The third place isn’t work and isn’t home; it is somewhere you mingle with others; and it is vital to the healthy functioning of communities.
The concept was developed by Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place, to which we were pointed by Stan Hieronymus while working on our own book 20th Century Pub.
Though primarily focused on social life in America, and especially on the 20th century tendency to build vast new suburban settlements without cafes, coffee shops or bars, its arguments are universal.
For example, there’s this on the value of the neighbourhood bar as pressure valve:
My suspicion is that a good tavern keeps ‘steam’ from building up more than it provides a means to ‘blow it off’… The ethnologist is likely to argue that there is a need to ‘let off steam’ and to do so collectively. Attention to the world’s many cultures soon reveals the prevalence of all manner of wanton reveling. Celebrations are institutionalized in the form of feasts, festivals, junkets, religious holidays, saturnalian binges, organized drinking bouts… It is characteristic of such events that everyday norms and decorum are ignored; that the spirit of revelry affects all and not just the few; that the madness is manifest in public and not privately, and not casually, but with a serious intensity.
It’s been on our minds a lot lately as we find ourselves denied access to not only the third place (pubs) but also to the second place, commuting from one room in the house to another for work each morning, and back again in the evening.
Ordering people not to go out, not to gather, might seem reasonable and easily managed if you’re not someone for whom gathering is important. But if, like most of us, stopping off at the third place is how you cope with the struggles of the first and second places, it’s easier said than done.
Some handle it by scrambling around for synthetic substitutes for maintenance therapy. In our experience, virtual drinks with friends or family over video aren’t anything like as much fun as the pub. But it does soften the withdrawal symptoms.
New rituals are emerging, too: the can or bottle held up to the webcam so that others on the call can see for themselves what you’re drinking; the unspoken agreement that someone must ‘chair’, inviting others to speak when the babble gets too much; and the calling of ‘time, please, ladies and gentleman’ as peering at the screen begins to fatigue.
Virtual pubs are a good idea, they’re necessary, but will anyone voluntarily subject themselves to the experience once the real thing becomes available again? Not often, we suspect.
Other people (though less, perhaps, than press and social media would have you believe) can’t cope, so they break the rules.
Upsetting as it can be to hear that this is happening, it’s not surprising.
For those who live alone, or in unhappy households, removing the option to meet friends on neutral ground is necessary but no less brutal.
As Ray Oldenburg and others argue, spending time in the third place is not merely a pastime or preference – it’s a deep-seated, basic human need.