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The Daily Tar Heel

Editorial: No, that seat isn't taken. No, you can't join me.

Chase Dining Hall sits on the Chapel Hill campus on March 30, 2021.

In college, we are constantly interacting with people. We attend classes, share dorm rooms, join clubs and lounge with friends. Day after day, we become used to a social lifestyle. This becomes so common that solitude might seem uncomfortable or awkward. 

For this reason, it is easy to feel like there are stigmas against those who eat alone in the dining halls. For those who internalize this stigma, eating alone can can turn into a daunting task.

These preconceptions are likely formed through years of cafeteria dining experiences. In high school, finding a seat for lunch was stressful. Sitting with people was a sign of social acceptance and who we sat with defined our friend group and social status.

Let’s recall an iconic scene from "Mean Girls": lunching in the bathroom stall. Cady Heron, mistreated by the mean girls, anxiously escapes to the bathroom with a tray of cold food. She appears sad, lonely and friendless — exactly the stigma around solo diners. 

But Heron's situation is not the only way to experience solo dining. There are so many other reasons why people dine alone. Maybe it’s more time efficient. Maybe they just finished class and need a quick bite. Maybe their friends canceled on them.

Olivia Draper, a sophomore majoring in biology, describes solo dining as an everyday experience for college students, especially in-between classes or when friends don't have time to meet up. Sophomore Sania Khazi added, "I feel like when I eat alone, it's a much quicker process. I don't stay around for too long." 

When asked if they ever had any concerns or discomfort while dining alone in a crowded cafeteria, Draper recalled, "when I first got to UNC, the idea of dining alone seemed a little bit daunting because everybody is sitting around you with a group of friends." But to Draper, students can overcome this challenge. 

"The more you do it, the more regular it becomes," Draper said.

The positive experience and high comfort level shared by UNC students prove that the stigma around solo diners as lonely or friendless is entirely wrong. 

So, how can you cope with the anxieties of being alone in the dining hall? Here are a few things to remember for those who struggle with eating alone:

Eating by yourself is me time

It's a form of self-care. Solo dining is just as enjoyable as group dining. Draper said, "I think it's a nice thing to have some time to yourself, and I have not had any negative experience or feelings toward it." 

Do not overthink it

If you are wondering what other people see when you are solo dining (if they are even paying attention), it is your independence. Those who might judge you for eating alone likely have the same insecurity themselves. 

"When I'm sitting with my friends, I'm never actively looking at anybody else who is sitting alone and judging them like 'oh, they don't have any friends,'" Draper said. "It helps to remember that nobody really cares." 

Khazi drew a similar analogy and said, "It's almost like when you go to the gym, and you're like, 'oh, everyone's watching me, and I'm scared of doing something wrong.' But the reality is that everyone's focusing on their own thing." 

Challenge yourself by eating alone

In the beginning, you can eat at times where there aren't many people in the dining hall, get a comfortable spot and have your own space. 

You can multitask. Maybe it's a good time to call your family or friends you haven't talked to for a long time. Read the news. Get some work done. Listen to a podcast. Watch your favorite videos. There are countless ways to make your solo dining experience enjoyable. 

Feeling comfortable eating alone in the dining hall is another way to grow into adulthood. You not only become more confident, but also more independent from those around you. Set yourself free from fear and anxiety, and spare no energy or time for others' judgment or perception of you. 

In this new semester, I encourage you to have a meal by yourself and appreciate precious quality me time.

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