People are scared of many things. Taxes. Skydiving. Eyes on potatoes. It seems that two of the most pervasive fears, however, are being alone and looking alone to others. Eating is the activity people seem most reluctant to do by themselves because, especially on a close-knit college campus, meals are expected to be social activities.
The stigmatization of being alone begins in toddlerhood. The concept of the “time-out” teaches children that being alone is a punishment: an undesirable state inflicted on those who are at least temporarily unworthy of being in the company of others. Executed properly, time-outs give children the opportunity to calm down and think about problematic aspects of their behavior. However, these meta-goals often fall through the cracks, especially when time-outs are done publicly (‘Timmy was bad, so now he has to sit by himself while the rest of you play”). The punished are left only with a sense of humiliation and the observers feel a sense of superiority to the person being punished.
The specific “problem” of eating alone worms its way into the minds of children as soon as they first encounter a cafeteria setting. Shyness and other social struggles are more easily hidden (or eased) in the structured setting of a classroom or the chaotic scene on the playground. Children are pressured by teachers to eat with others, even if they might otherwise be perfectly content to eat on their own, perhaps with a book. Popular culture enhances this dynamic, with many young adult novels reinforcing the notion that to be “cool” people must always be surrounded by their peers.
Although this was never much of an issue for me in elementary school (long tables and limited space meant you ate with others whether you liked it or not), it was pushed to the front of my mind when high school began and we were allowed “off-campus” to go to the surrounding New York eateries for lunch.
I was never someone who minded being alone. I can entertain myself perfectly well without company, and sometimes if I spend a good part of my day interacting with others I enjoy being able to take a break. For years of high school, however, leaving school to buy food by myself was a fate to be avoided at all costs.
These lunch periods of uncertainty would begin with an almost-but-not-quite-desperate text of, “Hey, you eating?” Three cool, casual words, not aggressive enough to seem pushy but not so passive as to be ignored. On days when my friends’ schedules and mine did not align, eating alone was the only reasonable option. As embarrassed as I might have been to be seen alone, my sense of hunger always trumped my sense of pride. With a few furtive glances, I would dart to the nearest supermarket, buy a bialy, an apple, and a LUNA Bar, and try to slip back to school before I could get caught. It was a strange, gustatory version of “Capture the Flag.”
Although I have matured and decided that in most situations it’s really not worth caring about being alone, the stigma surrounding it has definitely permeated my way of thinking. If I see someone sitting alone at a Usdan dining table, even without passing judgment, I certainly do notice it as an anomaly. The sick thing is, people most likely respond to single diners differently based on the diners’ other characteristics. Are they attractive? Then they’re mature and self-sufficient, not social outcasts.
I think we should bring back the art of eating alone rather than marginalizing it. And I really mean alone. We don’t need the “I’m texting and therefore it’s okay that there is no physical body at my table” act. Although social eating is an integral part of the college experience, mealtimes are some of the primary chances we get to think about and process the happenings of the other 14 waking hours in the day.
By spending every free moment in conversation with others, you lose the opportunity to have a conversation with yourself. This is a real loss: at the end of the day, you’re the only person guaranteed to be around yourself one hundred percent of the time. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot.”
So we might as well practice.
Zalph is a member of the class of 2016.