Where everybody knows your name

Many of us love to meet for a cup of coffee and a chat, or bring our book and enjoy the background buzz of a nice, warm café. We live in a café society.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Photo credit: Shutterstock

In the brand new book Café Society, sociology professors Tjora and Scambler present research on café culture. They feel the café trend we’ve seen in recent years is more than a trend, and more than showing off your knowledge of cinnamon dolce lattes and caffè mistos. It’s a sign that people need a place where they can feel at home outside of the home, and a place to meet and take a break from the rush of daily and digital life.


The third place

Another sociologist, Ray Oldenburg, invented the expression “third place”. The first place is your home, the second your workplace, and the third a meeting place where you can be part of a community. British pubs are a classic example, and cafés have become an important third place; they’re an easy choice when you’re looking for company and a sense of community.

A third place might be more important than many of us realise. In a day and age when neighbourliness is lacking and with an increasing number of single households, it might actually be the place you go to not only for companionship, but for support and help. Do you remember the sitcom Cheers, a Boston bar “where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came”?

The lack of a third place in the neighbourhood may paralyse social life between neighbours. After hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, it turned out that neighbours were unable to help each other as efficiently as they could have done, simply because they didn’t know each other well enough or didn’t have a third place where they used to hang out. On a more everyday level, many people live in quiet areas with villas, entering and leaving their homes through the garage.

People are all the same

Traditionally, cafés were places where social differences were evened out, with loud discussions and new ideas being born. In this way, they have contributed to the development of democracy and modern society.  Just picture Sartre and de Beauvoir at Les Deux Magots in Paris, or Trotsky and Freud at the Café Central in Vienna. And cafés popping up in London’s Soho, crawling with political activists, jazz players and intellectuals, heading towards the cultural explosion of the 1960s.

“…people are all the same” goes the theme song from Cheers. It doesn’t take long for regulars at a café to feel like they know each other and can trust each other, leaving valuables on the table when heading for the rest room. You don’t have to know the name or the background of the person at the next table to feel a bond. Even if you just get a takeaway coffee every morning on your way to work, you can still get a sense of belonging and become friendly with the barista. A café is a great place to meet friends and be with people, but also to be alone among others.

It takes more than a room with chairs and tables and a coffee machine to create a café. It takes atmosphere, and it takes people. Yet some, and especially young people, may prefer chains such as Starbucks, which look the same whether you’re in New York or Saarbrücken, and where you know exactly what you’re getting. So Starbucks can also be a third place, and your choice of café might say something about the community you’re looking for.

What about social media, are they not taking over as a third place and a meeting place?  The authors of Café Society believe they’re just an addition. We live in a world with more cafés than ever, and they are important for keeping the city or the neighbourhood alive.

We are getting more cafés in Luxembourg too, and while some people use social media to beg Starbucks to get their coffee cups over here, you might just find one where everybody will know your name.

By Unni Holtedahl, November 2013

This is the book:  Tjora and Scambler, Café Society, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

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