March 8, 2020
If you’re of a certain age, the chances are that you remember the hit TV show Cheers. That’s the show set in the eponymous Boston bar, based around little more than the everyday trials of the regular customers and staff. GQ magazine described Cheers as “the best TV show that’s ever been,” and while that’s probably because the USA never really got Fawlty Towers (in both sense of the word), Cheers certainly resonated with a lot of people. Much of that resonance arose because, as its theme song noted, the bar in Cheers was a place where everyone knew your name.
To social scientists like me, these places where everyone knows your name are known as ‘third places,’ and they are a key ingredient in what makes communities successful. They are called ‘third’ places because they are distinct from your home and workplace. These third places don’t need to be bars; just any place where you can share ideas, relax, and build relationships. Precisely the kinds of places where, over time, everyone does indeed come to know your name.
My third place is Joe’s Garage in Wigram. The team there are well known for the amazing outreach work they do but I suspect even they don’t realise how important their ‘third place’ has been in building a community. Suffice to say that some of the regulars drive for miles for their daily coffee and fellowship.
The social scientist in me wonders if there is a larger lesson here. For many young New Zealanders, ‘third places’ have become virtual spaces. The kind of spaces that are limited by what Eli Pariser called the ‘filter bubble’; spaces deliberately selected to find people who already think and feel like we do. In contrast, the real hard work of building communities comes from meeting and engaging with people who don’t always think or act like we do.
This also seems to have implications for how we build our cities. Kaid Benfield, a great thinker about liveable (and loveable) cities, once proposed the idea of the ‘popsicle test.’ This is the simple—and brilliant—idea that you can judge how liveable a neighbourhood is if an eight year old can safely walk somewhere to buy a popsicle and get back home before it melts. So why not a similar test to address our sense of longing for belonging? We could call this the Norm Peterson Test, and to pass it you need to be able to get somewhere from your house in five minutes where you can commune with people you wouldn’t otherwise interact with. That might be a bar, café, church, or sports club. But to pass the test, they have to be the kind of places where, as the Cheers theme song reminds us, you can see that “our troubles are all the same” and “they’re always glad you came.”
And if you don’t think you can pass the test, let me suggest that this becomes your goal for 2020. Finding your third place will enrichen your life and change how you see your community. As Norm Peterson himself noted, there’s no better place for those days when it feels like it’s a dog-eat-dog world and you’re the one wearing jelly meat underwear.
- Carl Davidson is a Social Scientist at Research First Ltd