How to Be Alone Together

by Annette Barlow

London has got to be one of the loneliest cities in the world. For all its diversity and cultural heft, and despite 8.5m inhabitants crowding its boroughs, its tendency toward detachment is pervasive. New Yorkers are zealously friendly. Parisians, while cranky, communicate with passion. Londoners like to pretend everyone else simply does not exist.

You can spend an hour on the Piccadilly line, face nestled in a stranger’s armpit, a fellow commuter’s briefcase resting on your buttock shelf, and you won’t meet an eye. Some passengers will be staring dreamily into space. Some will be attempting to wrestle the Metro into submission. But mostly, their tired faces will be consumed by the white-blue glow of phone screens, giving them a never-seen-sunlight quality – like the fish that lurk in the darkest reaches of the ocean.

Sherry Turkle, a professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gave a TED Talk in 2012 called, ‘Connected, But Alone?’. It detailed our retreat into our personal technology, and the way it affects our ability to interact with each other. In a nutshell, she theorised that iPhones, tablets, email, texting and tweeting offer a comforting way of operating for most people. We experience the feeling of connection without having to deal with the messiness of human contact. There are no awkward goodbyes on Twitter. No one overstays their welcome on Facebook. Social media allows us to ponder what we are going to say, for however long we choose to, before we ever need say it. We can follow and unfollow people based on their ability to provoke, amuse or displease us. Life can be consumed in bite-size chunks – precisely tailored to match our moods.

I got my first mobile phone in sixth form and I hated it. Most of my friends had had phones for at least a year, and before that, pagers. They were like the cast of a creepy, teen version of Wall Street. My phone was a hand-me-down from my sister. I had it for four years, and used it solely to call my mum to pick me up from the train station. It was too far to walk, and I was afraid I was going to miss Neighbours. Having a phone meant people could call or text me at any given hour of the day, and I would be expected to respond. As an introvert who firmly believes the world’s extraverts are banding together to extract introverts’ energy through endless “fun” and “conversations” in order to prolong their own lifespan, I found the social pressure overwhelming.

I’m now 32, and I still hate my phone. I continue to struggle with the idea that I’m beholden to its beeps and notifications. Yes, I am prone to getting lost, so its maps are quite useful. And I can’t walk five steps without listening to music, so I quite like the Spotify and SoundCloud apps, but, mostly, I hate it. It’s like a needy, highly intelligent child that perpetually reminds me of all the things I am not doing. But for most people, their smart phone represents total control – an increasingly valuable commodity in our chaotic world.

We connect with hundreds of people a day through our phones and computers. But the reality is that by living in these extensively curated digital spaces, people are actually hiding from each other. They are eliminating the bits they don’t like, or find unfamiliar. We are lonely, but cautious of intimacy. We talk, but we won’t touch. We are quick to react, but we’ve lost our sense of spontaneity.

“People can’t get enough of each other,” says Sherry Turkle. “But if, and only if, they can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control. I call it the Goldilocks effect: not too close, not too far, just right.”

We’re masters of being collectively alone.


On 21 July 2013, I married someone who I couldn’t have imagined existed. Not because he’s perfect. He’s really annoying and chatty, and he’s terrible at washing up.

No. The wonderment I feel when I’m around him is due to the fact that he implicitly understands my need to be alone – together. Of course, there are times when we slip into a technological stupor, finding ourselves sat next to one another on the sofa, noses buried in laptops, the kitten repeatedly pushing things off the mantelpiece to get our attention. But at that point, we declare ourselves arseholes, put on a record, and have a living-room dance party because our bums are numb from all the sitting.

And yes, we do tend to speak to each other all day on Google chat, but that’s just because there are important cat videos to be shared.

But crucially, we have being alone, together, down to a fine art. Take book shopping, which has become a perfectly calibrated, analogue ritual demanding careful planning. We’ll consult our diaries, choose a day where we have no evening commitments – it can take up to eight hours – and sometimes even book a day off work. We’ll set our expedition date at least a week in advance to better relish the anticipation.

Our favourite bookshop used to be Foyle’s, before they moved. The old building was sprawling and we knew every inch of it. The new building is trying too hard to be fancy, and all the books are squashed into corners. Plus, the new building barely has any books about lesbians, and that’s my favourite part. Thankfully a replacement was soon to be found in the Waterstones on Gower Street.

On the day itself, we’ll get up early and eat a hearty breakfast. I’ll stick a couple of Nakd bars in my bag to stave off dangerous blood-sugar lows. Of course, reality dictates that the beloved will be keen for a coffee at some point, when he’ll succumb to towering displays of pastries and cakes. He’ll choose something dark and chocolatey, which I think is some kind of a rebellion against his upbringing. He’s a Jew and he says all Jewish food is yellow.

On arrival, we’ll arrange a time to meet – say, in two hours – and designate a meeting spot. We’ll have a kiss, then part ways to browse to our hearts’ content. I’ll head for the architecture section, to look at heavy volumes about Adam Kalkin and the art of woodland living. He’ll head to the fiction section, to look at staff choices. We’ll collect books indiscriminately as we go. We don’t edit our selections until we meet.

The first rendezvous is an important one: the first cull. We spread our choices out in front of us, and explain to each other our reasons for wanting every book. We’ll discuss, look at prices, weed out any ambivalent choices, and make a pile of unwanteds. The survivors go back into our baskets, and we’re off again, alone, for another two hours. Lather, rinse, repeat, until we have our final selection.

I’ll always end up with twice the books he has. He’s impulsive and bad at strategy, and will often come up short. I’m a polymath with hoarding tendencies, and I want everything I see. He’ll remind me that we’re not made of money. I’ll sulk. He’ll concede and allow me an extra book. It sounds one-sided, but it’s not really. He owns about a 100 shirts, whereas I have four.

And we learn about each other. He learns that even though I’ve coveted it for years, I can never bring myself to buy the graphic novel, From Hell. It’s cumbersome and precious and feels like the kind of book you should receive as a present. (He later picks up the hint and buys it for my birthday.) I learn that he has terrible taste in books, and a picture of the dog on the cover can be reason enough to buy a tome. Later, we’ll go to dinner and spend the whole time reading, in companionable silence.

And that’s what it’s really about. Companionable silence – the comfort of knowing a breathing, living, warm hairy body is next to you, with all of its sounds and smells and idiosyncrasies. You can talk if you want to, you can chat and party and dance – but you can also be alone without being lonely. When we got married, we decided that if we had to define our feelings about one another, it very simply came down to wanting to hold hands forever. Not be all up in each other’s faces – just peripherally together, living our own lives, whilst staying connected.

Human beings are meant to be loved and engaged with, and our sensitivity is eroded when we go without. It seems so American to talk about “reaching out” to one another, but while noticing a glowing red notification might feel gratifying, a few clicks and glyphs on a computer screen is not the same as seeing, and talking to, another human face. Creating new rituals with friends and favourites is there for the taking, whether it’s a Sunday morning walk in the park, or a weekly dance class after work. Even smiling at that person you are involuntarily spooning on the Tube takes little effort, even if you’re shy, like me. A tiny new connection forged from your world to theirs.

In real life.


Photograph by Annette Barlow

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