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Being Alone

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What is it men love about being on their own? No, not that. Andrew Lowry grabs the remote, flops on the sofa and explores the joy of man time

It’s fantastic. I can watch what I like. I can wear what I like. If I stay in, nobody bothers me, I have the time of my life.”

So says Adam, 30, who works in an advertising agency. And he’s not the only one.

Since we at ShortList actually care about what you, our beloved readers, think, we are constantly researching and surveying to find out what makes the modern professional man tick. And it seems that what makes a lot of you tick is spending some quality time with yourself – and, no, we don’t mean the sort of ‘me’ time that comes with PornHub and a side order of sudden self-loathing. Not entirely, anyway.

In a recent poll we commissioned, a whopping 88 per cent of men reported feeling most comfortable at home – second place went to bars and restaurants with a meagre eight per cent – and a sizeable chunk, more than the ones who chose ‘with friends’ or ‘with family’, said they felt most comfortable alone. Also, although this is based on anecdotal evidence in related focus groups more than anything, it’s striking how many more men than women say this when asked the same question.

What’s beneath this data is even more fascinating. Think of ‘having fun’ and it is logical to picture some approximation of a champagne-spraying music video set in a packed club, rather than a man lovingly preparing a steak sandwich before taking on the mouthy 12-year-olds of Idaho on Call Of Duty. But times are changing. The figures, and indeed the number of times the words ‘Fifa’, ‘Strike Back’ and ‘wearing pants’ were lovingly invoked by our readers, tell their own story.

Office space

But what’s behind the figures? Well, we’re not suddenly a nation of loners. Younger men are taking advantage of the relative calm between university and the arrival of children and frail parents to take some quality time to themselves. Elsewhere, those with long-term partners and perhaps kids are eager for moments to indulge their private passions now and again. From grandparents pottering in sheds to Tony Soprano watching a war film with a big bowl of ice cream, it’s not that this is an especially new phenomenon. It’s just modern life and, in particular, the office, has made it more pronounced.

“It’s relentless at work,” says Mark, a 29-year-old lawyer. “What people don’t realise is that every email and phone call is essentially someone grabbing you and asking for your attention. So I spend my days in this state of hyper-stimulation, and when I get home it’s like an oasis of calm. I turn my phone off and just unplug from the world for a while – come down off the adrenaline. I never thought I would, but I’ve taken up DIY. I’ve become like my dad – I’ve lots of little projects in my flat I can fiddle with and just spend a whole afternoon with nobody around, happy as can be. At work I’m maintaining a persona and at home I can just be myself and relax.”

With the workplace being ever more demanding – both in the job insecurity that arrived post-crash, and the accelerating pace of communications – the pressure to maintain professional comportment has increased concurrently. We have to keep the lion inside us in chains, and putting up such a front can be draining. “You’re not being your real self at work,” says Anneli Rufus, author of Party Of One: The Loner’s Manifesto, “and how many hours a day can you put up with that? There is a lot of demand to fit in, be like others. You’re not really your authentic self. Sure, you want to be friendly and make others happy, but ultimately you become angry with yourself – where do you really want to be and what do you really want to think about? It’s very hard to do those things in the presence of others.”

So, freed from the shackles of work and not having to impress your line manager, home becomes a sanctuary where you can actually live your life, free to do anything unburdened by the need to carry favour in others. The Greek philosopher Epictetus distinguished between the bad kind of being alone, where you’re abandoned or ignored, and a more positive sense of the condition, where we find the opportunity to see what we’re made of – and how we can remake our own world for ourselves. There’s a long history of this – George Orwell sought solitude to write by heading to the island of Jura in the Hebrides, and Ernest Hemingway was never happier than when he was on his yacht.

Social animals

That’s all very well, but Epictetus wasn’t faced with trying to maintain a relationship in 2013. This is where things get awkward. A man working in TV production, who asked not to be named, makes an admission. “Sometimes I get home from work and I’m glad my girlfriend’s not home. Sometimes I can’t be bothered going to meet friends of hers who I know I’m never going to become close with. More than once, I’ve avoided it by saying I’ve had to work late, then just gone home and hit the Xbox.”

So why can’t we all just be honest? “It’s just easier to make something up. I feel bad doing it, but it feels like a white lie. There’s this huge taboo about just saying, ‘No, I’m tired. I’m sorry.’ Or even worse, just flat out saying that you don’t want to go out, that you’d rather just stay in. People get offended if you even suggest that.”

This taboo is real. We’ve evolved as social animals, but even as our immediate priorities no longer include avoiding saber-toothed tigers and having as many children as we possibly can by the time we’re 20, wanting to get away from the crowd can still be seen as weird.

Quality time

But why? What’s wrong with just wanting some peace and quiet? I go to the cinema all the time on my own – even if it is mainly because not many of my friends are up for gruelling all-day marathons of Japanese silent movies. The common perception of staying at home alone tends to involve an evening centred around sad ready meals and self-abuse – which really would be depressing – but a quick survey of my mates and their favoured stay-at-home activities leads to some very different conclusions.

Sure, there’s a significant presence from our friends at Sony and Microsoft, but one man relaxes by embarking on marathon cooking sessions, involving expeditions to obscure delis for produce I’ve never even heard of. Another secretly uses his girlfriend’s Wii Fit. Plenty sing the praises of good old-fashioned reading, and I discover there are also quite a few secret bedroom DJs.

This is quality time being well spent, not lonely guys watching the clock

go round. The great recession has kicked a whole generation in the shins, rendering every facet of life that bit more stressful. Jobs are less secure, lifestyles are tougher to maintain and owning property – ie full adulthood – is, for many, simply unattainable. It seems fair, then, that we should be allowed some time out to just tend our own gardens – let the mask slip, and live for ourselves, not as others want us to. So next time your mate, boyfriend, uncle or whoever it is admits that he just wants to be left alone, let’s cut him a little slack.

(Images: Kobal)

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