 Canadians annually, just 10 per cent ate alone at sit-down restaurants between August 2010 and August 2011, doing so mostly at lunches that are rarely accompanied by booze.

“Fairly simple, basic meals, nothing fancy,” said Linda Strachan, foodservice industry analyst with the NPD Group. Why did they do it? Most were coming from work, travelling on business or had been shopping or running errands beforehand.

But while Mr. Dean wouldn’t be caught dead slurping his soup alone, plenty of others prize the solitary meal for the opportunities it affords to ruminate, people watch and focus on the food.

“I guard my solitude, cherish every moment alone with myself and delight in forming a complete thought without interruption,” said Steffanie Date, executive director of the youth association in Sault Ste. Marie.

Slogging through 60-hour work weeks, Ms. Date savours meals out alone. (“And I can kill the litre of red on my own just fine thank you,” the 39-year-old offers.)

So what distinguishes people like her from those who’d rather starve than table-for-one it? After surveying 320 undergraduates at the University of Massachusetts, Prof. Long found that anxious people with low self-esteem were most likely to suffer pangs of loneliness when out solo: “People who are worriers are ... the least poised to benefit from time spent alone.”

For those looking to master the art of unaccompanied dining, Halifax poet Tanya Davis suggests starting at the lunch counter among “chow downers” – people wolfing down a meal mid-shift. “Resist the urge to hang out with your cell phone,” urged the 32-year-old in How To Be Alone, a spoken word poem that somehow garnered 3.7-million YouTube views and Ms. Davis hundreds of notes from pained, lonely people, widows and alienated high school kids among them.

In the poem, Ms. Davis expounds on taking pleasure in solitary time, starting with “acceptable places” such as the library, gym and on public transportation. Once you’ve conquered the lunch counter, Ms. Davis proposed dinner at a restaurant with linen and silverware. Next up, a solo sojourn to the movies and for the truly daring, “take yourself out dancing, to a club where no one knows you.”

“I actually just loved going out by myself,” said Ms. Davis, who eats solo regularly and used to go dancing alone in her early 20s. “It came to be a thing I got a lot of enjoyment and ideas from. There’s just always so much to notice if you’re out by yourself because you’re not busy filling the space with conversation.”

In the poem, she cautioned solo diners to not assume everyone in the room is judging them: “Some people at full tables will wish they were where you were.”

Psychologists suggest most diners don’t even notice the solo eater, Mr. Dean notwithstanding. Cornell University psychology professor Tom Gilovich has detailed the spotlight effect, “essentially thinking that the signal you put out to the world is stronger than it really is.”

“It’s hard to get out from our own egocentric perspective and recognize that other people are often preoccupied with all sorts of things, including their self-presentation,” Prof. Gilovich said.

Food writer and solo diner Cynthia Bertelsen detailed the realization on her blog Gherkins & Tomatoes: “Yes, I thought, ‘Eating alone can be both amusing and soul-replenishing.’ Smugly, I quickly glanced around the room. No one noticed, or cared, that I sat at a table for two by myself.”

This indifference is part of what makes the angst surrounding solo dining so absurd, according to Bella DePaulo, social scientist and author of the recent book Singlism.

“It’s an ironic thing that ... where people are supposed to be admiring of rugged individuals, they could fret about walking into a safe environment like a restaurant by themselves. This isn’t a battlefield.”

Follow on Twitter: @ZosiaBielski

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