Several years ago, I was sitting at a bar with a friend on a Friday night. A few seats down, a woman sat by herself, drinking a glass of wine and reading a magazine.
“She’s so brave to go to a bar alone,” my friend said. “I’d never have the guts to do that.”
I’m afraid of many things—driving in snowstorms, diving into pools, and traveling to any country where women are required to cover their heads and ankles. But have a glass of wine alone? I’d been doing that for years and it didn’t feel like an act of bravery.
So I was heartened to learn about a new study on public aloneness, via a post on The Science of Us. In an article forthcoming in Journal of Consumer Research, marketing professors Rebecca Ratner and Rebecca Hamilton discuss why many people refrain from going out alone—and why they might be missing out.
In one study, the researchers approached people on a college campus and asked them to attend an exhibit at a nearby art galley. If the participants were in pairs, they went together. If they were alone when approached, they went by themselves.
Before going to the galley, researchers asked participants to predict how much they would enjoy the exhibit. The people who were alone had significantly lower expectations than those who went in pairs.
Afterwards, however, the solo gallery-goers enjoyed the experience just as much as those who had company.
Why the disparity? The researchers found that when contemplating an outing, like going to a coffee shop or seeing a movie, the participants who imagined going out alone thought that observers would think they had fewer friends than did those who imagined going with friends. This perception appeared to influence their behavior. For example, the majority of participants questioned said they preferred seeing movies on Saturday nights rather than Sunday nights. But when they were asked to contemplate seeing a film alone, the majority said they’d prefer to go on Sunday, when there weren’t as many people in the theater.
In other words, the research indicates that the main thing that prevents people from going out alone is their concern that others will think they’re unpopular. And that’s unfortunate, because the study also offers evidence that if they could summon the nerve to get a table for one, they’d probably have a nice time.
When my friend first told me she was afraid to go out alone, I was surprised. But then I remembered that my first solo excursions were pretty uncomfortable, especially on weekend nights.
I’m glad I got over it. If I hadn’t, I would have missed out on some great times. I love hanging out with friends, but there is also something wonderful about being in a cafe, alone with my thoughts. Rather than narrow my focus to one or two people, I have the chance look up, take in the whole scene, and sometimes chat with the sushi chef or the people around me.
There have been times when it felt lonely (pro tip: a crowded restaurant on a Saturday night is not the best bet), but even then … I didn’t die. I just had a weird night and went home—you don’t need to be alone to do that.
Realizing I could survive such an experience with all my vital organs intact meant that I was willing to try again (albeit at more low-key venues). The more I did it, the easier and more fun my solo outings became. I also realized, despite the occasional person like my friend, most people weren’t judging me—they weren’t paying attention to me at all (a point journalist Oliver Burkeman makes nicely in his Guardian column on the study).
If you feel like going out, and no one is available to join you, why not give this a shot? You might have a nice time; you might have a terrible time. Either way, the Netflix queue will still be there when you return.