Of Holiday Bullies and Double Standards

Holiday advice is different if you are single

Posted Nov 24, 2012

A few days before Thanksgiving, one of my Facebook friends sent me a heads-up about a question NPR had posted online, asking people whether they were planning to spend Thanksgiving alone, and why. My friend wondered whether the resulting story would be of the “pity the poor singles” variety.

That NPR story was posted on Thanksgiving, and I am delighted to reassure my Facebook friend, “Fear not.” The NPR writer, Linton Weeks, did a fine job of surveying a wide range of reactions to the prospect of spending a holiday on your own.

Okay, I’ll admit that I’m biased. The reporter contacted me and includes some quotes from me in the story. Because I wrote out my thoughts in advance, you can also read more of what I had to say here.

If you have read this blog before, you probably already know that I think people should not be bullied by other people’s expectations or by society’s conventions. (See, for example, Resisting expectations during the holidays and every day.) If you like spending holidays on your own or any other unconventional way, I don’t think you should feel defensive about doing so.

You also know, though, that some people can be very nasty and judgmental when single people do not fall in line. Here is a comment addressed to me that was written in response to this post:

If you have no family or friends to invite or to be invited by, then volunteer at a homeless shelter or USO or something to help those who do like to GIVE THANKSGIVING for the blessings of what we do have in this country.

Your “I wanna be alone and I want to be acknowledged for how great I am because I want to be alone” is annoying and selfish.

If you are single and you don’t act all morose about it, you will invariably be pegged as selfish. (You will probably get treated to all of the other stereotypes, too.)

There’s something else I want to discuss about this comment. Volunteering is a fine idea. And, as Eric Klinenberg pointed out in Going Solo, research shows that single people are actually more likely to volunteer than are married people.

It is commonplace to suggest to single people that they spend the holidays volunteering. It is a good suggestion and a noble thing to do. But here’s the thing: It is also a good suggestion and a noble thing for anyone to do, regardless of their marital status or their plans for spending the holidays.

Why aren’t there more advice columns and holiday specials tell those people who plan to celebrate in the conventional way – around a table crowded with friends and relatives, and piled high with mountains of food – to take some time to volunteer? They can do it beforehand, or maybe afterwards, instead of passing out on the couch.

One final point about this. I like hearing people’s stories of volunteering, and it adds a personal touch when their names are attached. But I also appreciate those who give without saying that they give. When I see compilations of names of people who have contributed to this cause or that, I love seeing the list of people who all have the same name: Anonymous.

It is the same with volunteering time. In my first teaching job, there was a grad student who spent time every week volunteering. She was in the program for years, but I never knew about her efforts until I found out fortuitously. She didn’t publicize her acts of giving.

The person who posted the snide comment has no idea of my patterns of giving, nor those of many other people who are single or who spend holidays on their own. Maybe he should consider that next time he is tempted to vent his hostility.

I doubt that he will, though. Even in this, the 21st century, living happily single is a point of contention. It threatens some people in ways that go far beyond the matter of volunteering at homeless shelters. (See, for example, this post and this Singlism book). My response to the person who posted that scathing comment was to wish him a happy Thanksgiving.

Thanks to all of my “Living Single” readers – I love the community we have built here. And thanks, too, to the many editors and web wizards and everyone else who keeps Psych Today purring along.

[Notes: (1) If your blog-reading habit got disrupted by the holidays and you missed my most recent post here, you may want to take a look at it. It may be of interest even if you have never heard of David Brooks. (2) My other recent post elsewhere is this one.]