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Rediscovering “Third Place” Friendships in a Post-Pandemic World

(Michael Luongo/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

By taking part in ordinary activities like visiting a bar or restaurant or a park or library, we are doing something which is important to the health of our neighbors, neighborhoods, and communities.”

Returning to Places Where Everyone Knows Our Name  

The theme song from the situation comedy Cheers reminds us that “Sometimes you want to go/Where everybody knows your name/And they’re always glad you came.” In Cheers, that place was a bar. It exemplified the type of welcoming hangout that sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls “third places.”

Third places include bars, cafes, neighborhood parks, and libraries. They are “a hospital asylum from life and its cares” says the humorist H.L. Menken. They have benefits that overcome the drawbacks of the limited friendship networks we create when left to our own devices. 

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) shutdowns limited our contacts with these informal, fun places. While around two in three Americans spent time at third places in 2019, only one in two did during the pandemic. This is another hidden cost of the pandemic that has hurt Americans’ social health. Our pandemic recovery must include returning to these relaxed and engaging places and finding new ones to replace those we lost.

Understanding Third Places

Third places are a form of voluntary association that connect us to each other in special ways through the free choices we make to be there. They involve an escape from home (the first place) and work (the second place). Third places are typically inclusive, neutral grounds with no formal membership requirements. They offer conversation, enjoyment, play, and discovery. They are civil society’s living room

Third places are also good for more than just the warm welcome offered by Cheers. Those who study them tell us that they help us to develop close friendships and increase our civic involvement. They offer us and our communities the benefits of the social treasures we gain by interacting with others, or place capital.

I experienced the value of a third place growing up in a mostly Italian-American neighborhood called Collinwood on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio. My grandparents owned a third place, the Golden Gate Inn at 1009 Ivanhoe Road, an Italian tavern, what Italians call an osteria. Everyone knew your name. They were, mostly, glad you came. (Truth be told, there were times we also were glad to see some folks go.) 

The tavern jukebox was always playing music, either rock and roll or hits from the great American songbook. Occasionally, one could hear the cracking sound of spinning pool balls hitting each other and the double ringing sound from the shuffleboard bowling game. I enjoyed working there, waiting tables, sweeping floors after the last customer left, or doing anything else that needed to be done. 

Two groups frequented what our family affectionally called either “the joint” or “the place.”  

There were neighborhood regulars, mostly Italian-American men, many with quirky nicknames based on idiosyncrasies. They arrived after dinner to talk while nursing a glass of house Italian wine or a cold bottle of Pilsner of Cleveland (or POC). Their family members would tag along or appear later, with youngsters playing with each other and women enjoying their own social circles.

There were also factory worker regulars of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds from the manufacturing plants along Ivanhoe Road. They included line workers, supervisors, even top line managers. They arrived around 4:00 p.m. weekdays on their way home from work, ready to talk while nursing the same drinks as the regulars.

Sometimes the regulars brought a newcomer, or a stranger wandered into the place. Over time, many newcomers graduated into the status of a regular, though some never made the transition. 

Looking back, I know now I had an intuitive sense that the connections people had to third places like the Golden Gate Inn were good for them and good for their neighborhoods. They created sticky friendships networks that glued people together in our neighborhood and with different neighborhoods that otherwise would not have existed. 

The Drawbacks of Friendship Networks 

Third places like the Golden Gate Inn bring into proximity people of differing backgrounds. But Americans tend to have natural friendship experiences that live out the adage “Birds of a feather flock together” according to the Survey Center on American Life. We socially segregate, self-selecting into identical groups. 

For example, two in three (67%) college degree holders make friends mainly in the workplace, whereas 40% without degrees make friends mainly in their neighborhoods. More than three in four white Americans (77%) say their core social networks include only white people. Almost six in ten black Americans (56%) say their core social networks include only black people. 

Similar sorting also occurs in our politics: A majority of Republicans (53%) and Democrats (55%) say their core social networks are composed exclusively of people of their own political party. 

Finally, those living in neighborhoods with few third places are more than twice as likely as those in high access neighborhoods not to have connections to people of different races or religions. 

These sorting patterns have drawbacks. 

For starters, they produce forms of inequality. For example, degree holders have more numerous informal relationships (or “weak ties”) than non-degree holders, which gives them an advantage in the labor market because most Americans find jobs through weak ties.

Adam Grant, the organizational psychologist and best-selling author, explains that while “Strong ties provide bonds,” weak ties offer bridges to new information. “Our strong ties tend to travel in the same social circles and know…the same opportunities [as us]…Weak ties are more likely to open up access to a different network, facilitating the discovery of original leads.”

Additionally, those in like-minded groups like political networks are less inclined to rethink their positions on issues. Around one in three (34%) in like-minded networks say they question their assumptions on issues, compared to about half (46%) in mixed networks.

The Benefits of Third Places

Third places help us overcome self-sorting in at least two ways, providing us with the benefits that come from interacting with different social networks.  

First, Americans patronize many different types of third places, casting our potential friendship nets far and wide. The Survey Center finds that among Americans who report going to third places, nearly six in ten (58%) report their primary place is a coffee shop, cafe, restaurant, or bar. Another 8% name other commercial places like a barber shop, hair salon, gym, or bookstore. Nearly one in three (30%) say theirs are public spaces like parks or gardens. 

Second, Americans live near the places they patronize, fostering the feeling that these places are a vital part of the neighborhood fabric. More than half (55%) are less than a ten-minute car ride from their favorite restaurant, bar, or coffee place and 14% say they are within walking distance of one of these amenities

A Survey Center report explains the result: “Americans who live in areas packed with neighborhood amenities…tend to report having a more racially and religiously diverse set of friends and acquaintances. Living close to a variety of amenities, such as cafes and parks, [also] increases neighborliness, feelings of safety, social trust, and positive feelings about the community.” If we are serious about revitalizing our failing social fabric after COVID-19, such places are essential. 

They are also important for fostering opportunity. Experts tell us that third place connections foster bonding and bridging social capital, and they offer connections with others that create trusting and engaging relationships with them. Bonding social capital is nurtured in like-minded groups; bridging social capital is nurtured in groups that are mixed racially, demographically, and in other ways. And, as social scientist Xavier de Souza Briggs observes, bonding social capital is for “getting by.” Bridging social capital is for “getting ahead.”

COVID-19 shock made our lives more difficult in many ways. It especially disrupted our connections to people and places, particularly third places where we gather to meet old friends and find new ones. But it is time to stop ordering all of our food and meals online for home delivery. By taking part in ordinary activities like visiting a bar or restaurant or a park or library, we are doing something which is important to the health of our neighbors, neighborhoods, and communities. If we want to put the pandemic and its ill-effects behind us, it is time to connect again to the people and places where everyone knows our name—and are always glad we came.

Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor for the Walton Family Foundation’s education program. He is a former United States Assistant Secretary of Education for Policy. 

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