London Listening

I love coffee shops. I love hanging out and listening to conversations in coffee shops. To me, such eavesdropping provides rich information about a place and its people.

Recently, I had the privilege of returning to London for work and had ample time to hang out and listen to what Londoners were sharing with their coffee and tea-mates. Brexit was, of course, a big topic of conversation with many people saying things such as, “I’m sick of hearing about it. The world is sick of hearing about it.” But there were more fascinating comments that have stayed with me.

A young man in a black turtleneck sweater was talking with his girlfriend in a small East London coffee shop. This was close to a series of major low-income and ironically named ‘housing estates.’ As his girlfriend sat down and he had greeted her, he said, “Deracinated. That’s a new word I learned today. It means uprooted, but whether or not that is forcibly uprooted I am not sure. Deracinated sounds violent though.” He asked his girlfriend what new word she had learned and she said, “neighborliness.” He replied (with a snort), “Neighborliness is so very middle-class. People where I live are nice but they don’t really help each other. Well, they do have a community garden so that’s something. You’re all basically living on top of each other so you may as well be friends.”

Later that same day, in an upscale coffee shop in Bloomsbury, a grey-haired British philosophy professor (he was quite proud of this fact so he worked it into his conversation several times) said to an older American couple, “In America, immigrants assimilate much better than they do here–or in any other country in the world for that matter. Here, they stay with their own kind and don’t mix in very well and then they cause all sorts of problems.” (This comment had to do with the Brexit anti-immigration undercurrent.) Then, he went on a tirade about the MeToo movement—”What were you in America thinking when letting those men-haters loose to wreck havoc on innocent men who lost their jobs just for looking at women the wrong way? Toxic masculinity and preferred pronouns and all of that is pure bunk!”

Coffee shops, public parks, public libraries are all examples of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg termed “third places”—not home and not work, but rather the public square or communal living room of a community. Such third places are important for civic engagement, democracy, developing a healthy sense of place and of belonging for a diversity of people. They foster conversations across differences and can help to support mental health and well-being. In my experience, the East London coffee shop was such a third place, while the snobbish—and toxically masculine—Bloomsbury cafe was decidedly not a third place.

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