A lovely meal at a dinner for one
A lovely meal at a dinner for one

Dear Paul: Is Dining Alone Really That Bad?

Paul Kiernan

 Doing things alone does not lessen the event or the joy of the activity.

Dear Paul,

Recently I had plans to go out to dinner with this woman I have started dating; unfortunately, she had to cancel at the last moment, and we rescheduled. However, I was hungry, and I went to the restaurant by myself and had dinner. I told her this in passing when she apologized for having to cancel our date. She immediately asked, “How could you do that?” She seemed to see me going to a restaurant alone as odd, embarrassing, even dangerous. Then, suddenly changing direction, she suggested I did it because it was empowering, and I was really upset with her canceling, and I needed to empower myself. The reality is I wanted the seafood stew at this place, and I had been thinking about it all day, so I went and had it. Why is eating alone such a big deal for this woman? Is there something wrong with me for not being upset or embarrassed to eat alone?


Table for One

a man sitting alone on a long bench in  a huge empty room

Dear One,

Even though you’re alone at the table, you’re not alone in your questioning. Yes, there seems to be some odd feelings tied to dining alone. I’ve felt it, and I’ve faced it.

I read an article on Salon.com about dining alone. By Julia Bainbridge and references to The Lonely Hour. It’s a good read, a fine piece, and I like both the podcast and Salon.com; however, some things struck me as odd. I do many things alone; this is due to the perfect combination of introversion and the fact that I am an insufferable asshat. I have no problem doing things alone, movies, sporting events, theater, or dining. Doing things alone does not lessen the event or the joy of the activity. I have never thought that I needed someone else with me to validate my experiences.

There are times when I’m hungry, I have no food in the house, or I cannot make the dish that I desire, so I go out to eat. At a restaurant. Alone. Why should I put off my desire for Vietnamese food simply because there is no one to go with me? I shouldn't, and I don’t. Now, I agree that there are times when going out with other people to eat is fun and exciting, but that doesn’t have to be every time I go out to dinner. Sometimes, I’m hungry, and I want to eat right then; I don’t have time to make phone calls and wrangle schedules. I’m hungry, I go to dinner. Simple.

Or not. There seems to be some kind of unspoken societal rule that is being broken. People want to know how you could do that or why would you do that. What would make you leave your house and go to a public restaurant alone? They are either shocked, or they say, “Good for you,” and give you a knowing smile. Like my sitting down to a meal alone is equivalent to climbing Everest, or completing my Master’s studies, or something like that. Either response is odd and makes me feel awkward, makes me question, however briefly, my actions.

What troubles me is the idea that one needs to defend their choice to eat alone to anyone. Why is eating by yourself at a restaurant an action that needs to be defended? Who is being offended by my sitting at a table and having a meal by myself? Why is this such a faux pas in society? By the same token, I don’t see eating alone as empowering. It’s eating. Alone. What does it empower?

Raising dining alone to the level of empowering, to me, seems as foolish as taking it to the level of needing to be defended. What is so empowering? The definition of empowering is; to invest with power, especially legal power or official authority. What power is given by eating alone and who is this power given to, and why do we need this power? What the hell is that all about? I hear this a lot; I’m going to take myself to a movie, or I’m going to take myself to dinner. Is that part of the “empowering” to take oneself somewhere? When you go somewhere, don’t you take yourself with you? I mean, unless there is more than one of you living in your head, I guess in that case, you decide which one you’re going to take with you. Still, I don’t understand that notion. I don’t take myself to dinner, I go to dinner. I don't take myself to a movie, I go to a movie. Believe me, if there was an option not to take myself somewhere when I go out, I am sure I would opt out.

I find this notion of having to defend the desire to eat alone, see a movie alone even more strange when I walk into a restaurant and I see a table full of people and all of them are on their smartphones, texting or talking or scrolling or Googling. They are, in essence, alone among the people they are with. Why is this acceptable, but my sitting alone, reading a book, or doing some writing needs to be defended or has to be cheered as empowering? As is pointed out in the article, sometimes we need to recharge; if you’re an introvert like myself, you understand this. That recharging doesn’t necessarily mean we have to hide in a basement, with warm towels over our eyes, and chant for a day or two. Sometimes, we just want to sit at a table alone and eat Kimchi without having to talk about our day, or lack of a love life, or what the President is doing now.

I like and appreciate your question, One, as I am curious about this, and I hope this will open a discussion. What is it that makes dining alone so strange to some, and why do some see it as empowering?

My answer it’s neither strange, wrong, anti-social, or cause for alarm. Also, it is not empowering; it’s just a meal in public.

Maybe you need to ask her why she reacted so, and then you’ll see if she’s your dinner companion or if you’re going to be happy with a table for one for a while.

I hope that helps.

If you have a question or a problem that you think Paul can help with, drop him a line at paulk@thoughtlab.com. He’ll try to answer. Which may or may not be a good thing.