Aria Bendix is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab. Her work has appeared on Bustle and The Harvard Crimson.
Table for one, please.
For nearly a century, workers have been painfully reliant on “the sad desk lunch” to satisfy their midday hunger pangs. As my CityLab colleague Vicky Gan put it, “wolfing down a sandwich at your desk and calling it lunch” is quite a sorry affair: “It’s rushed, it’s vaguely undignified, and, perhaps saddest of all, it’s solitary.”
That last word is crucial. Arguably the main reason why we bemoan the sad desk lunch is that it’s a solo activity—one that implies we’re somehow lonely or pathetic. But since when is being alone such a bad thing?
From the looks of it, Americans are starting to ask themselves this very question. Recent years have seen a surge in the number of people traveling or dining alone. A new analysis by the online reservation service OpenTable, for instance, reveals that reservations for one have increased by 62 percent nationwide over the past two years. Solo parties are the fastest-growing reservation. “Solo dining is about treating yourself to a delicious experience and savoring every bite,” OpenTable’s Caroline Potter said in a press release.
Potter’s description of solo dining is a far cry from the idea of the “sad desk lunch.” It suggests that dining alone can be an enjoyable—and perhaps even empowering—experience, not something to feel embarrassed about.
The same goes for traveling alone. A new 2015 Visa Global Travel Intentions Study found that 24 percent of the over 13,600 travelers surveyed traveled alone this year, compared to only 15 percent who traveled alone in 2013. What’s more, the number of solo first-time travelers rose from 16 percent in 2013 to 37 percent in 2015.
As more and more people decide to travel solo, companies have begun to cater to single customers. The New York Times reports that cruise companies are adding more “cabins for one” on ships and are getting rid of “single supplements,” which can charge solo travelers anywhere from 10 percent to 100 percent or more on top of the standard rate.
The fact that these extra charges existed in the first place shows just how historically unkind we’ve been to those who choose to travel alone. In a recent interview for a Kate Spade video series, for instance, feminist icon Gloria Steinem recalls a time when it was considered socially unacceptable for women to engage in social activities on their own:
“When I started out, you couldn’t go into a certain number of hotels alone if you were a female. You couldn’t be seated alone. There was something scandalous about it. Finally, if you were seated alone, it was by the kitchen.”
Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since the days when women were relegated to inconspicuous tables in the back of a restaurant, but there’s still a stigma surrounding solo activities. In a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Rebecca Ratner—a professor of marketing at the University of Maryland—and her co-writer Rebecca W. Hamilton found that people are still self-conscious about being seen by themselves. People worry that others “are going to look at them and think that they don’t have friends,” Ratner explains.
But in reality, these judgments are unlikely. According to the so-called spotlight effect, people tend to believe their actions are under scrutiny far more than they actually are. What’s more, Ratner found that people enjoy certain solo activities—like visiting an art gallery—just as much as they would have had they been in a group.
So why has it taken so long to jump on the solo bandwagon? For one thing, people are getting married later, so they may have more time to spend as single adults. But the Wall Street Journal reports that even married people are deciding to travel alone, “leaving significant others and friends behind.” Richard Harris, senior vice president for the tour operating company Abercrombie & Kent, explained: “It’s a conscious decision with couples now that you go do this and I’ll do that.” Ratner suspects that things like differing work schedules or needing childcare may be responsible, as well.
Whatever the case, solo activities seem to have a domino effect. “The more people are out there doing stuff alone, then talking about it with each other and sharing it on social media, then I think it will make it seem socially acceptable,” Ratner says. “People will be less worried about what others will think.”