The triumphant return of ‘liminal space’
Picture this: You’re sitting at an airport bar, waiting for a flight to visit friends. You’ve got a drink and just enough time to kill, when a stranger with a kind face plops down on the stool next to you. “You headed to _________, too?” They ask?
It’s not a dream. It’s a soon-to-be reality.
For a year-plus we have had nowhere to go, and that also means we’ve had no one to meet — either intentionally or unintentionally. We haven’t been “bumping into old friends,” and we sure as heck haven’t been bumping into new ones. But all of that is about to change.
So, if you feel like your social circle has shrunk during the pandemic, fear not. Liminal spaces are about to make things a whole lot easier.
What is “liminality?’
Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is the “quality of ambiguity or disorientation” that occurs in the transitional, “middle stages” of life. Think: post-graduation, before your first job.
In turn, liminal spaces are the physical manifestation of that feeling: the places between coming and going; the various societal waystations or “waiting rooms” of life; think: airports/airplanes, bus stops, lobbies, checkout aisles, rest stop food courts. We love to complain about them, but gosh, don’t you miss having something, anything else to commiserate on?
And, as American urban and suburban spaces increasingly optimize for cars instead of people, these liminal places are many people’s only source of serendipitous interactions with strangers (it’s why, in the absence of public meeting spaces and walkable areas, kids in suburban and rural areas hang out in parking lots or at the mall).
Liminality is naturally conducive to connection
Liminal spaces can be freeing: there’s nowhere (and no one) for us to be. Nothing we can do (even though we’re always telling ourselves we’ll “work” on the plane).
We’re stripped of our typical life roles and responsibilities — especially when we’re traveling solo. We’re not parents, donut salespeople, nor marketing managers at an improv startup, we’re just humans in a plane/train/dentist’s office, our biggest choices reduced to which B movie we’ll watch, or whether to get the 4 or 9oz wine pour at the airport bar.
There’s a vulnerability in the between-times-and-places of our lives that make us more receptive to new ideas and people. Shedding our identities and responsibilities allows us to be fully present with ourselves and our surroundings. And, as we know, self-reflection and vulnerability are crucial components of intimacy.
It’s why there are so many coming-of-age rom coms, why you’re more likely to cry at an in-flight showing of Paddington 2, and why it’s easier to make friends in the bar bathroom.
Is it exciting? Yes. Is it terrifying? Absolutely.
Most of us feel like aliens in a skin suit right about now, and it’ll take a second to get from hyper-vigilant pandemic small-talk to regular old awkward small talk.
But, if you’re not sure you know how to make friends anymore, rest assured you’re not alone. And Normal Life™, for all its inconveniences, has a way of bringing us together.