One time I was sitting alone in a Vietnamese restaurant and the waiter rushed over to see if I was alright because it looked as though I was crying. What had actually happened was that 30 seconds earlier I’d sprinkled chilli into my soup then absently rubbed my eye. I can see where he was coming from though – there were tears running down at least one side of my face, and I was the only person sitting by herself in a room filled with couples and families.
There’s something about the solitary figure that we can’t help but see as inherently sad. It’s both subconscious and learned; songs tell us let’s stick together, movies hammer home that there is nothing more woe than being all by myself and our reptilian brain is playing the line “safety in numbers” on loop. And while yes, they do have a point with humans being social creatures etc., we also don’t have to be all paired off all the time. Sometimes, it’s ok to be alone – and, in a few cases, it can actively be better.
Going to the movies
My Nigel No-Friends tendencies began early and, initially, out of necessity when on a lonely Sunday morning my middle-school self couldn’t find anyone to go to the movies with. I’d only just heard about a special one-off screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but with only two hours notice, everyone I had just called (on their land-lines no less) was either too busy, too uninterested or too far away. There was a decision to make.
“Just one please” I said at the box office a couple of hours later. She slid my ticket across the counter, and I slinked into the cinema, half expecting jeers and pointing. I found my seat and waited for the rest of the audience to file in. To my surprise, the cinema was a) far from sold out (for a 10am screening of a 30-year-old film in suburban Adelaide? Who would have guessed!) b) no one gave me a second glance, and c) I wasn’t the only one there alone.
As the couple in front of me proceeded to get into a heated argument over parking I found myself thinking, “This is fine. No wait, this is good.”
After that, it became just as run of the mill to head to the cinema alone as it was to go with friends. As good as socialising is, the solo trip has its own perks: not stressing about whether the other person is hating your choice in movie (look Heather, I’m sorry I made you spend $15 on Cosmopolis, if it helps I had a terrible time too); being able to go whenever suits you (ok, I’ve made a Google doc and a poll, so if everyone could put in three dates they’re available and vote on the film, we should be all set); and always getting a good seat (even when the session is sold out because people leave gaps everywhere).
Visiting an exhibition
I once went to an art gallery with a friend and he spent ten minutes looking at a painting of fruit while occasionally going “mmm” and commenting things like “the detail!” and “wow!”. We then walked into the next room and, just as I spotted something I liked, he said “let’s skip this one”.
Exhibitions are designed to be enjoyed at your own pace. Some things will interest you, and others won’t – so having the freedom to linger or leave at different points is actually quite important. Some people have no issues taking their time while their friend awkwardly hovers nearby, but for me, it’s hard to stay focused on the sculpture/early Disney sketches/Picasso plate when out of the corner of your eye someone keeps expectantly glancing at their watch.
It’s mostly fine when a gallery isn’t busy – you can each just wander through at your own speed and meet up at various points. However, if things are more hectic – say, at an exhibition for a certain Dutch painter’s work – when you find yourself essentially having to get into a fist fight to catch a glimpse of a picture of daffodils through someone else’s phone, prioritising what you see starts to matter a little bit more.
Shopping. Of any kind.
Basically the same pros and cons to this one as for visiting an exhibition, except that shopping alone comes with less lingering outside change rooms and a decreased likelihood of stress-purchases (unworn bright pink ’70s calf-length jacket, I’m looking at you).
Attending a wedding/party/social function
This one is a particularly hard sell I know – but as it turns out throwing yourself in the deep end without a buffer friend can be a good challenge.
When I first moved interstate I knew exactly three people, so my social options were limited. This is how I ended up attending a housewarming party – for the person a particular share-house had chosen to move in instead of me. I arrived at the worst possible time – during an impromptu band performance – and entered the house, waved at the one person I knew, then kept walking in a straight line until I found myself camped out in the bathroom where I hid for the next ten minutes. I did eventually emerge and force myself to talk to people with varying degrees of success, and ended up walking away with more friends (and only one or two social gaffes to haunt my nightmares).
Going to cafes
For this one I don’t mean the kind of going-to-a-café-and-getting-work-done kind of situation which has become commonplace – I mean going to a café to eat and maybe enjoy a recreational activity without the safety net (sorry) of a laptop.
I’m not sure when it became an unspoken rule that time alone for any other reason than work should be hidden away, but one of the most conspicuous places for this is anywhere that serves food. It’s fine to smash a utilitarian coffee before heading back to the office and it’s all good to be tapping away at a keyboard, but when it comes to just quietly enjoying a food or drink you haven’t cooked without paying a $5 delivery fee, we hesitate.
For me it’s a way to get out of my usual space and just take a break from routine. Read a book. Do a crossword. Stop thinking about emails.