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.

Third Places Rock Democracy

imageHaving recently completed my first cross-country road trip from Seattle to Washington, DC, with frequent bathroom and re-fueling/re-flooding stops in coffee shops and gas station diners in dusty, tumbleweed Western and grits-serving tiny Southern towns, I have a greater appreciation of the role of these ‘third places’ in communities, in civil discourse, and in democracy.

Third places are informal community gathering spaces, separate from the ‘first place’ of home (assuming you have one) and ‘second place’ of worksites. Third place is a term and a concept developed by the urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg. This article in Psychology Today does a decent job of explaining his work on third places.

Being a socially progressive, moderate Democrat-leaning person, I wanted to spend some time immersed in a broad swath of Red States. Especially in Texas, which seems to be one of the Redest states of all. Imagine my surprise, while sitting at a community table at a Starbucks outside of Houston, when I tuned in to the conversation of a group of four middle-aged men. It went something like this:

“We’re all Americans here and we represent a cross-section of our country. I’m a white guy. We’ve got someone who is Jewish, you’re Hispanic, and you’re African-American. And we’re sitting together here talking about things that are important.”

“Yeah, this sure wouldn’t have happened thirty years ago,” said the Hispanic man sitting at the end of the table.

“I don’t understand this,” said the white man. “The Supreme Court justice yesterday equated civil rights of Blacks, Hispanics, and Jews–people who have clearly been discriminated against–with homosexuals and transgender types–who are–what?–less than 1 percent of the U.S. Population. How can that be the same?”

The Hispanic man replied, “If they’re fully realized human beings–they had the surgery or whatever to cut off their penises or whatever it is they do–I’m okay with it. We probably don’t even know there’s a difference. They could be right here or even serving us our coffee of whatever and it don’t matter at all. And everyone needs to use the restroom, so they should be able to do that and not have people harass them over a basic human need.”

All four of the men nodded in agreement and then started to show each other family photos from their phones. I nodded in silent agreement, having ended my enlightening Red State third place eavesdropping experience. And I went to use the mixed gender/any gender Starbucks bathroom.