We all love our residential college dining system: We love how it ensures that every time we walk into dinner, there will be at least one person there that we know on a first-name basis. Students at other colleges don’t enjoy this luxury — we’ve all heard of the poor souls who spam-text 10 contacts — “Lunch? J” — and end up avoiding the cafeteria altogether when nobody responds.
But what if one day, there’s nobody in the dining hall that you know? You don’t want to be that one solo kid occupying the entire length of the dining table, because let’s face it: Your insecurities will kick in and you will feel the eyes of people judging you. Harshly. And what if that girl you’ve had a crush on since the beginning of the year whom you’ve never had the guts to talk to passes by, judging you? She’ll never go out on a date with this loser with zero friends. In your panic, you might sneak your plate of food through the emergency exit or just settle for eating ramen in your room.
But not everyone has that high school inferiority complex. There are those who skip meals for an entirely different reason: “I see so many friends in the d-hall that I end up migrating from one group to another and staying for two hours — I just don’t get any work done.” Translation: I’m popular.
Good for you, Ms. Popular. But what if instead of honoring your peers with your gracious presence, you’re actually depriving them of valuable alone time?
Because once Ms. Popular flounces over and interrupts your quiet reading of Nietzsche — “saves you from your relative loneliness,” she would call it — you now have the responsibility to entertain her. What started as an intellectually engaging block of time has now deteriorated into a conversation about the latest J. Crew styles. You sigh as you take a stab at your grilled chicken. And it dawns on you that now that she’s watching you have to pick up the knife too.
Sometimes people will claim a table during lunch and assign themselves 100 pages of reading for the next 30 minutes. It’s not because they don’t have friends or hate people — for all we know, they might have been out partying all night and only just realized it may be judicious to put in some effort. It’s because eating alone seems like an efficient way of knocking out two birds with one stone.
Or maybe we just want to take a break. It’s tough maintaining a smile and forcing yourself to seem interested in your friend’s cool story about hooking up with five eating club officers last night when you spent your night watching the sun rise over your problem sets. Or perhaps after hanging around people all week, all you want to do is slip into sweatpants, forget about all social graces and stuff yourself with Whitman’s strawberry crepes at a table by yourself. In times of stress and fatigue, the last thing you want is to worry about social expectations, being engaging in conversation and explaining your reasoning for pursuing a “toolish” major to someone you barely know.
I’ve always enjoyed lounging on a couch back home, reading Hamlet while munching on Frosted Flakes or studying for math exams over scrumptious salmon carpaccio. I consider these some of the most exquisite indulgences in life, but it seems that the social construct that is the dining hall has created the pervasive feeling that eating alone implies “antisocial.” But whether or not you eat alone has no correlation with the number of friends you have or your relative social status. That freshman who eats alone in the corner of the dining hall every day might be the most approachable ray of sunshine you will ever meet, but maybe he doesn’t like it when people talk with their mouths full, or maybe mealtime is the only period he has to escape the pressures of reality.
Everyone should find the freedom to eat alone without fear of social persecution. There are those who sometimes wish to enjoy a meal below the Gothic lancet windows of the Rocky dining hall, contemplating the existential nature of humankind. It’s quite a luxury basking in the beauty of this picturesque scene: a solitary scholar musing about the human condition among the multitude of silent chairs. Why intrude on the aesthetic balance of this noble fantasy?