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By Madeline Perez

“Making your way in the world today takes everything you got,” or so says the hit theme from the ‘80s sitcom “Cheers.” This statement rings true for many, and probably goes double for you starving, broke college students. But I’m here to ask: Does it? Does making your way (in the world today) truly “take everything you [sic] got?” And what happens if you’ve given “everything you got” and, due to isolative architectural planning, you have failed to make your way? What if, through no fault of your own, you have been reared in a community that has provided no place “where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came”? This is a reality for millions, as children grow up in towns without social hangout spots, and adults live their small, boxed-in lives struggling to befriend other people outside of work. Wouldn’t you like to get away?

“Third places” are defined as areas where people hang out between their “first place” (home) and their “second place” (school/work). A term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, they serve as a realm where humans make enthusiastic contact with other humans. Places they can just exist, spending little to no money, and vibe for real, for real. Here, they “talk,” which is kind of like tweeting or texting with your mouth. They can also “build relationships” with each other, a process nearly lost to time and difficult for even the most advanced socializers. In “Cheers,” there exists a pub that serves the purpose of a third place, and people go there and socialize or whatever. I don’t know, I never saw it. I can only assume that the title refers to the act of clinking drinks together, which requires other people. (Though, what I do know is every word of that opening song, as I obsessively listened to it daily for reasons unbeknownst to me from ages 9 to 15.)

If you are a psychology major, fanatic, or if you read Myers’ Psychology for the AP® Course, you’re most likely familiar with the “mere exposure effect,” a phenomenon that describes how people are more apt to prefer things or people after repeated exposure. I know many of you are relating to this with your own personal experience: mainly, when you developed a mutual respect and near-friendship with the rabid raccoon you keep chasing off your back porch with a baseball bat at the unholy hour of 3 AM who always evades your batter’s swing by three inches or less. But I won’t miss next time. I swear on Julie’s memory, I won’t miss. Where was I? Oh yeah, the mere-exposure effect. This is a key aspect of third spaces as, since you and others in the community would hypothetically go there often, you will most likely meet someone you’ve seen before and possibly strike up a conversation. Just knowing someone’s face can be reason enough to engage with a stranger, and I mean that in the least creepy way possible.

Third places manifest in a vast array of different genres across the globe: the French café, the English Pub (which originally stood for “public space”), German Beer-gardens, and of course I would be imbecilic not to mention the great swimming roads of Italy. (Granted, maybe not that last one.) And then you have the American… McDonald’s Burger? While you may be thinking “What the what? America has cafés and pubs and gardens and beer, how is this different?” Well, maybe I conveniently forgot to mention some aspects of third places in these other countries: they don’t just exist to turn a profit, they also exist to facilitate community health. They don’t politely kick you out as many American eateries do. Here in America, it’s against social etiquette to stay in a place for too long, even if there are tables open, and it’s REALLY against social etiquette to not buy something. Even if we have fast food places that don’t monitor your table and coffee shops that have free wifi for the workaholics, we’re still missing one crucial and key aspect of third places: accessibility. 

Ahhhh, American suburbia, what could be more beautiful? I love those tantalizingly complex geometric circles of closed-in communities with fenced backyards and no sidewalks. I love my little enclosure. I love my cage. With enough birdseed and antidepressants to last me through the next decade, who could ask for anything more? 

I am now going to starkly depart from my quick satire to a personal anecdote: I grew up in a community much like the one I just described. When I wasn’t “Rockin’ the Suburbs” with Ben Folds, I was struggling to socialize and find a ‘third place’ of my very own, a name I didn’t know was a perfect encapsulation of my deepest desire. Growing up, people didn’t usually “hang out” at specific places near the community, there was nothing “near the community” to go to that wouldn’t have you arrested for loitering (you know, the crime that literally means “to exist someplace for too long”). If you wanted to see someone outside of school, either they needed to come to your house, or you to theirs, and in the land before time when none of us had cars, this was left to the discretion of busy parents. Next, if you successfully had someone over your house and wanted to go do something, there was really nowhere to walk to—no end goal—so we took to walking the sidewalk-less communities. In circles. 

I actually walked these circles daily by myself, rain or shine, as I was slowly being driven mad by the monotony of my daily life, as well as the neighborhood of identical houses. I wish I were joking. And the loops I walked in got progressively smaller and smaller, until I wasn’t walking at all—I was spinning, eventually faster than the earth, a ballerina pirouetting rapidly on both feet until I was just a blur and took flight, gliding increasingly higher, until I burned up in the sun in an instantaneous whoosh. I did it to send a message. Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Yet, like a lion pacing its cage, there was only one thing I could do, and repetition was not only necessary but inseparable. It was during those times I thought of Noel Harrison:

Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel

Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel”

So, I’ve been over how for a large swath of America third places are inaccessible, especially for the youth, since they exist farther away from the areas people are actually living in.  The question remains: why were so many neighborhoods and towns built this way? In one oversimplification: zoning laws. In American suburbia, zoning laws exist to prevent the construction of anything besides single-family homes. This is done to prevent property rates from dropping and works well to keep suburban communities as insulated as possible. Why would anyone else go into a neighborhood with no attractions? While healthier-built communities have sidewalks and larger front yards to facilitate interaction with your neighbors, the most isolating ones, like the type I grew up in, had more emphasis on the backyard and barely anyone walked the streets beside me and the pairs of geriatric speed walkers. 

Young couples are sometimes attracted by the “safety” of these features—if no one is walking outside and future children are holed up in the fenced-in playpen of your backyard, that means they can’t be ‘napped. Of course, this isolates them from other children as well, and many parents now believe that the only sure way to prevent their child from being lonely is by having another child. American children these days have the unique experience of intense helicopter parenting not seen in previous generations, and this is most likely the fault of the “missing children” of their parents’ generation and the fact that now, whenever some toddler gets ravaged by a pitbull, its broadcasted on every news station from here to Cincinnati. (Of course, our relatively new reliance on tech surveillance has made it easier than ever to monitor children.) However, according to the Washington Post, reports of missing children are down 40% from their peak in 1997, the majority of which are runaways. As far as parents should be concerned, their child is about 1000 times more likely to be used as target practice in some elementary school than abducted off the street. However, kids seem more leashed than ever, figuratively and literally, as parents don’t always trust them to hang out with each other outside of the house (or school) and tracking apps are becoming insidiously more common. 

Some people believe that shopping malls were the true American third place, but this is inaccurate for many reasons. Shopping malls tend to be located too far from residential areas to appeal to any one community. They also tend to be huge. They also tend to be EMPTY because MILLENNIALS went and KILLED THEM! Because of this, you are unlikely to recognize someone from a mall, much less befriend them. Third places should possess the characteristic of conversation with others being the main appeal, and in most possible American parallels, purchasing is always at the forefront. The most honest American third space (that doesn’t involve alcohol) I can conjure comes from programs and clubs at local libraries and churches meant to benefit the community. However, these programs have been shirked by the youth and adults alike, and without participants, they are dead on arrival. Herein lies one of the largest challenges for a successful third place: we are entering a culture where people hate socializing and despise those who attempt to socialize with them. 

Wow, that was a bold claim. What did she mean by this? Well, in my experience, trying to socialize with people you’ve never met before is getting increasingly more challenging. Most people’s best bet for friendship is being in some confined space with another person, aka SMALL classrooms, workplaces, and school clubs, and getting to know them little by little until you’re BFFLs. (This example is where I would include a prominent third place, IF I HAD ONE.) Aside from that, you can just hold out hoping that you make at least one friend, and that friend introduces you to a group of several, like-minded friends that you’re destined to like. However, what happens when you try to approach a true stranger? To quote every “best movie of the summer” commercial starring beloved animated characters: “awwwwwwkwardddd!” The conversation tends to be a little forced, a little strange, and the dame, bloke, or critter on the receiving end of the interaction has to wonder: “Is this person trying to flirt with me right now? What is happening?! Will I make it out of this alive???” It’s my experience that these interactions never lead to much of anything, and it’s rare to get a friendship out of it, much less a romance. Therefore, I’d argue we NEED real-life interaction in small settings where you’re apt to recognize the same people, and things like online classes, large class sizes of over 20 people, remote work, and not touching grass are all contributing to our current dead-serious epidemic of loneliness and virginity. 

Now, there’s something I forgot to mention that I’m sure you’ve been screaming at this article for the last five minutes about: Strangers aren’t awkward to talk to when you’re both drunk! Clubs! Parties! Frats and Sororities! Oh my! I will concede, you have a fair point. However, I think we need to reassess why people feel uncomfortable talking to strangers while sober. I think drinking is used too often as a social crutch, rather than a fun activity, and people have become way too dependent on this ‘social lubricant.’ This is a band-aid to the problem, and to truly solve it, we’re going to have to get down to the roots. 

So ask yourself—when’s the last time you tried befriending a stranger? When’s the last time someone talked to you out of the blue, and you didn’t write them off as strange? Socializing is a skill, one that many people didn’t exercise during the pandemic and, snapping back to reality, they found it much harder to relearn. But it requires practice; the more you keep at it, the more natural it becomes. People need to stop looking at awkward interactions, or ones that go nowhere, as “failures,” and realize that it all comes with improving their ability to socialize with others. While I don’t think it’s possible to go back and rebuild communities to include fun little places to make friends and fall in love, I think it’s important to look around your community and join in-person meet-ups so you can practice your ability to socialize. You’d be surprised at how many networking opportunities, jobs, and friendships open up to you. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you could’ve even met someone like me, if I hadn’t burned up in the sun all those years ago. Did I mention I’m a ghost? 

One Reply to “The Walls are Closing In”

  1. While I agree with your overall assessment that there is indeed a significant problem with socialization, particularly when it comes to socialization with people outside of one’s immediate “in group” and amongst the youth, I disagree with your overall diagnosis of the cause. I think it would not be inaccurate to state that this is a problem primarily amongst the (Mazda) zoom zoom generation and to a lesser extent amongst the millennials; if however this problem was based upon the lack of public meeting facilities or the difficulty in transport in the suburbs, one should have expected it to emerge amongst the boomers and generation X, both generations which primarily would have been raised during or after the emergence of the suburbs. Furthermore, Pewresearch studies have found in the past that while there are to an extent similar levels of loneliness or more accurately limited number of close friends, they have also found higher levels of a sense of community amongst the suburban and to a greater extent rural areas compared to urban areas. Furthermore, historically many individuals outside of the cities would have had rather limited means of transport and communication to meet a wide variety of people; admittedly this is speculation on my part due to the fact that I am lacking concrete data, however I would expect that they did not have these problems pertaining to social interactions, that being the sense that engaging with people outside your groups is some sort of social faux pas and if they had had these problems it could be expected that some would have already drawn links between the current generation and these prior ones. Finally, I do not believe that this can be solely linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lock down; while I would expect that this would have a significant impact on the youngest members of our population, I do not believe that adults, many of whom were already in or have completed college, would have both their social skills and social expectations so radically altered by what would have amounted to a 1-2 year lock down depending on region. Furthermore, I do not believe that there would be sufficient levels of data for this trend to be so noticeable within only one or two years after the fact and from personal experience it seems that many were already exhibiting some of these traits even prior to COVID-19. Thus, while I agree with your overall assessment that there is a problem, I disagree with your principle causes, although I will admit I do wonder to what extent helicopter parenting and the transformative effects of modern communication technology play a role.
    Your friend
    Arthur O’Sullivan

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