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Reader question #79: I want to eat lunch by myself.

Marlene Dietrich

So. You want to be alone.

I’m going to try to get through this week with no questions about inappropriate touching.  Ready, set, go.

Dear Captain Awkward,

All in all, it’s pretty simple: I really prefer to eat by myself at lunch. I love to read and write while I eat and not have to worry about making conversation. A little bit of time spent not working and not having to talk is heaven for me.

The problem is when I started work where I am now about six months ago, a friend from school started with me. We didn’t socialize a lot during school, but the whole thing was a huge trial by fire and we all bonded pretty firmly. So I’d consider him more than a mild acquaintance.

He hated eating alone, and so we ate together every day. I often wished I could tell him I’d rather eat alone, but I could never find a way. After he decided to switch to part time (I’m full time), I thought it would be nice to have lunch with him every other day or so, and I could occasionally have some time to myself.

But we had a new guy start. He’s a nice guy, and for the time I’ve known him I genuinely like him. I enjoy talking with him while we work in the office. But he started eating with my friend and I, and now that my friend isn’t here, I think he’s assumed we’re “lunch buddies” and that we’re always going to eat lunch with one another from now on. The fact that I don’t know him as well makes the idea of eating lunch just with him sound not-very-enjoyable, and frankly, I feel like I should be able to eat lunch by myself if I want. I’m a big introvert, but I like people, and I’ve learned to socialize and enjoy talking, but it’s EXHAUSTING, and I want a chance to be alone for an hour a day.

My family and other friends have suggested a few strategies:  Bringing my lunch (but I like to go out!), making up an elaborate excuse, sucking it up and using it as a “networking” opportunity, which is ridiculous because we all work in the same tiny room and we network plenty.

So here’s what I want: I want to let my friends know that, although I like them and enjoy their company and think they’re good dudes, I just prefer to eat alone so I can read and work on stuff on my own. Please help.

Sincerely, 
Kinda Hungry

Hello, Hungry:

BOY DO I FEEL YOU ABOUT EATING ALONE.

As a fellow introvert, I really need that hour with a book and silence in the middle of my day.  Though on days when I’m freelancing and would be otherwise cooped up in the house, I enjoy Monday lunches with Commander Logic.  It’s about balance.

Though it’s weird to change something that feels like a daily routine, I think it’s easier than you think to just tell them.  The next time the “Where are we going to lunch today?” conversation starts up, figure out where they are going (so you can go somewhere else, otherwise, awkward!) and then just say something like this:

Grace Kelly:  Famous introvert

You're in good company, darling.

Hey you guys, it’s always a good time to eat with you, but I’m realizing I sometimes need some time to myself in the middle of the workday to take a real break from this place/work out this thorny problem in my head/run some errands/take a walk outside.  I’m going to go my own way today, I’ll catch up with you later.”

Then you do your thing.

If you get any “But whyyyyyyyyyyy are you avoiding us?” pushback, just say, “I’m not avoiding you, but I’m a total introvert, and I go kind of crazy if I don’t get a little space to myself sometimes, and I need to change it up. We’ll have lunch later this week, ok?”

And then once a week or so, you have lunch with them. You take charge of planning where you will go, you listen to them and be extra nice, afterwards you tell them “That was fun, let’s make this a weekly thing.”   Maybe you put a little more love into that daily coffee break, and/or make sure you ask them how they are doing a little more often than you already do. If they’re both really social they will happily go out together, though sometimes really extroverted social people don’t understand the need to be alone and it’s sad-larious to watch them try to figure it out.  “Wait, you want to be alone?  But…I do not understand this word you are using.”  That’s not your problem, though.   If they are also introverts (possible!) they will be relieved to have the excuse to bail.

But guard that precious lunch hour with your life.

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About JenniferP

Chicago filmmaker, teacher, and blogger.

25 comments on “Reader question #79: I want to eat lunch by myself.

  1. I also hear you on the need for a lunch alone! I typically prefer it, although I will happily join friends once a week or so. The good Captain’s advice sounds great to me. I probably would have been more “rude” about it: taking lunch at a different time or bringing my own lunch for a while to break them of the habit of expecting me along.

    Fortunately, I have trained my co-workers to leave me alone when they see me at lunch with my nose in a book. Also, there are others like me: one guy will join me at my table if he sees me, we’ll nod to each other, then he pulls out his own book, and we companionably ignore each other for the rest of the meal.

    • I love “companionably ignore.” It is my favorite feature of functional relationships. My husband and I do this, my good friends and I can do this… why can’t my coworkers do this?

      I wish we all learned in school that silence is not a cup to be filled, but a rich and wonderfully refreshing drink to be enjoyed.

  2. Oh no, I am going to disagree with the Captain!

    I love and respect the Captain. I hope not to live my life without the Captain in it.

    But in this case, I vote that the Captain offers Too Much Information. People latch on to Information. People fret and think and make up shit about Information. So I personally prefer to Give Less.

    My response, in this instance, would be, “Hey, Lunch Pal. Just to let you know, I’ve got stuff to do during lunch today. Talk to you later.”

    “But Pal! Our lunch!”

    “I know, but I have Stuff To Do. Smile smile! See you later!”

    Done.

    • I’ve used that kind of excuse before, and while it’s effective, it bugs me that I feel like I have to hide my need to be alone. Of course, if you don’t feel comfortable telling your lunch buddies that you need some alone time, don’t tell them, but if you are comfortable, it might help spread awareness about introverted people and how sometimes they need time without others and it isn’t a personal insult to the people they aren’t spending time with.

      Another approach might be to say one day, as a way of gauging their response, “Hey friends. I actually need some time to myself right now. No, nothing’s wrong, I just need some alone time to relax (or something). I’m going to eat lunch on my own.” If they’re respectful of that, then maybe the next day you can go into the Captain’s script and they’ll probably be understanding of that too. If they push and seriously bug you to spend lunch with them, then the Captain’s script probably won’t work, so Virginia’s approach might be the one to use after that.

    • That would work if you’re only grabbing a solo lunch every once in a while, but if you’re switching from daily lunches to once in a blue moon, they’re going to think you’re avoiding them/don’t like them anymore. Especially if they find out you don’t really have Stuff To Do.

    • As someone who is an extrovert and has gone through the sad-larious dance of “But… alone? what? why? Won’t you be lonely? Do you seekritly haaate me? what did I dooooo?”

      It’s that last part where really More information may be more helpful then less. When interacting with introverted people, I find it really difficult to accept distance and the need for space without an active reminder like “You know i like you and spending time with you, but remember I’m an introvert and i need quite time in my head”

      If one of my friends did your tactic of giving less information to me, I’d fill that in with “you seekritly haaaaaaaate meeeee!” and cause more problems for everyone.

      • That’s what I’d do; it’s not like being introverted is *bad*, so why not just say “Hey guys, I want to hang out with you, but since I’m a big old introvert I’ve realized I need a quiet lunch X amount of days. But let’s do stuff on Y day.”

        I have someone at work who eats lunch on her own. I asked her why, and she just said it’s the only time she has alone all day. Sounded fair to me!

  3. I like to eat alone a lot of times too, and have made it clear that I need some fresh air every afternoon. Nobody minds my pronounced love of the outdoors!

  4. I agree with the Captain…it’s better to tell the truth. Being vague is more likely to feel like a rejection.

  5. This is excellent advice, I think! And oh MAN, do I sympathize about alone time during lunch. (And alone time period! I am such an introvert; I’m friendly, I like people, and all the same sometimes I feel like the desire for more time with no one around omg please silence is a full-body physical craving.)

    I work at a place where, during the summer, I could skip lunch hour and leave an hour early in trade. I hardly ever do, because I work with co-workers and I live with housemates and that hour’s break to go do my own thing and read/write/walk is invaluable to me. I’m so glad I don’t have anyone who wants to be a lunch buddy on a regular basis. It’s fun sometimes! But on a regular basis, oh man, I would be privately climbing the walls with my desire to flee into privacy more often.

  6. I think it is a good idea to explain that you need time in your own head like some other people need companionship, just so you know you’ve put it out there. But it is hard for those other people to understand, and it’s not likely to do the trick.

    Getting there first, and having your book out and earbuds in can really help. People are a lot less likely to talk at you if you have headphones on. There doesn’t even have to be any music coming out of those earbuds; your would-be lunch companions don’t have to know. You can smile in a friendly way, then go back to your book. If they talk at you anyway, every time they do say “huh?” then remove an earbud while they repeat. Respond to the comment and put the earbud right back in.

  7. I’m the same way. At one point, my husband would bring my lunch and then stay and we would eat together. It drove me nuts! He thought he was doing me a huge favour by bringing me lunch, but like a lot of yall, lunch hour is my hour-of-interoverted-bliss and eating it with *anyone*, even him, ruined it. I’m a pretty blunt person, so I just told him straight up that I would rather bring my own and not have to see anyone during lunch, and he was totally cool with that.

    • I am the same way. In summers when the kids are at their twice weekly foray to summer day camp (like today), my husband is pretty much forbidden from coming home for lunch. I need those two days a week to just chill, maybe putter around the house a bit, and be by myself and I won’t give them up, even for him. And it isn’t like we don’t get to see each other, since we both work in the same department on campus–he’s technical staff and I’m an adjunct prof finishing my PhD. But I have summers off and even with money being tight this time of year, I insist that the kids go somewhere else a few days a week, both to get them around other kids and to get me away from them. During the school year, I don’t get that time nearly as much as I would like, although I have been known to kick him and the kids out of the house on the odd Saturday, just to get some peace.

  8. I work in a small office where we have to stagger our lunches so that there’s always one or two people available to answer the phone. The only occasions where I have to eat lunch with coworkers is when the bosses take us out for Administrative Assistants’ Day. And I love that I almost always eat lunch by myself–I’d go crazy if I didn’t have that time to chill out.

    I’d second the Captain’s advice to just be honest about needing the alone time. If you don’t otherwise change how you interact with your coworkers, I think that they’ll get the idea that you really just need the space. Good luck!

    (And a book, a blanket, some grass and sunshine over lunch is pure heaven. That, and hardly anyone bugs you when you’re reading outside.)

  9. You may be a better judge than I am about how well your co-workers will accept “I need to be a loner at lunch sometimes” versus needing to hear/believe a face-saving expression of false regret about why you’re not eating with them.

    If you’re feeling like you need a white lie, another handy one would be to say “I’m in a book club and I’ve got to get this thing read, and lunch time is my only time I can make progress.”

    This occurred to me because, in fact, this is what I need to do when my book club meeting looms.

    If they probe about this book club, it can be an online club, whatever. Or tell them it’s a book challenge, you’ve pledged to read 50 this year. Tell them it’s a book you’re reading with your online friends Karen, Rinna, Jennifer, Kate, Blythe, Maggie…. etc. :)

  10. Wow, this really resonated with me. I work in an office where we are provided with lunch and when I first joined in January, I liked it because I got to know everyone in the building and find out about their work. But now I like it less and less because: 1) I love spending time alone and 2) they don’t cater well for vegetarians.

    While I am not obligated to take lunch with everyone, I was conscious of how my absence would appear to I make a trip to the cafe once a week with everyone else (sometimes twice it’s veg lasagne day, YUM!), and then the other times I say hi to people and then pop out for lunch elsewhere, either with an axcuse that I need air (which is true), or with the excuse that I am going to the shop (also true) but then I just stay out.

    I think the Cap’n’s advice is good. Be gentle but I think honest. It is ok to just need some alone time and you can couch it any way you want: “I am trying to finish this book – I want to know who the killer is!” (yes, okay, I read lots of murder mysteries); or “It has been a busy morning and I need some time alone”; or: I am working on a bit of writing I want to finish up so how about tomorrow”; or “I think I just want to be alone today – busy weekend plans” or whatever else. These can all be (mostly) true – and be friendly between so that they know it is not them but you just need some alone time.

  11. I have pretty much gotten used to people taking my “me” time (this kid in my summer class walked me to the train and spent the whole ride to the BART station near work explaining to me about civil war military strategy and other things I’m not interested in for the past six weeks- YIKES) because I am a lady, and a young one at that, and people (random strangers on the bus even) think I am depressed/ill or something if I just want to be alone (which I do! I am an introvert) or am not grinning maniacally while waiting for the bus, so I am watching this comment section with interest.

    When I am not working, I am a full-time student, and I’m looking forward/not looking forward to people finding me and sitting with me on my 45-minutes-between-classes lunch breaks. Last semester I would sometimes eat lunch on this sort of secluded, hidden bench, but approximately half the time classmates would find me there and be all, “Oh, Haha! You’re hiding!”

    I would say, “Yeah, I just really wanted to read,” and smile, and then invariably they would be all, “Yeah, I have lots of reading to do, too,” and SIT DOWN NEXT TO ME AND START TALKING. Argh.

    This is not to say that I am some sort of awful person who doesn’t like other people, but as a busy, working-in-customer-service plus full-time-school plus living-with-a-partner person, I don’t get a lot of “me” time that doesn’t involve me putting water in a tub and closing the door.

    • Here are some scripts just for you!

      For friends/classmates:

      “Good to see you. I’m busy right now, can we talk later?”

      “Hi, awesome to see you. I need to read this, can I catch you later at the thing?”

      For the Civil War BART Rider:

      “That sounds really interesting, but I need to read. I’m going to sit over there. Catch you next time.”

      Don’t be afraid to vote with your feet, young introvert.

      • Oh hai! Thanks for your reply- I didn’t even expect one.

        As for my youth, it’s sort of an overall objective kind- I mean, people are shocked!! when they realize I am in my mid-late 20′s.

        Thank you for the advice, seriously- I’m free of my BART friend because we just took our final, but I will be employing your classmate scripts in three weeks when I start back in the fall at my tiny women’s college.

  12. Ah yes, the extroverts who don’t understand “Naw, I’m going to stay in tonight and read.” I eat lunch by myself because I don’t like to spend money on lunch, and I also eat at an odd hour because of the times I work, so this solves the pressure to eat with others when I want to stare out the window. Eating with other people became more tolerable when I realized I didn’t have to entertain people while we ate at lunch, and I could just sit and stare into space if I wanted to and this was not a problem. Also, this is probably the best thing Cary Tennis has ever written in his advice column, and the best advice I have ever read on being an introvert who does want to be social. http://www.salon.com/life/since_you_asked/2009/06/01/introvert

  13. It is such a delight to know that all you other introverts are out there eating and reading alone! And defending our right to do so! And suggesting solitude-enhancing strategies! One of the hardest challenges for me is to find an introvert-friendly place where I will not be constantly distracted by the dread/anticipation that despite my Really Obvious Reading or my Super Evident Ipod-Listening, a talker will interrupt me. Sometimes when these cues fail to protect my quiet solo times I end up baffled and grudgingly stuck in conversation, but it would clearly be better to just let the talker know that I am temporarily a non-talker.

  14. I wonder how often this happens where the parties are Lady Introvert and Gentleman Coworker. I know that it has been previous discussed on this blog that men sometimes (often?) have the mistaken impression that they have the right to the attention of whatever woman they happen to meet rather than taking that attention as a privilege to be bestowed upon those who earn it.

    Just thinking out loud, I suppose.

  15. I’m always weeks behind on my RSS feed so I always end up bringing my stuff to the party way late, but I thought I’d chime in in case anyone’s still listening.

    I recommend against using the word “introvert” in an explanation, because that word is so RIDICULOUSLY misunderstood and its mere presence in a sentence can lead to a lot of conversations that you might not want to get embroiled in. BELIEVE ME I KNOW. I talk a lot, laugh a lot, and have a naturally loud voice, which means that nobody believes me when I say I’m an introvert. But I am! Socializing is bloody exhausting for me, and my lunch hour is precious if I want to get through the rest of the day without jangly nerves. I’m not shy or a loner but I have to socialize on my own terms or else I’m wiped out for literally days.

    I don’t know what Kinda Hungry’s personality is like, but if s/he’s anything like me, claiming s/he’s an introvert will just start a tedious conversation about how LOL that’s a good one, you can’t really be an introvert because look how gregarious you are, LOL now come have lunch with us etc. So I throw my hat in with the commenters who put the focus, not on personality traits, but on the book you want to read / the thinking you want to to / the earbuds, which is to say the external focus for your attention. For me it’s a crossword puzzle, by the way — I really like crosswords, and they require a kind of concentration that makes you seem marginally less rude when you tune out while doing them. (Obviously books require concentration too, but for some reason people seem to think it’s just fine to interrupt people while they’re reading (WTF?); I find that people at least respect that crosswords require attention.)

    Anyway, good luck to you. Eat well! Alone!

  16. Since it seems to be personal story time:
    I work in a tiny office. EVERYONE who is in that day (3-6 people) goes out to lunch together in a pack. Except for my first few months there, where I pushed back a couple of days a week with “no, I brought my own sandwich, I’m going to eat at my desk.” And they accepted that.

    And then I got a crush on a co-worker. So now I go out with them every day. Even the days that I bring my own sandwich.

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