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Table for one

Dining alone in public doesn't have to be miserable ... does it? We ask the experts


  • Sean Cayton

A few centuries after Benjamin Franklin first strolled down a Philadelphia street chewing on a loaf of bread, dining alone in public is still uncommon enough to carry a certain social stigma.

So much so, in fact, that the resulting anxieties have become something of a cultural meme. Samantha, one of the four central characters in Sex and the City, refers to the books and paperwork she takes along to restaurants as her "dining-alone armor." Steve Martin's character in The Lonely Guy shows up at a pricey restaurant, requests a table for himself, and is tracked by a glaring spotlight as he's led to his seat.

In the realm of music, the once-popular Juliana Hatfield's "Table for One" begins with her sitting by a window, stealing glances at a nearby couple, and gets worse from there:

Where is my dessert? I think I've been forgotten

A single rose from a fresh bouquet

A stomach pain

And when I go it's all I will take away from this God-forsaken place

Hatfield's distress over her delayed dessert clearly reveals deep-seated anxieties. And who, besides you and me, can forget the even more elegiac "Lonely Table Just for One" by hitmaker Engelbert Humperdinck (who, as the love-child of Elvis Presley and George Hamilton, could rarely have gone without an attractive dining companion):

Lonely table just for one

In a bright and crowded room ...

OK, you get the idea. Human beings are essentially hardwired to behave as social animals, even if we don't always find ourselves with the skills, means or opportunities to do so.

In that way, we're kind of different from, say, wild tigers, who prefer to drag carcasses off to remote hideaways and consume some 40 pounds in one sitting. The sad fact is that we've descended from a species that prefers to hang around throwing fruit at one another. And, you know, we kind of miss that. Just not enough to seek out its contemporary counterpart, a crowded restaurant, on our own.

The spotlight effect

The good news is that plenty of experts are using the power of scientific inquiry to shed light on these social anxieties and the perceived stigma that surrounds dining alone in public. And what they've discovered is something most of us would like to actually believe: Strangers just aren't that into you.

"People think that other people are noticing them, remembering what they did, and judging them more harshly than is actually the case," says Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University.

Gilovich conducted what the Los Angeles Times called a "series of groundbreaking studies" involving self-consciousness in public places. He refers to our distorted sensitivity as the "spotlight effect," and tells me his experiments were a natural outgrowth of research he'd been doing on the subject of regret.

"With the passage of time, people tend to regret things that they didn't do more than things they did," says Gilovich, who actually cites the Steve Martin film in his study. "Although in the short term, it's more the opposite."

Put another way, mistakes of omission are at least initially seen as less worrisome than mistakes of commission. What Gilovich's research confirmed was a tendency for people to be overly apprehensive about entirely innocuous behaviors that they perceived could have unpleasant social consequences.

"When we were doing the research, some concerns sounded perfectly serious — you know, like moral failings and cultural violations. You can understand why one wouldn't want to do that, and how if other people saw you doing that, you probably would be judged harshly. But a lot of them seemed kind of trivial.

"The study that has been singled out as most memorable was this T-shirt study involving Barry Manilow," adds Gilovich, who essentially placed subjects in awkward social situations, after which their perceptions would be compared to those of the people with whom they interacted.

Says the scientist with Stanley Milgram-like glee: "We spent time thinking about the kind of T-shirt that college students — at least at that time — would be most embarrassed to be discovered wearing. And that turned out to be Barry Manilow. And we did follow-up experiments where it migrated year to year: From Vanilla Ice to John Tesh and people like that.

"So they'd be asked to put on these T-shirts, and everyone would agree to do it, although they weren't terribly pleased to do so."

Every time, Gilovich says, his subjects "massively overestimated" the degree to which anyone else cared or even noticed.

What's curious about Gilovich's findings is that while this social anxiety appears to be driven by humility, it also suggests a great deal of egocentricity. Are these just different sides of the same coin?

"Well, humility is kind of interesting," says Gilovich, "since it can be expressed as, 'Who am I to take up too much social space, to put myself too much out there?' That's a certain kind of social humility. On the other hand, you know, a truly humble person is not likely to think that everyone else is so focused on them. So I think it's a complex relation between the two."

The one-second rule

There are, of course, tons of reasons to eat alone in restaurants, many of which aren't necessarily tied to being a hermit or a generally horrible person. After all, consider the alternatives for someone who lives alone — or maybe just wishes they did.

Cooking at home requires:

a) an attempt to apply "heat" to "food";

b) consumption of the resulting "meal";

c) constant washing of enough dishes, glasses and utensils to have some ready for next time;

d) and consistency and commitment to keep your fridge from turning into a very large compost bin.

Obviously, this is all completely impossible. But finding people who want to dine out with you every night — especially if you're not paying — is nearly as difficult.

And so there comes the point where you say, "What the [insert preferred expletive here]!" and then race off to some five-star restaurant, sushi bar, fast-food emporium, bistro, diner, museum café, all-you-can-eat buffet, sports bar, coffee shop, greasy spoon or, if you're a complete idiot, one of those ubiquitous "family restaurant" franchises.

Hey, you're doing your part for our economy's struggling service sector, right?

Right. But don't expect miracles.

"Eating alone brings out the neurotic, phobic, paranoid part of me," blogs Christopher Elliott, a travel commentator for NBC and National Geographic. "The little voices that say, 'They're looking at you,' grow louder and louder until I can't even read the newspaper that I'm hiding behind."

Of course, if you're actively seeking other people who also hear voices in their head, you can generally find at least a few of them near closing time at your neighborhood McDonald's.

Which brings up another salient point for the easily paranoid. If you're discomfited by the possibility that those who dine in packs can't help glancing over at the loner in the corner, consider the reverse corollary: What if they think you're staring at them?

This is why I've come up with the "one-second rule" for solo dining, which simply requires that you not spend more than one second looking in any direction that happens to be occupied by other people. (Try not to confuse this with the "five-second rule" for picking up food off the floor — which, by the way, has no basis in science. Or the "second rule of Fight Club," which is that you do not talk about Fight Club.)

Film theorists refer to this particular faux pas as "the gaze," the theory being that the act of looking is, in fact, a means of exercising power. Normal people refer to it as gawking, gaping, staring or leering. In any case, it's generally not a good idea.

Fortunately, though, dining-alone armor has come a long way. In fact, you can think of it more as a new and improved dining-alone armor: Dining-Alone Armor 2.0!

In the past, folks were limited in their attempts to appear preoccupied while using up valuable real estate in an otherwise packed restaurant. Books, newspapers, ventriloquist dummies and day planners: They all had their virtues. (OK, maybe the dummy wasn't such a good idea.) But today, laptop computers are perfect for tuning out while looking vaguely industrious, and mobile phones are great for Web surfing. (Get yourself an iPhone, since the phone part is so shitty you won't be tempted to piss everyone off by talking on it.)

The heartbreak of solomangaphobia

If none of these strategies work out, you can at least take comfort in the fact that your discomfort has a clinical name.

Dr. Lillian Glass is a self-help expert. She writes books about body language. She appears on MSNBC to talk about people like Tiger Woods or Michael Jackson or those weird socialites who crashed that White House party and started feeling up Joe Biden. And she coined the term "solomangaphobia."

"Solomangaphobia" is, of course, the fear of eating alone. (Note: Before "manga" was a Japanese style of animation, it was something Italian people said in TV ads in order to get their kids to eat spaghetti.) In Glass' view, it's a fear as groundless as it is pervasive.

"I think people feel uncomfortable," says Glass, "because it makes them think that they don't have any friends, nobody wants to join them, and it makes them feel, you know, embarrassed. And I think that's one of the reasons that people go into fast-food places so often. They go to drive-throughs, because they're afraid of how people will see them. But people don't see them negatively. It's in their mind."

That could start to change, figures Glass, as people slip into more and more situations where they don't have a lot of other choices.

"I think we're going to see more and more people going on business trips and eating alone. Whereas a company could send more people in the past, they can only send one person now."

Out on the lecture circuit, Glass runs into the same situation. She'll arrive in town the day before a lecture, won't know anyone, and just head out on her own.

And she's never felt uncomfortable?

"Never," she insists, "because I feel real good about myself. And I don't care what people think. I really could care less. I'm hungry, I wanna eat. And oftentimes what's surprising is that I'll meet somebody at the next table, or the waiter will be extra nice or, you know, people will be very lovely to me."

If you're uncomfortable, though, Glass says you can always bring along a PDA or a Kindle or an iPhone or even a book. But the point, really, is to just get over it.

"Just realize that nobody cares. They're really not thinking about you when their stomachs are hungry. You're not the center of the universe. So please stop being self-conscious and stop playing the 'I think that you think that I think that you think' game. Because you're missing out on so much of life. And so much good food!"

Of course, Glass' get-over-it solution may be easier said than done. After all, even Ben Franklin, when writing about his famous solo dining adventure, described himself as having "the most awkward, ridiculous appearance."

Gilovich, at least, acknowledges that there's often a disconnect between knowing something and actually getting your subconscious to go along with it.

"You know, these feelings are automatic," he says, "but research can influence how you manage them."

So how does Gilovich feel about dining out alone himself? Does he even do it? For the first time in our talk, a hint of trepidation creeps into the scientist's voice.

"Dining alone? I mean, it's, uh, rare. And yes, when I do dine alone, I am aware of the potential audience out there," he says. "And so, like most people who dine alone, I try to arrange to have something to read, in order to, you know, look occupied."

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