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The Third Realm

On privacy and why spontaneous public socialization is important.

Do you miss the casual water-cooler conversation or interactions with strangers? What about passing by a table of fellow students and stopping by for a maskless chat?

I couldn't help but feel guilty as I went outside to collect my Door Dash delivery. I didn't need to walk in the cold winter air to a grocery store.

We handed off the paper bag with our masks — wordlessly. Transaction complete.

Circle Three is about a circle of "friendlies." There is another concept of a third area, though. The third place was coined by Ray Oldenburg back in the 1980's. (The first place is home and the second place is work.)

Third realms, he said, "are essential to community and public life," where they "host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work." Think of grocery stores, city parks, and coffee shops as third realms in your life.

It might be obvious from the lack of hearing about your coworker's weekend while you patiently wait for your salmon in the microwave: the third realm is evolving.

Silos at Home and Work

We are losing informal socialization to a home life that has become more and more private and a work life that has become restricted. Why go out when you can order in? Why go to the theater when I can watch a movie from my couch? Why talk to Cathy from accounting when I don't pass her desk every day? Technology and a pandemic have rapidly evolved the spaces of life that we expect to have public interactions.

Over the last year I've found a great community of people online through the altMBA and various mastermind groups that have served as both trampoline and anchor. Most of them I've never met in real life; internet friends are a new experience for me. But it's a reminder that being isolated doesn't mean being alone, and there’s value in reaching out. And hey, maybe one day we'll all meet.

As it becomes easy for our lives to become privatized and insular, we lose the interactions in the third place that are at the root of psychological well-being and social health. The informal interactions of the third place bridge social differences, regulate social norms, and offer social capital. It's a way to reduce the stratification of society as a whole. There are more effects than simply missing out on conversations.

Convenience apps like Door Dash or Chipotle commoditize what were once regular social interactions. I'm just as guilty of falling prey to that convenience mindset. If the pandemic has taught me anything though, it's that psychological health and social well-being are dependent on community. HBR has some practical tips for creating engaging, innovative, creative, and inclusive workplace atmospheres. For day-to-day activities, try taking a walk and making a phone call to an old friend.

Because while grocery delivery is an invaluable service for many, it helps myself and the community around me if I enter as an upstanding individual making contributions.