The Third Space

This is a subject which continues to fascinate me.

I was in my car, stopped at a red light. I saw a man approach the crosswalk. He was on a cellphone. He had a walk signal, but stood still at the corner, looking agitated and possibly confused as he talked. Then, right before the light turned green for me, and while the don’t walk signal flashed for him he looked around frantically and dashed across the street.

This man got his signals crossed. He obviously wasn’t fully aware of his physical surroundings. You see this often when walking behind someone who is talking on a phone. They swerve irrationally, stop were no stopping should be done, walk into traffic and basically behave unpredictably and in a fashion annoying to any right-minded walker or driver.

And you may have experienced the sensation yourself while on the phone. Perhaps you let something burn on the stove, almost ran over a pedestrian, walked into traffic or the physical world just seemed to fade a bit as you engaged in conversation with the person on the other end of the connection.

This prompts the question: where do we go when we talk on the phone? Our mental attention is no longer on our physical surroundings, but nor is it on our conversant’s physical surroundings. If you’re talking to your friend on the phone and your physical reality seems to fade, you don’t find yourself in your friend’s kitchen, or wherever it is they are while talking. You may be in a position to imagine where they are – depending on the nature of the conversation – but your fading physical space is never replaced equally by theirs.

So where are you? In what physical or mental space does your attention reside? I posit that it is a third space. Neither where you are, nor where your conversant is. Your communication establishes a third space that you both are partially inhabiting. It is essential that you inhabit this space to some degree while communicating. That is what makes communication possible. Without this shift in attention, you are not having a real conversation. You may narrate your physical surroundings to another, or rant meaninglessly, but in order to have a real give-and-take, conversant communication you need to put at least one little toe into the third space.

This third space is a meta-space. It does not have geography, topography or graphic design. It is a shadowy space, half-formed, teetering on the edge of existence. It is easily broken. For example, you say: “Hang on one second, I need to pay the cabby.” Out you come, breaking the third space, returning to your first space in order to effect a real communication (in this case a commercial communication) with someone or something in your first space.

But the third space is different from where you are now, reading this blog – if I can be so bold as to assume that you are fully engaged in this posting and thus have partially migrated from your first space. This is only the second space. As when you are reading a book, or listening to music, or watching a film. What makes the third space different from these second spaces is that someone else is also there, sharing it with you. Someone on who’s attention the faltering, fledgling space’s existence is also dependent.

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