Going solo and loving it

Dining alone in a restaurant was a liberating experience and made me realise I should cherish the time I have to myself

Last June, I visited Tokyo for the first time with two girlfriends and an early observation we made as we trundled into a 24-hour ramen restaurant were the cubicles for lone diners.

Coming from Singapore, where you would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that sets tables for one, it was amazing to see how normal the dine-alone culture was in Japan.

As I sat in my little cubicle, unable to see my friends, who were seated on either side of me, I realised how nice it was to just get to enjoy my meal and focus on my food.

Sure, much of dining out is social and there is something to be said about enjoying conversation with companions while eating a meal. But in that moment, having just come off a red-eye flight, it was quite nice to eat in solitude, without having to worry about whether anyone was judging me for it.

I am not someone who feels particularly comfortable doing social things alone.

Part of it has to do with my extroverted nature. For the most part, I enjoy surrounding myself with people and enjoy the company of friends and family.

When I need alone time, I like to spend that in my home, away from crowds; or running errands, as opposed to social activities that one would usually do in a group.

Shopping, hitting the gym or making trips to the library, for example, are things I enjoy doing solo - they feel too drawn out and painful if I am left waiting around for other people.

But there is something about sitting alone in a busy restaurant or watching a play by myself that has always felt inconceivable to me.

As much as I love these activities, for some reason, the thought of doing them solo would make me feel too much like a loser.

A little digging unearthed that I am not alone in my hang-ups.

A study published in 2015 shows that for many people, going out to dinner alone requires a Herculean effort of personal bravery - perhaps because we are much more comfortable being seen alone doing "utilitarian" things (activities with a clear purpose) than "hedonic" ones (things done purely for pleasure).

Going to the gym, for example, seems fine to do alone because the purpose at the gym is to exercise and, therefore, people are unlikely to fear doing it without others.

But the reticence to do fun things alone - going to a movie or attending a concert - stems at least in part from a worry that strangers who see us by ourselves will have negative inferences about our social connectedness, that we have no friends.

It was this thought that crossed my mind a few weeks ago as I found myself in City Hall during the lunchtime bustle, having to kill time before a meeting that was slated to start in an hour.

All around me the restaurants were full, replete with friends and colleagues immersed in conversation and laughter.

And there I was. Alone.

In this instance, given hunger got the better of me, I decided to brave it out and dine solo - pulling out a book and spending my lunch hour reading while eating my pasta.

The meal was mediocre, but the book was great and, before I knew it, my hour had passed. No one had even given me a second glance and, if they had, I would not have noticed.

It was liberating.

Two weeks later, as my husband found himself tied up with work on a Saturday night, I decided to head out to a restaurant along East Coast Road I'd been meaning to try, for dinner. Again solo, again with book in hand.

Never mind that my seat was right in the middle of the busy restaurant and the waiter made well-meaning queries about whether I was expecting another dining guest, I ended up thoroughly enjoying my dinner and making significant headway in my book.

Before I left, another single diner who happened to be sitting diagonally across from me struck up conversation about my book and told me how much he loved having the odd dinner alone - leisurely eating his food and people-watching to relax.

I had to agree.

Underlying our inhibitions about being seen out alone, I suspect, is the famous psychological phenomenon known as the spotlight effect, which describes the way we chronically overestimate how much others notice our social faux pas, or indeed notice us at all.

But the reality is that most of us are so caught up in our own heads that we're unlikely to notice what is going on around us anyway.

I, for one, did not even notice my fellow solo diner until he spoke up to ask about my book.

What I've come to realise is that the real reason that you should not stop yourself from enjoying solo activities is that you will likely enjoy the solitude more than you think.

At the end of the day, everyone is just wrapped up in his own head.

That is why we should all cherish our alone time doing things we love - whether it is visiting the museum, watching a movie or just sitting in the middle of a busy restaurant, thrilling novel in hand.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 10, 2017, with the headline 'Going solo and loving it'. Print Edition | Subscribe