The following was written by Rachel Gaffin.

It’s 9 o’clock on a Tuesday night. Breezy pop-punk spills out of the speaker system of the coffee shop I share with thirteen other people. All but two sit in front of laptops; most are plugged into headphones. The man across from me reads a purple tome titled Theories of Truth. We avoid eye contact.

In this silent yet soundtracked space, people politely vie for real estate near the outlets, getting up only to go to the bathroom or maybe to order a second latte. In short, the perfect place for me to write. And yet, perched behind my silverback laptop in a room lousy with strangers, I’m struck by a question I can’t shake: how is my sense of community in my small Southern town, arguably a microcosm for America at large, impacted by the fact that our third places — our coffee shops in particular — are places where we expect to be alone together? Shoulder to shoulder with other community members, yes, but not engaged with one another?

As defined by Ray Oldenburg, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of West Florida,  “third places” powerfully shape the fabric of our society, literally building spaces between home and work into the maps of our cities. Author of the 1989 work The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffeeshops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Places, Oldenburg championed his idea of the third place by arguing that such “informal public gathering places” play a key role in fostering a flourishing society. To Oldenburg, third places are the lifeblood of democracy, facilitating conversations that lead to meaningful change, respectful disagreement, and a deep sense of community. To his view, these spontaneous conversations develop into the “promotion of democracy, deeper neighborhood unity, multiplicity of friendship, spiritual well-being, and development of the individual.” Knowing one’s neighbors, it seems, leads to taking care of the neighborhood.

Yet this coffee shop is what can only be described as a conversation-free zone. True, this Tuesday night could be a fluke, and besides, it’s fairly late. As far as I know, conversations on social media, texting, email, or other platforms issue from the fingertips of my fellow laptop users at breakneck pace. Return in the daytime, and I’d be sure to find a slew of PTO meet-ups, first dates, and first-round interviews scattered across the room.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. There is a time and a place for protected conversation, as well as for simply escaping the monotony of the workplace or the comfort of one’s couch to get some work done. But personally, I rarely come to a coffee shop expecting or even wanting the spontaneous conversation upon which Oldenburg places so high a premium, the engagement that leads to the free exchange of ideas, the connection springing from coincidence.

Frankly, we direct so much of our collective energy in our country toward differentiating ourselves from our neighbors: they are conservative, I am liberal. They march on Washington for women’s rights, I march on Washington for the rights of the unborn. Right now, our third places don’t help us break out of the Facebook-fueled feedback loops the keep us focused on those most like ourselves; rather, they offer space for us to remain contentedly in the contexts, both online on our devices and in-person, with which we’re comfortable. In these feedback loops, we lose the ability to build empathy and disagree respectfully with those who hold different views than ourselves. Instead, engagement with “the other,” whoever that may be, expresses itself in testing political and social fault lines in online forums and Facebook comment threads, the effects of which ripple through political rallies and violent outbursts like last August’s alt-right riots in Charlottesville.

Thankfully, third places that foster genuine engagement do exist. One of the churches I attended growing up always capped off its worship services with a robust coffee fellowship (the fellowship was robust, the coffee less so), where congregants and visitors alike could mingle and make connections. Many of these conversations, whether involving old friends or brand-new acquaintances, turned into an invitation to a home-cooked meal that afternoon, a coffee date scheduled for later in the week, or a long walk down the bike trail that ran by our church. Broadly speaking, the church is not the only example of this kind of un-screened openness: public parks are often the site of drummed-up conversation, unexpected encounter, and connection with those who are different than us. Same goes for centers for the homeless, for the arts, for university students (I work at one such place), libraries (albeit at a lower volume), and even some bars (if the background music is not too high). In all of these places, the rushed, screen-centric resting heart-rate of our society finally slows down enough to allow for embodied, fully-present, interpersonal interaction, the kind Oldenburg espouses.

And so I sit here wondering, what would change if I put down my screens in third places? What if I stepped away from my devices and practiced holding eye contact with my neighbors a little more readily? I wish I had asked the man sitting across from me what “theories of truth” his book contained, but he left before I could drum up the courage to break our screened-off silence. If I had asked, and he had answered, perhaps a new third place community could have begun to spring into being, one that could respond to its own issues and questions as its members actively relearn what it means to pay attention to each other — in real-time, as the pop-punk plays, over a cup of coffee.

And if one day a stranger takes the risk to break my coffeeshop silence first, I hope I’ll be ready to hear what they have to say.