That Stranger at the Gym: Would You Say Hello?

Men doing squats with dumbbells in gymnasium
Men doing squats with dumbbells in gymnasium

We all have a third space where we spend much of our time. A place not work and not home. Maybe this is your commute: train, drive, or plane. For others this may be the pool, volleyball, or book club. For me, this third space where I spend much of my time is the gym. It's a typical LA Fitness with weights and cardio machines. For me this space is my safe space--my third space. I know the culture and some of the people. In fact, there are perfect strangers who I see in this gym almost every day when I go, regardless of time or day. In effect it is as if these people have morphed into the gym itself becoming part of its aesthetic. This may be true for many of you with your train ride commutes--always seeing the same person at the same stop; or in a volleyball league for years--saying hi to someone on the other team, but never truly "knowing" who they are.

A few months ago my school schedule changed and I began going to the gym at an alternative time during the semester. Once the term ended I resumed the previous schedule. One day while at the water fountain a woman said to me, "where have you been--we missed you." For me this particular woman was a part of the gym and she belonged to the space. We don't know each other, we've never chatted, and I've never sat with her in spin class. At one point a few years ago she began smiling and saying good morning to me and for years to follow I did the same. Yet, here we were at the water fountain: my absence being acknowledged, my presence being validated. The same goes for my thoughts on others as well. Every now and again I will wonder what happened to the guy who always wore head-to-toe Florida State gear, or the elderly woman who always wore a red sequined hat. Did they think of me the way I thought of them? Or, is the idea of the presence of others in our third space a one-way exchange: I know you, you don't know me; you know me but I never notice you?

So this got me on to some research. Is there a name for the "other" space that we all have. As a speech researcher this is somewhat outside my daily reading. My summertime Googling brought me to the concept heterotopia. At the surface the word looks like the description of euphoria one may feel in being straight. I thought it odd. However, deeper reading explains the Greek roots and why the word is configured as such. What we need to know for this article is that Michel Foucault is a philosopher who defined and exercised the term as a way to describe spaces of otherness: to describe spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. At first this concept seemed a bit theoretical for my inquiry of our living in a third space that is not home or school. However, what caught my attention was Foucault's elaboration of heterotopia of ritual--the space and its relationships that are carried through places routinely frequented (he uses a sauna as an example). As I see it heterotopia has many layers of interplay including the struggle between utopia and dystopia, perfect and imperfect. Could it be the gym is my heterotopia? My third space in which I live that is somewhat utopic in my mind, layered with relationships that are difficult to pinpoint and rooted in ritual? I say, "Hell yes!" LA Fitness--the heterotopia. I'm excited by this idea!

What excites me about finding the literature on heterotopia is it validates that I am not alone. The research on this concept gives meaning to the feelings I was having about my experience at my third place--the gym. It means others have had thoughts on the roles we play in our other spaces. Whether gym-goer, commuter, or shopper we have probably played a layer in our own or someone else's space. This leads me to a larger question though. Can we cross from the theoretical heterotopia into the physical reality? In other words, is it normal or weird to strike up conversation with these people we see every day in our third spaces?

For me, the nice woman at the water fountain crossed from theoretical to physical when she greeted me and now we always say, "hello." We are now "gym buddies" of sorts. This is not weird to me because I am a pretty open-minded laid back guy. Nothing really fazes me and I don't get creeped out easily. However, is it creepy to cross into physical from theoretical? For example, there is one guy I always see at the gym no matter when I go. Thursday mornings at 10am--he's there. Friday night at 7pm--he's there. Sunday afternoon at 1pm--he's there. He looks about my age and seems very familiar. Yet, I've never spoken to him. This heterotopic character has been going to my gym nearly five years. Part of me just want to say, "Hey buddy, what's up?" and the other part of me thinks do not do that--that's creepy. But is it creepy? Or, as humans and as Americans are we too closed off, too independent, too much in our own heterotopic worlds? I do not know the answer. I haven't had the gall to say anything to my heterotopic gym friend--but I often wonder. I wonder, is he a professor too? Why is his schedule like mine? Why don't I ever see him in town?

Maybe I'm a freak to wonder about the people I see at the gym. To wonder about their lives and where they come from; what they do for work and who they have at home that cares about them. It is validating to know that some work has been done to better explain and understand these spaces of "otherness" even if only theoretical. I'm curious to know what others would do. If you see the same person on the subway every day for five years would you one day say, "Happy Thanksgiving" or "have a nice weekend" as you exit the train? If you're like me and see the same people at the gym for years on end do you break the theoretical wall like my "gym buddy" lady and greet your fellow gym goers, or do you keep to yourself?

My purpose in writing was to explore and understand these third spaces we all participate in; and to share with readers that there is, in fact, some research on the topic. We are all living in more than one space that exists outside of work and home. How we participate in that space may affect how we perceive the very space itself. In the end the only control we really have in those spaces is how we treat the others who simply happen to exist within them. I ask the question, would you break from theoretical to physical and begin bringing people from the heterotopic world into your personal world; or would you remain silent and continue to watch people from a distance? In my case I see the same people many times a week for many years at my third space--the gym. There are some characters I would love to know more about, but for now I'm remaining in my heterotopic state. Not because I'm shy or nervous, but because I do not want to be perceived as creepy. Is creepy holding me back, I'm not sure. What would you do?