Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Find Your Tribes

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Last weekend’s blogging conference was colored by the Gaza conflict that played out on my hotel TV at night.   It put me on edge.   The social media lingo used at the conference suddenly seemed more militaristic than intended.  Words like”Followers” and “Following,” gave me images of soldiers and commanders.  Even the expression “ally” (Feminist Allies, LGBT Allies) had the unfortunate association with the first and second World Wars (Allies and Axis).

But I had the most discomfort with the oft-repeated mantra of “Find Your Tribe.”

At first glance, “Find Your Tribe,” is good advice for a blogger or writer, especially for a newbie searching for a niche, but this year, I was unable to hear this word without also hearing “tribalism.”  Why were we telling others to find their tribe, when the very concept involves exclusion?  Aren’t 98% of all wars about disagreeing tribes bumping heads?

When I arrived at JFK on Monday,  there was a giant TV at the American Airlines gate.   CNN was reporting on the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, brokered by Egypt. I sighed with a relief, not only sickened by the violence, but also the nastiness that I saw online.

It was midnight and the taxi line was short.   Within five minutes, I was on my way.   My taxi driver was a bearded young man with hair as black as shoe polish. His steering wheel bore the colors of the Palestinian flag.  His first name was Mohammed.

“Where you heading?” he asked.

I told him the address.

“By that KOSHER supermarket, right?” he asked.

“Uh, yes.” I mumbled.

The cab was dark inside.  I was in the back seat, my computer bag at my feet.  A pungent air freshener was hanging from the rear view mirror, swaying to the bumps on the Van Wyck Expressway.   I heard a faint speaking from the front, some Arabic, but mostly English.   At first, I thought it was the radio, but as I leaned in, I could see Mohammed speaking into a headset.   He glanced at me in the rear view mirror, but was too involved in his conversation to notice me eavesdropping.  I bent over to look into my computer bag, but the real intention was to listen more closely.

“Is he there with you now?  Will you see him again?” whispered Mohammed into his headset. “No, I’m not jealous. Are you jealous of me? Will you tell me if you do it with him? I just did it that once. I told you about it. But she was nothing like you. You turn me into an animal. Come visit. OK, tomorrow. Will you think about me tonight? I will think about you, all night. When I am in bed. I have to go. I have a customer.”

Mohammed stopped talking. There was silence as the cab moved onto the Grand Central. I’m normally shy and never speak to strangers, but I had an insatiable need to talk to this driver, to learn more about his story. I took the risk.

“There used to be this TV show called Taxicab Confessions,” I told him.  “On the show, cabbies would listen in to their customers as they talk about their personal lives, but I think this is the first time a customer has ever listened in on the taxi driver.”

Mohammed laughed.

“Oh, you heard me speaking to Abal.  Sweet Abal.”

Mohammed proceeded to tell me the story of Abal, his lover in Germany, and their “open relationship.”   The trouble began when Mohammed started seeing a woman in Brooklyn on Friday nights, who was smart, and had a good job, be she couldn’t compare to the”wild cat moves” of sweet sweet Abal.

“Where did you fly in from?” he asked, changing the conversation, as if it wasn’t polite for a driver to talk so much without reciprocating the interest.

“California,” I said.

“Was there a woman there?” he asked, grinning

“Women.”

I’m not going to reveal the rest of the conversation, but let’s just say that straight men of all color, creeds, and religions have more in common than previously thought, with similar passions and frustrations with the opposite sex.

The fighting in the Middle East never came up, nothing about religious or national tribalism, nothing about Israel or the Arab world, Muslims or Jews.   Instead, we focused on a common Tribe between us — “Single Guys Dealing with Women.”   Why do we always go for our differences rather than our similarities.   I’m sure if I continued my conversation with Mohammed we would have discovered more common tribes — “New Yorkers,” “iPhone owners, “Men who Put Air Freshener in their Cars.”

Telling others to “find your tribe” — as if we each have only one tribe that becomes our identity — is bad advice.   It is simplistic.   It breeds isolation and zealotry.    It’s better to say, “Find Your TRIBES (in the plural).”

We live in an overlapping Venn Diagram of tribes, where one person can be Christian, an American, A Kansan, a Writer, a Father, A Democrat, a Juggler, and a Stamp Collector.   By suggesting that people find their TRIBES, rather than their TRIBE, we are sending the positive message to our friends to focus on the concentric circles of connection, which builds compassion and empathy,  rather than the myopic view of tribalism.

I doubt Mohammed and I are ever going to be friends, or if I will ever see him again. I’m sure we have tribes in common, and many that disagree.  But by acknowledging that we are ALL a multitude of Tribes, interlocking circles on the Venn diagram of life, we remind ourselves that the only true Tribe is everyone.

9 Comments

  1. AMEN.. I also think that advice is bad. We should be finding and concentrating on our similarities, not our differences.

  2. Defining yourself as a part of a group or club inevitably boils down to us vs. them exclusivity. The world could use a whole lot less of that.

    Eschew it! (Gesundheit.) I joined the Auto Club once; felt very guilty and didn’t re-up. I had to choose between ASCAP and BMI (neither are unions) because I needed someone to collect money when my songs are broadcast. And whenever I’m asked if I’m Jewish, my first thought is “Why aren’t you asking me if I’m right-handed?” A similarly unimportant distinction.

  3. I loved this. LOVED IT! I adore meeting people and immediately getting right to the place where that Venn Diagram intersects. I do it all the time. Did it today in the grocery store with older gentleman whose skin tone did not match mine in any way. He asked me for advice on vanilla. Before you knew it, we were talking about birthdays and chocolate cakes and it was such a swell little encounter. To me, this is one of the joys of life. Meeting people who are in my tribes.
    Yeah. You said it good.

  4. This week, at drama camp, my four year old played a game called “Cross the Room.” They stood in a line, and the teacher would say something like, “Cross the room if you have a big sister,” or “Cross the room if you like hamburgers.”

    It was one of the first activities they did – to show the children that even though they didn’t know each other, they had plenty of different things in common.

    We should all be four year olds.

  5. Beautiful, important insight, Neil, thanks. There’s tremendous power in finding that group of people who finally help you feel like you’re not alone on the planet, but why stop at just one, when, as you mention, we’ve got more in common than we have different? I don’t think it’s necessary that identifying with a group must lead to exclusion, isolationism, or outright hostility to other groups, it is definitely a danger to be cautiously guarded against.

  6. Yes! Yes! Yes! The whole find your tribe is a load of crap. In my geographically based blogging community, a ring leader who is a total exclusionary bitch uses her “tribe” to be divisive. I like the notion of many tribes, a tribe is a trap.

  7. Over the course of our lives it’s those moments of overlap, those piercing exchanges that you unexpectedly enjoy all the while knowing that they won’t last more than that moment.

    Loved this.

  8. Checking back recent posts after reading Fictional Characters #30 – I so <3 this post!

    Wasn't it highly emulated social media expert (ahem!) Seth Godin who started all this Find Your Tribe stuff? You're saying he's … wait, WRONG?? 😉 Yes. Because I agree with your post.

    I guess he's just human after all – as are we all – the biggest tribe of all!

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