Tag Archives: Positive side-effects of Isolation

Psychology Undusted: Third Places

Several years ago, I wrote about this topic; but viewed from today’s perspective, I thought it might be worth ruminating on, so here’ goes:

Everyone has three places they spend time in: The first place is the home; the second is either school or the workplace; and the third is a place that feels comfortable – a home away from home, or a place we can unwind. The third place varies from person to person; it might be your local hairdresser’s, a pub, Starbucks, a small café, a favourite park bench, a nearby spot out in nature, or a library or museum. Companies like Starbucks have capitalized on people’s need for an environment of comfort; they have couches and armchairs and free Wi-Fi, and don’t make you feel like you need to drink up and move on. Your third place might even be virtual – Facebook and other social media sites where you like to “hang out” and connect with friends. It might be your local community centre; such places are crucial to a neighbourhood, whether or not we realize it, because they facilitate a sense of group identity. When a local crisis arises, they have been the places people gather to distribute clothing or food to those hit; meeting others, encouraging them, helping and being able to contribute to the greater good are all important to our sense of humanity; we all want to feel useful and needed in some way.

Thinking about that topic now through Covid-coloured glasses, at some point we’ve all lost our third places through lockdowns; the rules that govern social interaction have changed drastically, and it has effected the psychological health of both individuals and communities alike. While some of you may have been able to return to business as usual more or less, other regions have had multiple lockdowns; in either case, the subtle changes have made third places less inviting: Regulations about masks, needing to make reservations in restaurants that are half-empty, filling out contact tracing forms, etc. Perhaps your favourite haunt didn’t survive the financial strain of months of forced closure, or it closed because the owner passed away. More than missing that physical place, many people have suffered because of social distancing: Not being able to meet up with friends, spend time in good company, and, in the advent of mass home-office work, even the absence of spontaneous encounters with co-workers around the break room. Having a drink together over Skype or Zoom just isn’t the same; the spontaneity is missing. Those people who thrive on physical contact, such as a hug or a pat on the back, have suffered deeply on a psychological level whether they realize it or not.

Some positive effects have also come from lockdown: Many people have intentionally invested more into their local community; we’ve shopped locally or supported the local restaurants by ordering delivery or take-away more often than we normally would have, or bought from local farm shops (we’re blessed with an abundance of those in our area); by working at home, carbon emissions have been reduced by thousands of daily commuters (usually only one per car) not being on the road. Our holiday budgets have taken a breather. We’ve wasted less money on impulse-shopping. More and more people have felt the growing need to be off-grid and self-sufficient for future times of crisis, and the tiny home and homesteading movements are booming. More people are planting gardens, or they’re spending more time with their family.

Pre-pandemic habits made it easier to compartmentalize life: We had the home and the workplace in separate physical locations, which made it easier to leave the stress of one behind when returning to the other and, depending on your home or work environment, the relief of change might have been a subtle but necessary transition for your mental health. The potential emotional or mental strain that happened when those two places merged, at the same time losing our third place possibilities through lockdown, is not to be glossed over. The thing about the third place is that it’s also a responsibility-free zone; there are no expectations or obligations placed on us there; that kind of environment also inspires productivity and creativity, and many people have lamented becoming more “lazy” or “lackadaisical” in their habits over the past year; why get dressed up if you don’t have to go to work or be seen in public? Maybe you’ve grown comfortable in your “junk around the house” attire, or not wearing make-up or not shaving. The old adage of “Fine feathers make fine birds” is true: If you want to feel creative, dress for it; if you want to mean business in your schedule, dress for it. Even if you’re alone at home. Then, the transition to being seen by friends and strangers again might not be so daunting.

Returning to those third places may not be as easy at it sounds; we may never perceive such places the same ol’ way again. While some people can’t wait to get out and mingle, many of us have become cautious around groups of strangers – will they observe healthy social distancing and hygiene rules? Will they stay home if they’re sick? One thing I will never miss is someone giving me the Swiss three-kisses-to-the-cheeks greeting and then telling me they forgot to mention it – they have a cold. I’ve been far less sick in the last year, because of social distancing, than ever before*! I’ve been relieved to know that people are not wiping their noses on their hands and then offering it to me in greeting; hand disinfectants are ubiquitous now, and I’m perfectly fine with that.

[* I was recently chatting with my doctor about that topic, and she said that serious cases of influenza and pneumonia are already beginning to increase, even though it’s summer here; the suspicion in the medical community is that, because we’ve been disinfected and protected from fighting the minor cold viruses throughout the year, they’ve learned to hit aggressively if they get the chance. So talk to your doctor, or educate yourself through serious medical websites, about how you can support or encourage a healthy immune system.]

Today, while we were out for a day trip on the Lake of Zurich, I noticed that while many people have the typical pale blue medical masks, a variety of colours are becoming more common; they’ve at length become a fashion accessory. You can buy cloth masks in shops everywhere here now, or sew your own like I do. Back when this all started in 2020, many people scoffed at the idea of wearing a mask in public, and now it’s so engrained in us that we stare if someone forgot to put theirs on (here, they are required inside any building as well as when using public transport). Despite the hygienic regulations, things are slowly returning to a semblance of normalcy here; restaurants are open again (though masks can only be removed while you’re seated at your table); street cafés are popular because, as of right now, masks are not required outdoors (though that may change again now that the dangers of infection through aerosols are better understood and greater than previously assessed); and third places are becoming available again. People are cautious – and frankly, they have reason to be (I say this from the perspective of one who has long-term Covid symptoms that flare up every 3-4 weeks), but they’re starting to emerge from their hibernation, and that’s a good thing.

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