A Curious Geography: Single-ness in the U.S.

And it rhymes!

Today I take a quick break from the places and spaces series to discuss the influence that socialization/acculturation has on our everyday lives. The case, as you probably guessed, is the differing geographies driven by single-ness (or couple-ness), specifically in the United States (and I suspect in other western Anglophonic countries).

Socialization and acculturation is the (continual) process of instilling a place’s “culture” into an individual, most effectively in a child. A person born and raised in one place, especially if a single local place (a single town, or city) will have that place’s customs, values, imprinted onto her behaviors. This doesn’t determine the child (of course) and the child can grow up to ignore social customs and values learned from her early years. Some habits, beliefs, and taboos are harder to break. Moreover, some habits, beliefs, and taboos are more geographically widespread than others (compare Bostonian accent with spitting in public). One particularly widespread taboo is dining as a single person.

A friend and I discussed this over dinner last night at swanky restaurant in Chinatown, D.C. We had both agreed that we would have never had dinner at this place, simply because of having to sit – in the dining room – alone. This was driven by our single-ness, our being unattached to a “significant” other. On the other hand, while we wouldn’t partake in a solo dinner at a restaurant, lunches and breakfasts at coffee shops or “fast food” places where the cooking is done nearby (think about a Cosi, Panera Bread, Corner Bakery, and so on) or dinner at a bar was perfectly acceptable.

We know single-ness is frowned upon in the United States specifically, and much of the Anglophonic world in general. Just listen or watch our mass media. These are acculturation tools, considering how much Americans spend in front of televisions, at movies, or listening to music and its obvious that there’s a definite slant to couple-ness. Music harping on being single is often associated with a roguish and extreme lifestyle filled with overabundance of some stimulant – sex, drugs, alcohol. On the other hand, how many songs lament a departed lover, the influence of some lover, or the general happiness from couple-ness? Television and movie is much the same way, single characters are often depicted as incomplete and perpetually seeking some way to complete them. As an (admittedly) single piece of evidence of the early acculturation of single-ness being negative, a popular children’s animated movie (and popular with DCgrapher) a character observes to his friend:

She’s tons of fun and you’re no fun at all. She completes you.

So why all the emphasis on couples? The answer is multi-faceted (as every question about human behavior is) but the first thing I think of is the general pro-natalism bent prevalent in socially conservative countries. The pro-natalist argument, among a range of other arguments, beliefs, habits, and taboos, also applies to the distinct aversion to abortion in the U.S.

Is this some nefarious plot to keep single people from enjoying good food in pleasant places? Hardly. What my friend and I experience is a socially-rooted taboo, an aversion, to an activity that we could enjoy – if only we were with someone else. And we all take part in the propagation of this taboo. Have you ever looked quizzically at someone eating alone in a dining room? Perhaps your eyes lingered a bit too long, or you wondered if they got stood up? Indeed.

Dining Room of Esan Thai Restaurant. Couples-approved. (Bloomington, Indiana)

Firehouse Bar. Couples- and Singles-approved (Alexandria, VA)


3 thoughts on “A Curious Geography: Single-ness in the U.S.

  1. Eating a meal alone only takes a few minutes. The fun of a swanky restaurant is lingering over the conversation with someone. Unless it’s a truly remarkable cuisine, eating alone at a swanky restaurant is a choice I make only if I can’t find something more interesting to do…and I usually can. Your point is a good one, though. There is a social attitude about singleness that is very presumptive, and not particularly nice.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Karl! I absolutely agree with each of your points – particularly the sentiment on the importance of conversation in swanky restaurants. In a bar, singles can (and sometimes do) converse with another. Of course, that behavior is socially unacceptable in the dining room!

  2. I once had to stay by myself in Dubuque, Iowa, for a few days. An “Olive Garden” restaurant was next to my motel, so I wandered over one night for dinner. As I waited in line to enter, I overhead that the couple behind me in line was celebrating their wedding anniversary. Suddenly, the feeling of eating alone filled me with dread, and I had to leave. I ate at a fast food place instead.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s