Branko Milanovic comments on how dining alone can be a retreat from our hyper competitive world.
After living mostly by myself in New York for four years and having had dinner alone for at least 400 times, I think I may be allowed to opine on how you should eat evening meals by yourself…and what it tells us about the world we live in.
I have recently read that New York is the city with the highest ratio of seats that cater to solo diners compared to the total number of restaurant seats. I do not think it is an accident. The number of such seats has been, even over the last few years, in my experience, going up.
What are the advantages of solo dining? There are some obvious ones: you can decide when and where you want to eat; do not have to worry about how the bill will be split; can stay as long as you feel like. You also learn much more about the people you live with. In our ordinary lives, we are too busy to pay much attention to our surroundings: subway, work, colleagues, friends who are not too dissimilar in age, background or income, and that’s all we know. When you dine alone, you have nothing else to do but to look at people around you and to listen to their conversations. You notice their body language, awkwardness or ease they have with each other, whether men talk more than women, who brags and who is silent, who pays the bill; you listen to what they say: to their job complaints, plans, political opinions, love troubles. There are some negative advantages: you do not have to put up with boring dinner companions or pretend you are interested in topics you do not care about.
What are the disadvantages? It is all vicarious. You learn some but it is a knowledge that comes not from a real exposure to things but rather from pieces of conversation, some possibly misunderstood, that you collect along the way. You never meet anybody and even those you meet (bartenders) are there, ex officio, paid to listen and entertain you.
The question you ask yourself is, what can solo dining tell us about the way of life we lead? The solo life is, I think (rather unoriginally), driven by the break-up of traditional family and communal ties. It comes with greater mobility of labor; it is enabled by higher incomes. What is not appreciated, I think, is that is driven also by hyper-competitiveness and increasing commodification of our lives.
Hyper-competitiveness is demanding in terms of time and effort. As we compete against more people, not only does this take a toll on our time, but we become more aware that every action, every word, every comment ought to be measured and controlled lest they come back to be used against us. Being alone provides a welcome relaxation from the pressure to perform and to project an image required by our public or business lives.
Increasing commodification means that much of our personal space and private actions have become potential money-makers. Birthday parties, reunion dinners, theaters are occasions to meet people who may turn out to be useful and to “network”. (Museums openly advertise vernissages as occasions to network.) Our “dead capitals”, private time or homes, have become commercialized opportunities: we can drive own car for profit or rent own apartments for monetary gain. Being alone provides a respite from such incessant commodification. You do not network with yourself.
Is the life where we “bowl alone”, dine alone, exercise alone, go to concerts alone, live alone our ultimate objective? It seems to be the case. The average size of household has been going down with higher income. Not only do richer countries have lower (or negative) population growth rates, but the richer the country the smaller the household size. The final objective will be to live in a world where each household is composed of one person. Denmark, Norway and Germany are almost there: the average household size is 2.2 (Senegal and Mali have the average household size of 9.1 and 9.5). Japan offers a vision of a society of ultra-competitiveness combined with loneliness.
We should not be surprised by such an outcome. Being together with others always had an economic angle: expenses were less, on a per capita basis, when shared; we needed children to help us in the old age and spouses to pay our bills. But with higher incomes and higher labor participation rates, we can afford expensive utility bills, we can provide for our old age and a comfortable old-age homes (so broadly advertised today). Our children (if we have any) will be too far away, cast around by the availability of jobs and hyper-competitiveness to take care of us.
Being alone is both our preference and a response to a world of competitiveness, commodification and higher incomes. The new world that we can glean will not be dystopian. It will be a Utopia, with a twist.
“It will not be a universal concentration camp for it will be guilty of no atrocity. It will not seem insane, for everything will be ordered, and the stains of human passions will be lost amid the chromium gleam. We shall have nothing to lose and nothing to win. Our deepest instincts and our most secret passions will be analyzed, published and exploited. We shall be rewarded with everything our hearts ever desired. And the supreme luxury of the society of technical necessity will be to grant the bonus of useless revolt and an acquiescent smile.” (Jacques Ellul, The technological society, 1954).
This post first appeared on Branko's blog and was reposted with permission.