Millions of people all around the world are spending more time at home for the best possible reason — together, we are saving lives. But there are so many things we miss.
We miss the people we no longer get to see in person, the people we can’t hug anymore. We miss sports and shopping and traveling. Many who used to work in a place other than home even miss that. But that’s not all.
Third Places: Our Homes Away from Home
More deeply than we may have anticipated before social distancing started, we miss our homes away from home — the ones sociologists call “third places.” They are places such as coffee shops, libraries, gyms, bookstores, churches, community centers, barber shops, bars, hair salons, and beer gardens.
Third places are different from the other two kinds of places — home, which is a private place, and work, which is a more public, formal, and structured place. Like home and work, a third place is also a physical setting, but one with a different feel to it. Setha Low, Professor of Anthropology, Geography and Psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center, describes it as a place with “a boundary or entrance designed to allow, even encourage, access to a variety of people.”
What makes a third place so special are the psychological and emotional experiences it offers. Carol Coletta, who works with the Kresge Foundation to improve America’s cities, told Curbed that she thinks of a third place this way:
“It is space where you can happily do your own thing at the pace at which you want to do it. It’s a place where you feel welcome. You see people you know and people you don’t know.”
A Starbucks you dash into just one time as you are passing through a town on a long trip does not count as much of a third place for you, even if it meets the physical description. For the comfort of a true third place, you need repeat experiences, including your own frequent treks there, as well as the predictability of some of the people you see there. As Diana Budds explained in “It’s time to take back third places”:
“Third places are more relaxed environments in which people feel comfortable and to which they return time and again to socialize, to relax, and to enjoy the company of those around them. A cohort of regulars is what makes a third place.”
Why Are We Missing Our Third Places?
Here are some of the reasons why we are wishing we could return to our favorite third places.
We just want to get out of the house.
For people spending more time than they ever wanted in the place where they live, any excuse to get out and go just about anywhere is welcome. But that doesn’t explain why we miss third places more than other random places.
We chose those places.
Third places are not like work. No one has to go there in order to pay the bills. Most third places, we could skip entirely. We hang out at a particular gym or bookstore or bar because something about it appeals to us, personally. It’s our place.
They are predictable and comfortable.
We can count on third places to offer a similar, predictable experience each time. The spaces come to feel familiar and comfortable, maybe even comforting. That’s something many people long for during these anxious times.
We became attached to those places.
Attachment is not just something we experience with other people. We can also come to feel emotional ties to particular places. We miss those places when we are away from them for a long time.
We miss the familiar faces.
At our favorite third places, we can count on some of the regulars to be there each time. That’s comforting, too. We miss that. We miss them.
We miss the unfamiliar faces.
If we only saw the same people each time, our third places would, in that way, be a lot like home and maybe work, too. Instead, we can count on a parade of strangers, different each time. That makes third places interesting. Professor Low believes that regular contact with people outside our usual social circles can even help to break down our “us-versus-them” ways of thinking.
We have at least one thing in common with the people in third places.
All of the people in our favorite third places, even the strangers, have at least one thing in common with us. At bookstores, we are all interested in books; at nail salons, we are all interested in tending to our nails. Psychological research has shown that having something in common with another person — even something trivial — can be surprisingly powerful. It is our entrée to good feelings and a sense of being part of the same in-group. Sometimes it is just that little bit of motivation we need to try to get to know someone better.
They were our chosen communities.
The people at our third places were not just disparate collections of familiar and unfamiliar people. Together, those people became our communities — the communities we chose. We miss those communities.