When psychotherapist Meg Schneider was in college she didn’t mind sitting alone during Sunday breakfast, a time when many students were still asleep. But at dinnertime, when many students socialize with their friends, she felt more self-conscious.
Schneider says the fear of eating alone is common, and she has counseled many students who mention the dining halls as a source of social anxiety. Many report feeling as though everyone is looking at them and that they appear pathetic and have no friends. Furthermore, in the dining hall, people are more concerned about how they may be perceived and invest the experience with a lot of meaning it doesn’t have.
The dynamics change when people eat in front of their computer, even if they don’t have a dinner buddy. The person might be a little lonely, but they’re doing something else and not worried about what other people think, Schneider says.
She advises concerned students to bring a magazine to read so it looks like they have something to do. At the same time, she thinks students should try not to look too hyper-involved in what they’re reading, as people might not ask to sit next to them if they look too serious. Instead, students should look open to welcoming people to their table or try to join someone else. She also advises students to remind themselves of the list of friends they have before they eat.
“I don’t think people care (about people who eat alone)…People forget (that eating with others) doesn’t mean you’re having a good time, sometimes you sit with people who are obnoxious and boring you,” Schneider said.
Instead of seeing someone eating alone as a loser, some see it as a sign of strength. Schneider thinks people envy those who seem able to sit by themselves and look fine.
Many students believe that after coming to college, people are going to love and befriend them, but college is complicated and that can get acted out in the dining halls, she points out. Students also report arranging a date with a friend who forgets or sits with other people. As Schneider says, they should not take it personally because many times the friend did have the intention of meeting them.
But some students avoid the dining hall experience altogether preferring to get take out and eat in their room. And while it guarantees that no one is looking at them, Schneider says it is good to have an experience of having a meal on one's own and not give in to social anxiety because anything could happen -- a person may join him/her, he/she may join in with others or, even, meet someone while waiting in line. She recalls one student who ended up dating the guy serving behind the counter.
“It can be interesting if you don’t worry about what you look like,” she says and notes that over 50% of the population qualifies as shy and hold a deep self-consciousness.
“The stigma in society is that we should be social animals and be able to interact with others especially in a public space such as the dining hall,” said Kenneth Huang, a third-year geography student at UCLA. “But, with time constraints and busy lives, we have to ignore these social norms sometimes. I focus instead on what I am eating and savor the food that is in front of me.”