In 1998, I got introduced to the concept of “third places” through Ray Oldenburg’s work – The Great Good Place (my copy is not on my shelf, so if you borrowed it, let me know… it used to be right next to Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone). I read the book the summer after my freshman year in college and allowed his ideas to stew for a number of years. They came to mind this morning as I was planning to gather with my cell tonight.
Oldenburg’s basic contention is that third places such as coffee shops, community centers, bars, hair salons, and bookstores are fundamental to a community. We spend most of our time at home (albeit mostly asleep), thus home is our first place. We generally spend the second biggest block of time at work, our second place. The third place is that space where we are given the opportunity to have meaningful interaction with “regulars” while still keeping the door open for “newcomers.” When we put ourselves in third places we benefit from broader interaction (our first and second places have relatively constant populations). Among other things, Oldenburg argues that third places make people feel at home, nourish relationships and a diversity of connection, help create a sense of place, allow people to relax and unwind, encourage social interaction instead of isolation, and generally make life a lot more colorful. Really great third places are free or relatively inexpensive, they have food and drink available, they are highly accessible (walking or short driving distance), and are welcoming and comfortable. These are the places where we can find new and old friends.
That particular thing – finding new and old friends – is the thing that I am chiefly interested in. Especially in my slice of the Philadelphia metro (South Jersey). I think being Circle of Hope is worthwhile and I want as many people to get in on it as possible.
“Leisure time” – the time that we don’t spend working, sleeping, or doing basic necessities – is when most third place interaction occurs. According to the most recent American Time Use Survey, the average American daily spends about 8 hours sleep, 9 hours working, 1 hour eating (total for the day), and 1 hour doing household activities. This leaves approximately 5 hours of the day for “leisure.” Around 80% of employed people are in bed by 11pm. The peak time for leisure and sports (see chart below) takes place around 8pm-10pm.
To me, it would stand to reason that the best place to meet new and old friends in a third place would between 6pm (after work and household activities are done) and 11pm (when most people go to sleep). Those five hours of “leisure” are where it’s at. However…
The television. Ah, yes… the TV.
Almost three of those five hours are spent in front of the TV! And… after we’ve “socialized and communicated” (read “talked on the phone and sent text/email messages”), and… after we’ve “played games or used the computer for leisure” (read “played Xbox and trolled the web/Facebook”), and… after we’ve put in our almost 20 minute workout (11 minutes short of what’s recommended, but we’re trying)… we’re left with just under an hour (56 minutes) for everything else. If we actually read everyday (a good thing to do) and chill out long enough to think (also arguably good), that 56 minutes gets shaved to 21 minutes. Not a whole lot of meaningful third place interaction can occur in 21 minutes, if you ask me. Twenty-one minutes a day isn’t a real big window if you’re trying to meet new friends and keep older relationships connected. How could you possibly even actually get face to face? I can’t even even enjoy a beer or a coffee (I like both strong, dark, and bitter) in that short time span!
Added to all of that… Many coffee shops in the region (legitimate third places) close by 7:30p (including my favorite one) and the whole nation has seen a decline in bookstores as genuine third places (thank you amazon and e-books). It’s an uphill battle.
Is there a way to get face to face in third places? It is, afterall, much better for us than isolation. What can we do?
1. Cut back on the television (and the internet) (and the smartphone). I know it sounds preposterous. There are so many “good” things on TV. There are so many things to find out on Facebook. But if we really only have five hours a day of “free time”, it’s a shame to waste 60-75% of it in front of a screen. Shonda Rhimes (one of TIME magazine’s Top 100 people who shape the world) has tricked you into thinking it, but the world isn’t going to end if you don’t know what happens on Scandal… just saying.
2. Find at least one evening to intentionally spend face to face. My cell gathers at 7:30p every Wednesday night at Irish Mile in Westmont, NJ. We spend about 90 minutes connecting deeply (talking about real life issues) and usually another 90 minutes just being humans (last week we learned how to play darts… I won). The almost 3 hours that we spend is always better than watching TV. Every week we meet new and old friends. Not everyone stays late, but the option is there… and all of us at least quadruple the twenty-one minutes we supposedly have to connect. We happen to meet in a third place, but meeting at someone’s home is great, too.
3. Be a “regular” in a third space. It could be a bar, a restaurant, a coffee shop, or the Dunkin’ Donuts. The diversity of connection and overall color that is added to your life when you frequent somewhere enough to be known is worth it. Just last week, I took my children out to eat at one of the places where I’m a regular and low and behold friends of ours walked in and joined us for dinner. That hour of connection, storytelling, and laughter made my whole week.
Third places are where we let down our guard, and where core issues of life are likely to be part of conversation. It’s no wonder Jesus took such an interest in third places. If we are too busy in the protected spaces of our homes, jobs, or even churches, we’ll never be able to actually practice the presence of Christ in a space where the aroma of Jesus can be sensed. And if we’re going get out there, it’s going to take more than twenty-one minutes a day. Let’s figure out how to do that together.