The Community Acupuncture Clinic as a Third Place

***Note: this blog was originally published on Prick, Prod and Provoke on March 7, 2011.  I'm reposting here on JRA so it can be available to the public.  Enjoy!


There’s this pub in our neighborhood.  Mike and I walk down there every Friday evening for a beer or two to unwind.  The staff know our names, our favorite beers and our taste in music.  We’ve made friends there.  I run into patients there.  We always talk about how lucky we are to have this fun, friendly place just two-tenths of a mile from our house.  It is our third place. 


In his book The Great Good Place, sociologist Ray Oldenburg celebrates the virtue of “third places” and laments their rapid disappearance from the American cultural landscape.  The third place is any informal public gathering place where one goes mainly to socialize and interact with others in the community, a “hangout” if you will.  As Oldenburg defines it, “the third place is a generic designation for a great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.”  Oldenburg uses the term “third place” because it underscores the significance of the tripod and the relative importance of its three legs in creating stability.  The first place in an individual’s life is the home; the second place is the work setting; the third place is wherever you go voluntarily, whenever you choose, with no agenda other than to enjoy yourself and the company of others.  Think the German beer garden, the English pub, the Parisian café, the Italian piazza, the Japanese teahouse, the American…




 Americans don’t have many great third places.  The television show “Cheers” is probably our best example…yet.  A new breed of third place is popping up in cities across the land, something you might not expect: a Community Acupuncture Clinic.


While the third place is often a haven of escape from the stresses of home and work, it is selling it short to describe it as a merely so.  According to Oldenburg, “there is more than shelter against the raindrops of life’s tedium and more than a breather on the sidelines of the rat race to be had amid the company of a third place.”  The third place builds cohesion and camaraderie among members of a community, by exhibiting certain attributes all third places share:


On neutral ground.  At a third place all may come and go as they please, all feel at home and comfortable.  It brings together people who may not otherwise meet.


The third place is a leveler.  It is accessible to the general public and does not set formal criteria of membership and exclusion.  Worldly status claims are set aside as one passes through the doors of a third place.  “The surrender of outward status, or leveling, that transforms those who own delivery trucks and those who drive them into equals is rewarded by acceptance on more humane and less transitory grounds,” states Oldenburg.  “Leveling is a joy and relief to those of higher and lower status in the mundane world…They are accepted just for themselves and on terms not subject to the vicissitudes of political or economic life.”  Is any of this starting to sound familiar?


Conversation is the main activity.  Oldenburg states that, “Nothing more clearly indicates a third place than that the talk is good; that it is lively, scintillating, colorful, and engaging.”  Okay, so maybe this is where a CAP doesn’t quite fit the third place model.  After all, people don’t come to us for scintillating and colorful conversation.  But I still think that an awful lot of social interaction happens at our clinics: patients lingering at the front desk to chat with your friendly receptionist; friends unexpectedly running into one another in the treatment room.  Or patients who, treatment by treatment, needle by needle, tell you a little more about their lives.  And let’s not forget the silent conversation that happens among patients in a treatment room full of people in acu-land.  Sure, we may not have bar conversation, but we have conversation.


Accessibility and Accommodation.  Oldenburg argues that access to third places, “must be easy if they are to survive and serve, and the ease with which one may visit a third place is a matter of both time and location.”  Yeah, CAPs are pretty much all about accessibility and accommodation. 


The Regulars.  “The third place is just so much space unless the right people are there to make it come alive, and they are the regulars,” says Oldenburg.  Oh yeah, we’ve got regulars.


Low Profile.  Physically a third place is rather plain, not elegant, and without fanfare.  Plainness discourages pretention among those who gather there and encourages the attitude that the place is an ordinary and expected part of life.  This reminds me of Lisa’s descriptions of the Zen-Spa Noodle and Medical Doctor Noodle in Acupuncture is Like Noodles.  Third places aren’t fancy; they’re just plain, basic, nourishing noodles.


The Mood is Playful.  Again, this isn’t entirely true of a CAP – people don’t come to us for displays of wit and boisterous laughing.  But Oldenburg does describe the playful mood this way, “Here joy and acceptance reign over anxiety and alienation.”  Sounds like a CA clinic to me.


Home Away from Home.  The third place is one where people feel rooted; there is a reassuring routine there.  It is a place of restoration and regeneration; it is warm and inviting. 


So now we see that even though a CAP may at first seem vastly different than “Cheers,” they actually share a number of important qualities that draw people in and bring them back again.  But are third places all that important?  Have we as a society evolved beyond our need for them?  After all, we enjoy more creature comforts at home than ever before.  And now the internet makes it possible to connect with anyone and anything in the world, anytime we choose.  Do we really still need the neighborhood pub?


Oldenburg argues that third places fulfill some basic human needs that can’t be met elsewhere.  True, the first and second places of home and work provide the essentials of food, water, clothing and shelter.  But we humans are social animals; most of us thrive in the midst of others, and third places are where we are at our most social. 


Public life has moved indoors at a shocking rate.  Why go to the movies when you have a state-of-the-art home theater!  Why go browse through the selection at a locally-owned bookstore when you can just order it from Amazon!  Or better yet, download it on your Kindle!  No waiting required!  Why hang out with your friends at the local pub when you have your very own man-cave!  Home offices, home schools, hell, even home churches are pulling us out of public spaces into the safe haven of our home.  The world is a scary place, we’re told; a bigger better home will save us.  Except that the insular life ultimately disappoints.  As we get closer and closer to reaching that “American Dream,” we are becoming more and more unhappy.  A host of reports on well-being have concluded that Americans have grown continuously more depressed over the last half-century.  An analysis of the World Database of Happiness found rising levels of happiness in 19 out of 26 countries from the years 1946 through 2006.  Guess what?  We weren’t one of those countries.  (Actually, by saying “we” I’m betraying my typically American mindset – Canadian comrades, y’all did exhibit an increase in happiness over the last 60 years).  Economic gains, bigger houses, flashier cars, more possessions, instant gratification – they haven’t made us any happier.  What we need is social contact.  We need novelty – a place where we might see some new faces or have a new experience.  We need perspective – a place that supplies human association that is pleasurable and gratifying, not stressful and irritating.  We need spiritual tonic – a place to relax, a place where we’re not hurried.  We need our third places.


Third places, along with their many social benefits, are rapidly disappearing from our cultural landscape.  “Hanging out” in the company of others in an informal public place is not considered to be a productive use of time.  Yet we crave it as a respite from our isolation, loneliness and boredom.  That’s why third places appear again and again as entertainment – the bar on “Cheers,” the coffee shop on “Friends.”  Anyone remember the hilarious barbershop scene in “Coming to America” where Eddie Murphy plays all those different characters?  Perfect example of a third place.  Third places are interesting; that’s where the action is.  But if you’re not a character on a television show, where do you go to hang out?  We don’t have many options – our public spaces aren’t exactly teeming with people.  Most of the time when we see someone walking, they’re going to or from their car.  We load up our homes with diversions and attractions because they’re so hard to find in the outside world.  Where does one go to participate in a rejuvenating and enlivening exchange with one’s neighbors? 


The geniuses at Starbucks have figured this out – it’s the closest thing our society has to a third place, yet it is an ersatz one.  It meets some of the criteria but it doesn’t breathe life into your day.  You know what does?  A visit to your neighborhood Community Acupuncture clinic.  And lucky you if you can walk there from your home or workplace.  I’ll be talking more about third places and how CAPs can fill that role at the CANference.  I’d love to hear your thoughts too. 



Author: alexa

Hey y'all!  I opened my CA clinic here in beautiful Music City, USA, in January 2010.  I love hanging out with other community acupuncturists, so come visit!

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