Alone, Suburban & Sorted: Part 8, Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.

Wouldn't you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows
your name.

--Theme song from Cheers

After arguing for the importance for the third place in our lives in his book The Great Good Place, Oldenburg surveys the characteristics shared by third places.

According to Oldenburg, the characteristics of third places are:

1. On Neutral Ground
Third places are not hosted places. No one is guest, no one is host. The place is shared or neutral. This allows for independence and freedom. As Oldenburg summarizes, "There must be places where individuals may come and go as they please, in which none are required to play host, and in which all feel at home and comfortable."

According to Oldenburg, the reason third places need to be neutral is that they help resolve a paradox of social mixing. Specifically, we need a degree of distance and autonomy from the very people we might seek to associate with. Our interactions need to be voluntarily initiated and dropped if we are to agree to participate in them. Anyone who has ever been forced into social mixing knows exactly what Oldenburg is talking about. Churches make this mistake all the time. Compulsory mixing is forced and effortful and we quickly avoid or distance ourselves from it. Oldenburg cites Richard Sennett's assessment: "People can be sociable only when they have some protection from each other." The protection offered by the third place is that one can come and go and interact with others as one pleases.

2. The Third Place is a Leveler
Third places welcome everyone, no membership is needed. Also, Oldenburg writes, "a transformation must occur as one passes through the portals of the third place. Worldly status claims must be checked at the door in order that all within may be equals. The surrender of outward status, or leveling, that transforms those who own delivery trucks and those who drive them into equals, is rewarded by acceptance on more humane and less transitory grounds. Leveling is a joy and relief to those of higher and lower status in the mundane world."

3. Conversation is the Main Activity
This doesn't mean that games (darts, pool, cards, dominoes) can't be a critical feature of third places. My family's favorite stop in Brooklyn, NY when we visit my wife's sister is Floyd's which has an indoor bocce court.

4. Accessibility and Accommodation
As for timing, third places need to be open during those hours when we are released from work or home. Typically, early in the morning, after work, and after dinner. Also, third places need to be close to where people live or work.

5. The Regulars
A core group of regular clientele, often different at different hours of the day, gives a third place its heart and soul. Regulars create the sense of welcome and community. This is what separates a typical Starbucks from a true third place coffeehouse. Without a regular clientele a Starbucks just has a group of isolated customers, most of whom have headphones on. If conversation is the central activity of the third place a group of regulars is the embodiment of that conversation.

6. A Low Profile
Third places are plain and casual. You come as you are. And if you come in with a tie on you loosen it or take it off.

7. The Mood is Playful
Oldenburg writes, "joy and acceptance reign over anxiety and alienation."

8. Home Away from Home
In the words of the song, a third place is a place where everybody knows your name. And they're always glad you came.

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9 thoughts on “Alone, Suburban & Sorted: Part 8, Where Everybody Knows Your Name”

  1. I'm looking forward to the part of this series where you put the bow on and explain how this revitalization of third places is going to happen. 'cause it sounds like an infrastructure problem, and infrastructure problems are hard. =)

  2. I'm very lucky in that I live down the street from a true third-place coffeeshop. I can certainly vouch for the sense of community that it provides, and for all the reasons that you mention here.

  3. The 8 categories you lay out in this post make me want to find a place like that and dive in with both feet. But it leaves me wondering if places like that can exist in our sorted world. How can a third place be a leveler when our neighborhoods are arranged along socio-economic lines?


  4. Great post. Cheers is such a perfect example. I'd thought of Oplin, but obviously conversation isn't the main activity, though you find a mixing of all age groups and statuses, with a core of iconic "regulars."

  5. The third place reminds me of what we experienced in Amsterdam last year in the brown cafes--gezelligheid. I was so affected by it that I wrote about it on my sporadically used blog:
    A Dutch word that means a feeling of coziness, but more than carries a social connotation that exudes welcome and peace and lingering and warmth and relief from stress, from hurry. A gezellig person is one who takes part in this lifestyle, who goes to places, who creates places that are socially cosy, whether a garden or a brown cafe, the supper table or the living room hearth.
    Certainly the aesthetics of the place play a part. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the brown cafes are such places, with their candlelit glow, their rich and varied beer served with a 4 inch head, each in its own unique glassware. Foam topped amber. And close, intimate table arrangements, so close you're likely to rub shoulders and knees and elbows with those around you. But the person or persons play the greater part. Beauty and Community create gezelligheid. A community that is unhurried, that enjoys lingering over the beer and conversation, and always makes room for one more...
    The rest is here.

    But I am also wondering how the virtual social networking sites...groups on facebook, even blogs, play in? Are they the substitutes for 3rd places? Do they make us feel connected in some way? And, in the words of McCluhan, what do they "extend" and/or make obsolete?
    Thanks, once again, for the very interesting series!

  6. I've really enjoyed this series, Richard. Throughout it you've touched on what we are trying to do each day at Connecting Caring Communities ( I'd love to hear more of your thoughts as it specifically relates to us sometime-- maybe at Monks, which is becoming one of my third places. - Brad

  7. Great stuff again!

    Jesus's 3 years of "ministry" appeared to be spent mingling mostly with "regular people", and "hanging out" AWAY from the temple. Reading the 4 "Gospels", it sure seems that MANY were comfortable hanging out with HIM!

    I think that was significant - a gesture of setting a tone for
    "community". Perhaps this was a way to demonstrate the benefits of exchanging the Old Covenent paradigm (temple centered) for the New Covenant paradigm - a change particularly resisted by the religious establishment.

    The emphasis of church buildings, church government, creeds, etc, by definition destroys any possibility of neutrality for a prospective seeker. Immediately, the visitor walks into church at a great disadvantage (whether a "non-believer" or even a veteran Christian seeking a new
    "church home").

    I believe that is the "church's" first problem - reverting back to "rebuilding the temple".

    5. The Regulars
    The first thing that came to my mind is those "regulars" crossing that elusive fine line of becoming cliquish (though unintentionally) and taking control of what was originally socially neutral territory.

    Finally, I have to look at myself and admit that I participate in this dilemma of sortedness. Approaching 50, my tendency to isolate only grows (though I am content with my work and domestic life). Others in these posts have mentioned it - somehow we as individuals have to WANT community and ACT to generate it - that's still where community has to begin - with the individual.

    Great work again Dr. Beck!!!
    Gary Y.

  8. Richard,

    Interesting that "Cheers"--an electronically manufactured and presented "place"--resonnates as the exemplar (avitar?) of place (not unlike, e.g. the Starship Enterprise or a political Camelot. It seems to me that the attraction to cheers-like illusions is a kind of longing and loneliness ultimately born of personal and social discontent, what Peter Gay calls a "hunger for wholeness." Such longing, it seems to me, is often uncritically examined and leads to counterfeit and cultic attachment of all kinds.

    The other end of the pole is smugness. For me, the key is "hopeful high adventure and surprise with others in one place not too risky and not too safe."


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