Wouldn’t you like to frequent a place where everybody knows your name?
I remember being quite drawn to the TV show Cheers (a popular American TV show that ran from 1983-1992) when I was just a young child. Not that I knew anything about bars, or romance, or really any adult topic they covered, but at the mere age of fiveish, I remember really enjoying that this was the show on in the background as dinner was prepared. There was this one character, a portly man, who came into the bar every day after work. He would always announce his entrance after which all the bartenders and regular bar-goers would scream his name back- “Noooorm”. (See clip here.) I’m not kidding. I really do remember Norm. And I remember thinking- I don’t really know why everyone likes this guy, but they all seem genuinely happy to see him each time he comes in.
Flash forward to my early 30s- right before COVID hit- and I was a freelancer and a member of The Assembly (a female co-working space that sadly had to close its doors at the beginning of the pandemic, RIP). When I walked into that space (almost every day) the barista would greet me with a “Heeeey Sophia” and fellow female entrepreneurs would wave to me as I found a table to park it at with my laptop. I was no Norm, but I was known and I felt…honestly…happy every day I was there. Belonging is, after all, the essence to your well-being after your basic needs are met.
I’ve written about this concept of a “third place” before in my article titled The Third Door. The term “third place” was originally coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the 1980s. Essentially, it refers to a physical location other than work or home where there’s little to no financial barrier to entry and where conversation is the primary activity (Oldenburg, 1989). The bar Cheers qualifies. I guess many bars do. My old co-working place The Assembly does not quite qualify (there was a monthly membership fee and the primary activity was work, although there were plenty of wellness and social activities to partake in as well). But it very much felt like a “third place” to me. It wasn’t home and it wasn’t the office and I didn’t have to play any other role than the one I felt like playing at that moment. This concept of the “third place” inspired me to take the concept of CIRCLES (something I had learned from my days teaching in classrooms) and integrate it with our dire need for consistent community during a pandemic. Essentially, to start OPM Collective.
But the thing is, I wrote that article just over a year ago as if we were going to go back to all the “third places” post-COVID. As if I were substitute teaching for the employees at the cafes, the bars, the gyms, the co-working spaces who were temporarily out on sick leave. But I’m not so sure this is true anymore. I know the parties are being planned and the concert halls and tourist attractions are being filled up, but I don’t think I’m the substitute teacher anymore. I think some of the “third places” as we once knew them settled in for an early retirement, and now I’m the real full-time teacher for people seeking out new “third places”.
According to a recent Atlantic article (Conti, 2022), The American Community Life Survey reported last year that only 25 percent of people living in areas with access to many “third places” actually socialize with strangers at least once a week. In 2019, about two-thirds of Americans said they had a favorite local place they went to regularly. That two-thirds has since dropped to a little more than half. Things have changed.
Have we lost our desire to socialize? No, that would be like saying we’ve lost our appetite. Socialization, like hunger, is a potent human desire. COVID did not change that. Or is it just that we have yet to invent the modern-day version of the third place? Where meeting strangers happens and casual, yet meaningful talk ensues. And where, most importantly, it is safe (both physically and psychologically) to feel you belong. In essence, a place where everybody knows your name, many people know the story of your work and family too, and a few of those people truly know what’s on your mind and in your heart.
Which reminds me of country clubs. Roll your eyes please if what automatically comes to mind is white women in preppy tennis outfits who are unaware of the bubble they live in when you hear the term “country club”. Or even get enraged if what you think of is white supremacy and slavery when you hear the term “country club”. I get it and I welcome these reactions.
Here’s my truth: I am a third generation white-woman-who-wears (I prefer the word fashionable)-tennis-outfits-and-who-spends-some-of-her-time-playing-tennis-at-a- country-club. And, yet, at the same time, I seek out diversity. In my own ways. In many ways. Through my business, my hobbies, my relationships, and my social justice work. But the old concept of a country club- as exclusive as it can be- is not lost on me.
In fact, just the other week my mom and I played doubles tennis at the country club that my grandparents were long-time members of. Where my mom learned to play tennis as a child. Where I would play tennis with my grandmother on the weekends. And where we had almost every major family celebration- from Christmases to big birthdays to weddings. I hadn’t been back there since my grandmother died six years ago. I had almost forgotten about it. My mom and I won our match. It felt victorious. But even more so, it felt like home. To win a tennis match on a court that I frequented as a young girl and to walk into the dining room after to order a soda. Just like it was any other day. While I do not know the members there now, I had flashbacks to a time when I knew many of them through my grandmother. To a time when I would walk into that dining room and everyone knew my grandmother’s name. Everyone.
And as I reflect on all of my experiences with “third places” (Cheers, The Assembly, the country club), I can feel light bulbs turning on in my soul. It really is time to update the concept of a “third place”. The world most certainly does not need more white-and-wealthy-only spaces. Traditional country club concept out. But let’s keep the part where people sign up for membership and over the years they become friends who celebrate the joys in life with one another. The world also doesn’t need more bars. I mean I like bars- dive ones, swanky ones, sports ones. But it never hurt anyone to moderate their drinking. So let’s just keep the part where people unload their troubles to one another (maybe even over a barstool) and the part where Norm walks in and everyone says his name. And the world probably won’t see a huge re-emergence of co-working spaces. They are expensive to run and it turns out, people do like working from home. But let’s keep the part where there is a space, and maybe it does have to be virtual, where people congregate to be all the things they are all at once- business owners, mothers, friends, well-being seekers.
And now I feel goosebumps on my skin because this is really what I have been doing with OPM Collective all along. Keeping the good stuff from Cheers, The Assembly, the country club, and throwing out the stuff that no longer makes sense in this 2022 world. And I’ve been doing it with and for the Creative Solopreneurs of our world. The artists, and freelancers, and designers, and consultants from all over the globe who need and want a space (virtual mostly with in-person retreats mixed in) where everybody knows your name, many people know the story of your work and family too, and a few of those people truly know what’s on your mind and in your heart.
I’m lucky for my experiences that shaped this idea and I’m grateful to my early adopters who helped me make it happen.
Conti, A. (2022, April 4). Do yourself a favor and go find a ‘third place’: We need physical spaces for serendipitous, productivity-free conversation. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2022/04/third-places-meet-new-people-pandemic/629468/
Oldenburg, R. (1989). The great good place. Hachette Book Group.