Note: I’d like to thank my friend for introducing this concept to me. I’ve been thinking a lot about third places since hearing about it from him.
A third place is defined as the place you spend the most at that’s not your first (usually home) or second place (usually work). On a high level, this is the place you would look forward going to. Some urban sociologists have observed that people tend to be happiest at their third places, and list some characteristics of these gathering points that they suspect make it such a blissful place.
Let’s list the characteristics and cross out places that I wouldn’t consider a third place
Neutral Ground: A public, comfortable, freely-accessed, non-obligated place, conducive to fraternity.
I wouldn’t consider an professional society particularly neutral ground because it’s exclusive and has higher-level goals.
A Leveling Place: Fostering commonality over economic or social status divisions, where formal prerequisites for acceptance of participation are low or ideally absent.
Anything with an organizational hierarchy will be excluded, including large school clubs and workplaces.
Accessible and available: People should be able to go at a large range of time and as well be able to commute within a reasonable amount of time.
Blue Bottle in Berkeley can’t be on my third place list because they close at 6:30pm every day and I get off work at 7pm.
Low barrier to entry: Don’t make people in this third place do too much.
All the book clubs I’ve joined either die because people don’t read the required reading or become excuses for socializing on off topic stuff (which is basically a third place).
Reservoir of regulars: People who keep the place alive, who help set the place’s tone, its mood and characteristics — also, they attract, welcome and accommodate newcomers.
Very few people are going find their third place at a hostel. There are way too many newcomers and not enough regulars to find a consistent community there. Couchsurfing meetups also brandish too many new people every time.
Playful: The mood is playful, and banter and wit are common and valued.
Libraries tend not to be third place-y in of themselves. The playfulness criteria is usually filled when your study group is taking breaks or horsing around.
Homely: Has a plain, homely, and unpretentious quality to it.
Good luck making your favorite clubbing spot a third place.
Conversation: Typically good, playful, humorous, and light-hearted, is the main but not necessarily only activity.
I would argue that pick up sports by itself falls out of the 3rd place category because it’s not revolved around conversation. That’s why to feel a stronger sense of community, clubs often supplement sports with other activities (eating out, partying, hanging out together).
After first hearing about third place, I tried searching for what my third place is. Right now, it’s a shortlist of Asha’s, Sunday ultimate frisbee, and maybe DotA. Looking back, I feel like I usually feel the loneliest whenever I don’t have a reliable third place.
Back in high school, the nearby Happy Donuts was my third place. It was a place I would just go there to work, but often find familiar people and strange events. I made friends with the regulars there, which were the staff and homeless people there.
The barista who always works the shift I’m in is a Filipino man who’s working to pay for his younger brother’s college tuition. I often chat with him about his life and what he does for fun (iirc, basketball and video games).
One of the homeless man would show me lewd photos he’s come across the internet. Although the conversations were incredibly awkward trying to be agreeable yet chaste, I enjoyed the anticipation of when I will see him next (some nights he doesn’t show up).
There were times on the weekend nights that I attend where I would see drunk or high friends, and shamefully hide my face pretending not to recognize them. One time I was particularly proud for catching a fainting man in front of me, telling someone to call an ambulance, and then go back to my laptop like I was just fulfilling my duty as an upright citizen.
Torrenting at Happy Donuts was the best. The had the best internet, hands down, and the idea that I would be seeding files using their 100 Mbps internet would often push me over the initial hesitation to drive 10 minutes to Happy Donuts.
I even ended up on the local papers for habitually staying there way past midnight.
Asha Tea House
Asha Tea House has been my third place for the longest time throughout college up to now. Every time I would go do work, I would almost always run into someone I know. Usually it’s the regulars I run into, like Stephen, and we would have hour-long conversations about software development or game physics. But sometimes it’s someone whom I haven’t seen a while — a Berkeley graduate who’s taking an afternoon break from a conference on campus, someone who’s hiking trails nearby, or someone who’s visiting friends in the city. Sometimes I walk the distance to Asha’s knowing I should be working but expecting to be willingly distracted by the people there.
I would even go as far to say that because Asha’s is my uncontested third place that I never felt a strong need to move into the city. Every time someone suggests I move closer to my work, the question that almost immediately pops up is “where will my third place be there? Where can I reasonably expect to run into people and create spontaneous conversations?”.
Sunday Ultimate Frisbee
One of the reasons why I don’t visit my parents in Palo Alto during the weekends is because it would mean missing Sunday ultimate frisbee. It’s one of the recurring events I always look forward to.
Not only is playing ultimate super fun, there are consistent regulars as well as new people. The regulars bring the tone and culture of the event. For example, although most pickup sports assign captains to pick players, Raymond (the organizer of Sunday ultimate) was adamant to randomize teams, as being picked last as a player is strongly demotivating for new players. The new players who attend always bring exciting surprises. Some of them are all stars who play on national teams, some of them are friends of friends, some are just bystanders who wanted to play.
Not only that, we would always get family-style Chinese food afterwards. I think the food really brings people together. A think our age range from youngest to older is regularly 5 – 8 years gap. Our lifestyles are fairly different, ranging from students to engineers to startup founders. Yet we all feel particularly comfortable around each other.
Every night around 10pm, I can reasonably expect people to message me asking me to play DotA. We all hop on a voice channel and start playing games. We have our own lingo, inside jokes, and shared experiences. I play with some very smart (i.e. intimidating) people in DotA, but somehow the context of the game begin easing my nerves when the shit-talking starts coming out. That’s something that’s very cool.
Third places don’t have to be real geographic locations, in this case even people are all over the map, we can still regularly spend time in this (virtual) third place.
So what’s your third place? Do you have one? What’s a place you spend a lot of time in but yet doesn’t feel very third place-y in? What’s missing? How could you change that?