When I think of a relaxing activity, one of the first things that comes to mind is reading a good book or going for coffee at a cafe. What would not occur to me is to take a book to a sidewalk cafe after dark to read in public. Reading in a park or at the beach makes sense. But not a sidewalk cafe, and certainly not one located in a world class city like Paris with its crowds of locals co-mingling with crowds of tourists.

Looking at this photo however, I am struck by how relaxed the man seems. He is fully engrossed in his reading with his pipe acting like a prop for his hand. His dress speaks, “after hours casual,” along with his choice of beverage that curiously looks like water in an over-sized wine glass with a Belgian Abbey Ale label on the front. Observing the man at the left edge of the frame who has just passed by, I wonder if our reader’s concentration might have wavered and he looked up. Although, on closer inspection, given the proximity of the man standing on the opposite side of the partition behind our seated reader, I am convinced his focus on the Balzac novel is true.

While some might interpret this scene as one of loneliness, I see a man who is at peace in his physical and emotional solitude. And although the man on the other side of the partition is close by, the contrast between our reader’s isolation and the small group partially visible in the McDonald’s a few doors down is noticeable. Did he wait for the businesses to close and the street to empty out? Is this a favored location? Does he live close by? Are there more people just out of frame to the left?

In our society, this man might be looked on with pity or suspicion. Human beings are social creatures. For many, the thought of doing something alone, even something as simple as reading in public, is abnormal, if not antisocial. Christina Ling states, “We tend to project our own tendencies onto others, particularly in situations we view negatively; and I find that the people with the greatest aversion to doing things alone, incredibly uncomfortable at and almost disgusted by the idea, are the ones who cannot be in solitude with their minds,” or in the case of this gentleman, their books.”

Our lives today are filled with distractions. When we are not interacting with our families or colleagues, we are glued to our devices as we satisfy our need to keep up with what our friends, or even acquaintances, are up to on social media. We feel that we will not have as much fun at the movies or going out for dinner without a companion to share the activity with. A study conducted by the University of Maryland’s Rebecca Ratner and Georgetown’s Rebecca Hamilton supported the above opinion. They determined that, “the main reason people didn’t think they’d enjoy themselves is that they were afraid other people would think they didn’t have any friends.” Interestingly enough, this study theorized that if an activity could be viewed as an accomplishment, such as grocery shopping, or reading, then people were able to overcome their aversion to doing the activity alone.

Unplugging from the 24 hour stimulations of today’s culture can be therapeutic. It can help to reconnect with yourself and discover a new level of self awareness that can foster a sense of self confidence. For the man in our photo, psychological studies are not needed for us to see he is comfortable with himself. His relaxed mood amplified by the empty tables and the deep, purplish hue that seems to intensify as the eye travels along the storefronts, speaks to the serenity and self assurance of the scene.

1.  The Stigma of Doing Things Alone by Christina Ling, Huffington Post Feb. 2, 2016

2. Inhibited from Bowling Along by Rebecca K. Ratner and Rebecca W. Hamilton, Journal of Consumer Research May 28, 2015