It’s lunchtime, your stomach is growling, and you’re alone. You slip on your flip-flops and hasten to the cafeteria, transforming a five-minute walk into three minutes. Here is where the awkwardness begins for some people. I’m the loser without friends. What if the girl I have a crush on sees me eating alone? The people who think like that suck. Eating alone isn’t inherently awkward. Everyone has done it before, and anyone who would judge you for it is not worth impressing.
The cafeteria lady swipes my entry card, and my stomach fist-pumps as I gain entry into the pearly gates. I put down my coat to claim my seat before I enter the servery. Pasta with a basil cream sauce or beef and potatoes with gravy? I select the beef after shamelessly tasting the pasta. Why? Because it’s one of those things you can get away with when you’re alone.
I return to my seat, put my tray down, and I proceed to lustfully quench my stomach’s cravings. With each potato cigarette I swill, my stomach answers with moans of pleasure. Then it lurches, and a little water upchucks through my nose. The nightmare has happened!
I had semi-noticed some clothing on the table directly across from my seat before, but I had chosen to ignore them in favor of satisfying my primal needs. Now the person belonging to those clothes has returned, and I am subject to fifteen minutes of a level 8.7 quake on the Rector Scale of awkwardness. Why? Because she has sat down at the seat facing me, and directly across from me. If her back were towards me, we could mutually ignore each other. If she were seated one seat over in either direction, we could coordinate our blank gazes in such a way that they never collide. But because she was directly across from me, the meal became a monotonous cycle of looking down at my food and hoping to God that my commarade in awkwardness does not look up when I look up.
In this particular episode, a fairly unattractive girl sat across from me. I looked down as much as possible, and I felt terrible about myself. I knew that I was being unfair to her, and I hated the fact that I was such a slave of lust. I hated myself for being cocky, and assuming that she might automatically be interested in me just because I found her unattractive. I hated myself for hoping to catch her staring at me when I looked up, so that I could add a log to my ego’s fire. When all you know about someone is there physical appearance, you’re almost forced to think in Darwinistic terms. After lunch, I immediately returned to my room and took the rare mid-day shower.
The beauty of this situation, though, is that it is awkward no matter who it is who sits down across from you, as long as it is a stranger. I am a male. If another dude takes that seat at the table across from mine, not only is there the eye contact issue, but, also, there is that elephant in the room: If the two tables were fused together, we would be on a date! Few feelings are more awkward than homoerotic moments thrust upon a straight male. I’m sure it’s the same for homosexuals who are forced into erotic, heterosexual scenarios. I squirm in my seat, minimize the amount of times I look up, and eat with as poor manners as possible. In this situation, all you can do is eat quickly and send every possible nonverbal anti-erotic vibe you can.
Now, say an attractive woman assumes that cursed seat. Awesome! Right? Wrong. This scenario is the polar opposite of the previous one. You want so badly to impress this girl. You refine your manners an uncomfortable amount. You try to look down, but, instead, you look up at her way too much. She catches you, and you immediately look down again. You want to go over and eat with her, but there are too many unknown, possibly confounding variables. What if she thinks you’re weird? What if she would rather eat in solitude? What if she is really bad at conversation, and you are forced to drive a ten-minute small-talk conversation that never scratches the surface? More disturbingly, what if she’s just a cold-hearted bitch? What if she goes back to her friends after the meal and tells them about the creepster who approached her? With all of those thoughts running through your head, the bold move becomes increasingly difficult, and you are subject to a long meal of feeling inadequate while this beautiful girl repeatedly catches you staring at her.
Addendum (by me, not Peter):
Something that Peter's post gets me thinking about is round tables in dinning halls. Imagine one walks into the cafeteria (alone, to eat alone) and it is almost entirely full. However, there is a very long rectangular table with one person sitting at the way end of it. Most of us would put our stuff down at the opposite end of the table and not think much of it. Sure we may run into a few of the problems mentioned above, but that's about the end of it. However, now imagine that same situation, someone else sitting alone at the only "available" table, except it's a round table.
People like me would simply not consider that table an option because of the awkwardness that ensues. The awkwardness is one of the following:
You are either
1. Sitting very close to him/her (only one or two seats away), in which case etiquette dictates you probably should talk (or at least it's awkward and rather tense if you do not).
2. You are at opposite ends of the round table, in which case you are essentially starring at each other (practically on a date!), as Peter describes. However, the case of the round table is worse than the case of rectangular table; in addition to making constant accidental eye contact with each other person, you're also sitting at the same table as him/her, thus increasing the presence of the elephant in the room that you're both sitting "alone" (or rather, came alone) and yet don't think the person across from you is interesting enough to talk to.
N.B. Round tables can also induce awkwardness when you're with a group of people. If you come into the cafeteria with a group of 4 of your friends, and there are no tables available except a round table with one kid sitting alone, that's awkward. If you sit there, do you introduce him out of politeness and have him join in on your conversation? This dilemma would not happen (or be nearly as severe) if, instead of a round table with only one person sitting at it, it were a rectangular one.
Isn't it amazing how the restraints of physical spaces can induce and facilitate awkwardness out of thin air?