After ten years traveling around the world as an advertising executive, I perfected the art of the solitary meal. I would land somewhere, roll into the hotel, and groggily seek out an early dinner. I’ve probably eaten alone in over thirty countries. I often recalled the words of my high school English teacher: “I think the saddest thing is seeing someone eating alone at a restaurant.”
I wondered, had my success turned me into someone to pity?
Business travel was not my first foray into regular solo eating. In my twenties, I had a stint as a temp in San Francisco. Unemployment can be lonely, scary, and sad. To buffer the pain of uncertainty and isolation, I sought company from the only other people I knew had no plans: the homeless. On off days, I started volunteering at a soup kitchen for a good lunch and good conversation.
Around the same time, I came across Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein’s Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation. The authors summarized one of the Buddha’s teachings as, “If you knew what I know about the power of giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing it in some way.”
That quote has haunted for almost twenty years. After all that solo eating, I knew what he meant. There is something about sharing even a glass of wine with someone. So today, if I find myself eating breakfast alone, for example, I make sure the birdfeeder is full and eat with the birds. Animals count, even if their friendship is less enduring.
In 2005, Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time was another take on the Buddha’s idea, this time from a professional angle. Now in its second edition, the book discusses importance of relationships for professional advancement. Eat with others and increase your success!
In 2011, I stumbled across the book again. This time, it sparked an idea.
What would happen if I started to cut down on eating alone? What kinds of incredible conversations might I have? Where might these deepening relations lead?
I was less interested in eating with others for professional advancement as Ferrazzi advocated. To me, his book seemed like challenge, a call, and an opportunity for growth. The findings reported in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone suggest that eating with others might not just save me. It might save us all.
Putman’s book draws on over 500,000 interviews demonstrating the decrease in public participation, meeting attendance, and relationships with neighbors as television, computers, and suburban life have transformed the social landscape. Communities are eroding. Since the book’s release in 2000, the rise of social media and smartphones with 4G has made avoiding the people next to us even easier. We text and tweet instead of talk.
Foreigners notice it. We had a barbeque the other night and my friend visiting from Kenya asked afterward, “Why didn’t the neighbors come join us? I saw them sitting outside next door and thought they would come over.”
“We don’t know them,” I explained.
She looked shocked. “In our neighborhood,” she said, “if you hear music you just show up and crash the party.”
I felt embarrassed. Why don’t we know our neighbors in this safe little neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia?
Solo activities are on the rise. In “Why we need to bring back the art of communal bathing,” Jamie Mackay observes how people gravitate to individual activities like yoga and meditation to feel more connected. But they are still alone. Yoga classes, for all their physical and spiritual benefits, are a solo experience. Most people show up, roll out their mats, perform the postures, and leave. In cafés, I notice more and more folks wearing headphones that look like a space helmet. Do we now come to the café to be alone together? If so, what are the effects on us individually and as communities?
Even if the academic studies have not yet captured the data, I believe so much of the depression and anxiety in the United States is the result of a sense of isolation and alienation. Putnam would likely agree. We’re more connected and more disconnected. We may think we’re anxious because of our to-do lists, but we’re anxious because we feel alone. Working harder simply amplifies the isolation. We become more driven or more distracted. As a result, we have become a nation trying to medicate itself into happiness.
Instead, I think much of this can be cured with a few good social meals.
A Columbia University study showed that teens who had regular family dinners were forty percent more likely to get As and Bs. These teens are also less likely to smoke or use. Pediatrics reported that girls ages twelve to twenty-one who often ate alone were at increased risk for eating disorders. For older men, eating alone can be lethal. The University of Liverpool found elderly men eating alone consume far more junk food than their female counterparts. This contributes to diminishing health. For binge eaters, eating alone is also dangerous.
This aloneness does not just affect our bodies. It makes the world a more dangerous place. As a scholar, practitioner, and professor of conflict resolution, I am increasingly convinced that many of our societal challenges—yes, even the big ones like terrorism, school shootings, and corruption—flourish when people feel excluded. Scholar Vivienne Jabri talks about the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion being at the heart of much conflict, and even locates the violence in the way we speak (“us vs. them”).
More than just an avoidance of pain, eating together brings all kinds of other joys and discoveries. I’m setting out to discover what they are.
In the Table Talk series, I chronicle what happens when I seek out others at a time when I might usually eat alone. So far, the experience has been astonishing. While a visiting professor at Grinnell College in Iowa, I parked myself in one of country’s last great cafés, Saints Rest, where the owner knows your name and kisses the booboos of the visiting kids. I had fascinating lunch conversations about everything from how to make good ham balls to how to address structural racism. I dined with a Holocaust survivor who survived the war living in a potato cellar, a woman who helped the L.A. Justice Department solve community disputes, and an archeologist who had just made a big find on campus.
Beyond enjoying and sharing these experiences, I created this series with the intention of inspiring you to join. With just one extra shared meal a week with a colleague, friend, or even stranger, we might just be able to upend many social ills and alleviate much individual suffering.
Dr. Sarah Federman is a professor within the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore and founder of The Language of Conflict.