Most of us enjoy traveling solo. Please, don’t feel sorry, worry or make special arrangements. We don’t need support from our coupled companions.
Jet-lagged and name-tagged, we stood around small high-top tables sipping wine and selecting an egg roll here, a cheese tart there, from trays offered by bow-tied servers. We were fourteen women and twelve men, late forties to early eighties, about to begin a group tour. Through the glass wall of the hotel meeting room, we looked out at a spectacular sunset over the orange tile roofs of Dubrovnik, Croatia, sloping down to the Adriatic Sea.
Promptly at seven p.m., our bubbly tour director, whom I’ll call Anna, tinkled a fork against a glass to signal the start of our orientation. Seasoned travelers all, we migrated toward the straight-backed chairs lining the walls and prepared to introduce ourselves, including — at Anna’s urging — how many trips we’d taken with this tour company. My own tally of twelve paled by comparison with a couple who claimed forty previous journeys, only to be eclipsed by another couple who were on trip number forty-six. Ye gads, I thought. Do these people ever stay home? Do they even bother having a home? Then the usual announcements: be on time, wear sensible walking shoes, don’t forget your sunscreen. Yadda yadda yadda. Bumpf bumpf bumpf.
I was barely paying attention when Anna asked who in the group was an independent traveler. Assuming she meant people who sometimes travel on our own, we all raised our hands. No no, she laughed. Carefully avoiding words like single and solo, she managed to convey that she was talking about those of us traveling without companions. Would we raise our hands, please? Self-consciously, reluctantly, we sat singled out as Anna talked to the eleven couples about the four of us. Some evenings, she explained, we’d have a choice of what time and with whom to dine, and some afternoons we’d have free time for touring. “Don’t forget to include the independent travelers!” she admonished the couples, adding, “It’s just easier for couples to do the inviting.”
She didn’t use the words, “We must all be very, very kind to those less fortunate than ourselves,” but she might as well have. Such an appeal could only deepen whatever sense of superiority any couple might cherish — and why did couples get to choose their companions, while I was supposed to be oh so grateful for the company of anyone generous enough to invite me?
Well-intentioned as they no doubt were, her ham-handed remarks betrayed three pernicious stereotypes. One: solo travelers are expected to feel too shy, too self-conscious about our single status, or too socially inept to take the initiative in joining couples for a meal or activity. Two: that’s how we should feel, because it’s only natural for couples to take the initiative. Three: we never prefer, and indeed should never prefer, to have time to ourselves once in a while.
That night, I posted a message to a Facebook group started by psychologist Bella DePaulo, author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. “Am I overreacting here?” I asked the members of the Community of Single People. NO, chorused dozens of them. How patronizing can you get? they huffed. Besides, what if someone doesn’t want to listen to endless chatter about grandchildren? What if they’ve chosen a group tour for the services it provides, but have come alone because they prefer to explore on their own? And, as several commenters pointed out, the couples had reason to be offended too. Although research shows that many people do become more insular when they couple up, surely they’re not all smug bastards who need a pep talk to promote basic civility.
Fortified by the support of the online community, I had a word with the tour director, an attractive young woman who mentioned her fiance early and often. Instead of differentiating couples from singles, I suggested, how about a more inclusive announcement, such as, “On this tour, everyone is encouraged to invite others to join you for meals and activities, regardless of how many are in your party”?
That went over well. My second suggestion, though — not so much. Some of us, I explained, are by ourselves because we like to do things on our own. We don’t want people chattering in our ears from daybreak to midnight. Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing inherently psychotic or pathetic about enjoying an occasional meal, or an occasional afternoon, alone. True, some solo travelers might feel lonely, and lack the social assertiveness to find the company they crave. But that doesn’t justify the overgeneralization that the state of being alone, in and of itself, is proof positive that we need help, there’s something wrong with us, and we certainly couldn’t be having a good time.
Like all too many in our extrovert-dominated society, she couldn’t quite get her head around that one. But, she assured me, she’ll think about it. As, I hope, we all will.
Copyright © Joan DelFattore /2017 Singular Communications, LLC.
Joan DelFattore writes about the choice to live single, with emphasis on what’s involved in handling serious illness without a partner. Her articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Herald Tribune, KevinMD, Psychology Today, Psych Central, and more. A professor emerita at the University of Delaware, she holds a Ph.D. in English and an M.S. in clinical psychology from Penn State University, and is a Scholar in Residence at the New York Public Library.