Why is eating alone such a big deal?

Why is eating alone such a big deal?

Table for one

Text: Janice Sim

In 2010, "Sad Keanu" memes broke the Internet when the smouldering actor decided to have a sandwich on a public bench, all by himself. It looked like the man wasn't the happiest person pictured while chomping down his meal, which made him possibly the saddest running joke that spiralled into countless gossip stories, a "Cheer up Keanu day", and even "Sad Keanu" doll merchandise.

Poor Keanu Reeves — not because he was eating alone but because he suffered the brunt of exhibiting public solitude. A basic act that my adolescent self would never have done. In my early teens, eating alone was almost like social suicide — the impression of being lonely, isolated, and an outcast with no friends to break bread with. Three words: Social faux pas. I was that girl who needed a rowdy lunch squad to validate my existence in school. If my friends needed another hour before they would grab a bite, I was that girl who would begrudgingly starve herself than head to the crowded canteen by myself. But here's something I've learnt through the valuable years since I grew out of my 16-year-old self — you are the only one who will notice that you're dining alone. That is, unless you're a forlorn-looking actor in Hollywood.

"You are the only one who will notice that you're dining alone."

Don't get me wrong — I still love my company. I enjoy catching up with my pals over sharing platters and copious amounts of coffee. So I'm definitely not a glowing ambassador of a "table for one" here. But what triggered this piece was a conversation I overheard between two young ladies on my way to work:

"There's no one at work to eat with, I have to order food in everyday and eat at my desk."
"Just be brave and go out by yourself, it's better than staying in."

So if you're headed to a restaurant alone, you're either dubbed lonely or brave. Why does it have to be one or the other? Couldn't it just be that you're absolutely starving?

This so-called stigma could stem from the fact that we're predominantly Asian. Born and raised in a Chinese household, where every meal revolved around dining tables and Lazy Susans, the concept of eating always meant a deep-seated sense of togetherness and sharing. It's a daily appointment with the most important people in your life, and this is where the bonding happens. Many restaurants in South Korea are known to discourage solo dining — it figures, since the Korean word "family" also means "those who eat together". Eating alone in Thailand is also believed to attract bad luck. However, in countries like America, the coin is flipped — according to a recent report by The Food Marketing Institute, nearly half of all meals are now consumed in solitude, mainly because there's no reason not to. After all, people who reside in cosmopolitan places live very busy lives, packed with endless work meetings, and leaving very little time for a two-hour lunch with your best mates. I can testify to that, since my first experience eating alone, was in between work appointments.

"Whipping out a book can magically eradicate your self-consciousness while seated alone at a table."

For the longest time, having a sit-down meal at a restaurant is more social than survival – case in point, we feed the Instagram gods before we feed ourselves. Guilty as charged. An article published in the Journal of Consumer Research pointed out an interesting finding — we tend to feel much more comfortable doing something that's utilitarian (one with a clear purpose), like running errands alone, as opposed to doing something that's hedonistic (one of pleasure), like having a three-course meal by yourself at a fancy restaurant. This also explains how whipping out a book can magically eradicate your self-consciousness while seated alone at a table — it serves the purpose of "Hey, I'm finishing this book during my lunch break!" I personally like to call it the solo diner prop, one that instantly rids you of the "loner with no friends to eat with" connotation. Perfect for first-timers.  

"The ratio of older folks who feel oblivious enough to grab a solo bite still edges out the cool kids of now, hands down."

It might be cliche to generalise this but sometimes it all comes with age — one that you'll understand once you've graduated past social norms like refusing a cigarette from your squad merely because you don't actually need one and aren't afraid to say no. And if you do take a good look at your neighbourhood eateries and restaurants, most people eating alone in there are in their 40s and 50s. To put it another way, they're the generation birthed before the words "social media" existed. Not to discount the millennials who relish dining alone because trust me, I know how liberating that can be — it's just that the ratio of older folks who feel oblivious enough to grab a solo bite still edges out the cool kids of now, hands down.

At the end of the day, it's about being comfortable in your own company, whilst in the public eye. Once you've accomplished that, you'll find a meal waiting at its purest form — one without tiresome conversations or a time restriction. As for myself, I've found eating alone to be an easy outlet of independence and freedom. Lunch time = me time.