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Dining Alone, PART 2: Here’s What People Really Do Think of You

Here's what people think of you when you dine alone.

Thanks to all who predicted the results of the study that asked, "If you dine alone, what will people think of you?" A variety of suggestions were offered. My colleagues and I - before we actually conducted the study - thought all of your predictions seemed plausible. Well, all except one: the one that was correct! "Adora" nailed it when she said, "It is probably no big deal if you dine alone."

I don't mean that no one ever has a snide thought about a person who is dining solo. The shoppers who commented on our photos did have some unkind things to say about the solo diners, including the very remarks that some of you predicted. But, they also made many neutral and positive observations. Most importantly, the people who commented on the pictures were no more likely to say anything negative (and no less likely to say anything positive) when the person in the picture was dining solo than when the same person was with other people.

We looked at all sorts of factors to see if they mattered - for example, was the person in the picture a male or a female? A younger adult or an older one? Were the people making the comments male or female? Single or married? No matter what we included in the analyses, the answer was always the same - there were no consistent differences in how a person was judged depending on whether that person was dining solo vs. with one or more other people.

Let me explain. Some negative comments were made about the solo diners, as we anticipated. For example, people said things like, "He is lonely," "Doesn't have many friends," "She looks depressed."

But look at some of the other comments we got:

"Enjoying a few good peaceful moments."
"She just wanted to eat by herself."
"Wanted to relax."
"He seems to be enjoying his dinner."
"Wanted time to ponder."
And my favorite: "He is secure."

For comparison, let me tell you about some of the comments that were made about the pictures that showed one man and one woman dining together. We expected those pictures to elicit mostly kind words. We did get some positive comments. For example, people said that the man was out to "dinner with his wife for fun;" or that the two are having a "fine, quiet conversation." Others said that "they are very close," or that "they enjoy spending time together."

But now look at some of the other comments that were made about the male-female pairs:

They went to dinner "to have a talk because their relationship needs some mending."
"She is upset."
"He thought he liked her."
They wanted to "get away from the children."
She went out to dinner with him "out of obligation - she's married to him."

We found the same mix of some positive, some negative, some neutral comments for all of the different sets of diners we studied - same-sex pairs, one person sitting across from a male and a female, or a male and a female on each side of the table.

Two of the people who commented on Part 1 of my post made an important observation. "Terry" and "Ladyexpat" said that by showing people photos of solo diners and asking for comments, we were creating a focus on the solo diners that may not occur naturally. Maybe when people go out to dinner, they just pay attention to their own dinner (or dinner companions), and hardly even notice the other people in the restaurant.

There is some great research relevant to Terry and Ladyexpat's point. I think that work may also help to explain why people are reluctant to go out to dinner on their own, even though they are probably not going to be judged any more or less harshly than if they were went out to dinner with other people.

The studies were conducted by Thomas Gilovich and his colleagues to document what they call "the spotlight effect" - "people's tendency to overestimate the extent to which their behavior and appearance are noticed and evaluated by others."

Here's an example of one of the studies. College students were assigned to wear a t-shirt with a picture of Barry Manilow - how embarrassing! Then they had to knock on a door of another room, where students were filling out a questionnaire, and speak briefly to the experimenter in that room. Subsequently, they were asked to estimate how many of the students had noticed that they were sporting a Barry Manilow t-shirt. They were far more mortified than they needed to be - only half as many students had noticed and remembered their t-shirt than they feared.

I'll end, as I began, with the words of "adora":

"I also used to think that if I dine alone, people will think I'm a loser - until I notice other people dining alone and I actually think they are very cool."

So here's to all the cool solo diners out there!

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