A couple weeks ago, I drove to Utah to see a friend’s wedding and to my visit my new nephew. The drive took about 22 hours, so I decided to stop in Rapid City, South Dakota as a good half way point. I purposefully took this route so that I could see Mt. Rushmore.
When I reached Rapid City, I checked in my hotel and settled in. By that time, it was about 10:30 PM and I was starving. I really didn’t feel like driving since I had been on the road for about twelve hours, so I walked to a franchise bar/restaurant. I went in, the hostess seated me at the bar and I ordered a drink. To my right was a guy in his early 20s who was also drinking a beer and watching sports on TV. I ordered my food and I observed the people around me. There were a few groups at this time of night: a group of 20-somethings in the corner booth, a couple of guys in the center, a mixed-group more to the right. It seemed like most of them had just gotten off work and wanted to relax and hang out before they headed to their respective destinations. It made me a little nostalgic on how I used to experience going to a diner as soon as work was done with my fellow co-workers. I had fun during those times.
A little later, an older gentlemen came in and sat on my left. He order a beer and a vokda on the rocks. As I was waiting for my food, I looked around some more and noticed that the groups were really interacting with each other: they were laughing, talking, and more friends approached and they all greeted each other happily. The guy to my right kept staring at the TV, and the older gentleman looked ahead and occasionally at his drink.
The interactions were very social, but the guy to my right and the older gentleman to my left were not. Or were they? No one approached or talked to the guy on my right. He kept staring at the TV, eventually paid for drink, and left. The older gentlemen was somewhat observing the restaurant, but he mainly focused on his drinks. Eventually, the waitress came to him. He finished one of his drinks and the waitress was semi-flirting with him, either to coax him into another drink, or to inflate her tip. He was cordial. He didn’t eat up the flirtation, but he wasn’t dismissal of it either. She eventually left and continued with his second drink. My food finally came and I was focused on eating, but I could still hear people in my periphery. A while later, a male waiter approaches the older gentleman and tries to converse with him. They talk for a little bit, and the older gentleman orders another vodka on the rocks.
More people come in and greet their friends that are already sitting at their tables and booths. In the meantime, I just eat my food observing people, and the old gentleman casually looks around and drinks.
So why do I mention this? When it comes to bars or restaurants, the convention is to not be alone. There’s a social aspect to this event. Yet, the guy next to me was alone, and so was the older gentleman. Were they rebels by breaking the social norm? Not really. Did they really come in because they wanted to get some drinks and perhaps watch some tv? If so, they could easily do that at home at a much cheaper rate. So why did they do it? I can only speculate, but I think it has to do with being social.
Now, you might reply, “but wait, they just sat there doing nothing. They didn’t interact with anyone. How could they have been social?” It’s true that they didn’t actively interact with people, yet there was an observation, there was a sense of being part of the social atmosphere, even if one wasn’t part of the social intercourse. Heidegger calls this Mitsein, being-with. Part of our being is that we want to be with others. But why? I won’t speculate whether this has to do with our nature or whether this was acquired later in life. Rather, I want to discuss the experience of being social without engagement. Why do some people do it? Is it to get out of loneliness? Maybe. Is it to be recognized? It could be. I think a deeper aspect to this is that we just want to be around other people, regardless if we’re actively engaging with them or not.
Aristotle once said that we are social animals. Sometimes the quote is that we are political animals. In either case, the presumption is that we are engaged in the city-state and that we want to be involved in each other’s lives because part of our being (whether through nature or nurture) deals with being engaged in the community. Aristotle had a different conception of politics than we do in our democracy, but being social doesn’t have to do with politics, nor with an engagement with the community per se. Rather, it’s simply to be around people.
I can’t pretend to know why these two people were at the bar. Perhaps they were lonely, perhaps they were bored, perhaps they simply wanted to stop at the bar before they move on to another event. Despite all this, they chose the bar because the bar scene has a different aspect to it than other public environments. It gives one the experience of not being alone, even if one is not interacting with other people. This is what we are: we are social animals, and this means that we prefer to be around people.
Sure, they may be times where we don’t. We may want to be alone, have our alone time, or have our fill of people. But we seem to be geared toward being around other people. Perhaps this is why going to places alone seems odd. We are immediately seen as not part of a social standing. Thus, we stay home. However, the need to be social comes strong. And we reach a dilemma: have our solitude, yet not be social; or go out and be seen, even if being alone. We sometimes opt for the latter. In other words, being alone in a restaurant isn’t that great (according to social standards), but being lonely sucks! This doesn’t necessarily have to be in bars, but it works even in places where it’s acceptable to be by oneself such as coffee shops or tea houses. In all of these activities, we aim to be social. And this doesn’t necessarily mean to be part of a political community as Aristotle thought. It just simply means to be around people, even if one doesn’t engage with them.
Being human is being social, being with other people. But this is only the bare minimum. Whether we want to engage with other people is an added feature. Perhaps the guy to the right of me left because he had his fill of being social, or maybe he wanted his alone time again, or maybe he’s going to his next event. Whatever the case, he went there for a reason, and I bet part of that reason was to be around other people, to be social.