Family Diversity
It's How  We Live


Young singles creating "urban tribes"
as their new chosen families

Salt Lake Tribune / 1-05-06
by Christy Karras

When an uninsured member of Adriane Colvin's urban tribe had a brain aneurysm, the tribe - a group of friends that served as her substitute family - was there to help. They arranged her doctor visits, helped her around the house and started a fund to pay her medical bills.
   "It was just an amazing outpouring of support," Colvin said. But she wasn't surprised: The tribe has been supporting its members' needs for years.
   Such groups of adult friends usually don't call themselves tribes, or even think of themselves that way. All they know is, when they need someone to help them move the furniture, give dating advice or plan a home-cooked meal, they often turn to chosen families rather than biological ones.
   "They evolve so organically that you don't recognize the social momentum they contain," said Ethan Watters, whose book, Urban Tribes, popularized the term and the idea. "People begin telling stories about 'This group did this.' . . . Once it gets to that point, you can remove a person from the group, and it doesn't change the group. It's highly clustered. You can actually graph it and see how this works in vast numbers of lines between people."
   How do you know you're in a tribe? Watters says, "Go down the list of things your family used to do and ask, 'Does my family do this for me, or do my friends?' " Who vets potential dates? Whose shoulder do you cry on if you've had a bad day?
   "You begin to see the family is still culturally important, and yet a lot of those day-to-day things have been taken over by friends," he said.
   More and more, people spend their college and post-college years moving away from their hometowns, marrying later and focusing on interests and careers. Nationally, the U.S. Census reported last year, the average marriage age for women has risen 4.7 years in the past three decades, to about 26, while the age for men at first marriage is up 4.3 years, to 27.4. In Utah, the averages are lower, but those numbers are skewed by the high number of Mormons who marry early (according to Utah state data, for example, three-fourths of people married before age 20 had LDS ceremonies.
   Lacking a built-in family or church support system, unmarried adults such as Heidi Falk create their own.
   Falk's tribe originated when several friends moved from Illinois to Utah to snowboard. She came to visit and fell in love with the place. Now, the group has grown to include friends and significant others from Utah and other states. "I'm not really a person to, say, go to the bars to look for people, but we always like to add new people to the group," she said.
   The dozen or so men and women, most in their late 20s, see each other several times a month and spend holidays together. "Even those . . . who have family here spend the holidays with us, as well as with their families," Falk said.
   For its members, the tribe has been a godsend. "I'm grateful because right after college, this is what happened," said Falk. "It provides me with lots of stability - and it's also just fun."
   Without families nearby, traditional family roles - matchmaker, confidant, adviser - are taken over by friends. "If you go back to basics, there's always a memory, in your DNA, of living in tribes," said Colvin, who organizes events for the Burning Man festival in Nevada, an event frequented by urban tribes, including several in Salt Lake City. "The power of a tribe is that the members of a tribe suddenly figure out who they are and figure out their gifts and what they can give to this society."
   A tribe "serves as a place where there's no judgment, a community of like-minded people," she said. For her, the tribe is another kind of family.
   Watters, a San Francisco freelance writer who moved away from his family at 18 to attend college and was recently married at 38, wanted to connect with other people but wasn't sure how.
   His solution: Just show up, literally. He told everyone he knew that he'd be at a certain restaurant every Tuesday and invited anyone to join him for dinner and conversation. In three years, he never sat alone on a Tuesday night. More often, 20 people showed up. "One week there would be five people there, another there would be 12 people," he said. "I would extend the invitation not only to my closest friends but also to people I wanted to join the group."
   Not all those people became his close friends, but an entity emerged, a group that stuck together even as it evolved. "I realized it was the key social support of my life," Watters said.
   After he published an essay about tribes in The New York Times, he got lots of comments - some telling him ways he got it wrong. The discussion became a book that drew Watters into piles of sociological research about the lives of all those 20-, 30- and 40-somethings who had left their families and delayed marriage.
   "People have never done this before. They haven't spent this much time away from family before. . . . It's unheard of, and it creates a lot of anxiety," he said. "Just by giving it a name and kind of sparking this discussion - a lot of people came forward and said, 'Me, too.' "
   Urban tribes go on trips together, form book clubs, watch their favorite television shows and attend concerts and festivals.
   Getting married, having kids and moving away can erode tribes, but they don't have to, Watters said. Most of his tribe is married now, but "the group is more vibrant than ever," he said. They have bought property together, started businesses and are helping each other raise kids - an especially helpful aspect of tribal life when blood relatives aren't near and for people who, as single adults with single friends, didn't have much experience with marriage or children.
   Tribes are plentiful in places such as New York or San Francisco. In Utah - where many people live near their families or make friends through church - finding a tribe might be difficult.
   When he was researching his book, Watters heard from some Utah singles. "I remember it was a little less of a cultural mien in Salt Lake, and you have this set of people getting married younger, and that made it a more radical choice [to stay single]," Watters said.
   Finding a tribe might be as easy as joining a group made up of people with interests similar to yours, especially if you're new in town. The Wasatch Mountain Club, for example, hosts regular activities for people interested in hiking, biking, boating and winter sports.
   Club vice president Donn Seeley met his wife through the club, as have other members. But he didn't get involved looking for dates. He moved here and was working at the University of Utah when some colleagues who belonged to it invited him hiking. "Eventually, I got so involved in the club that I became hiking director. My wife was the secretary of the club. That's how we met and got together."
   The Internet has made finding tribes easier. There's even a Web site,, that connects people to their tribes; Watters' site, www.urbantribes .net, gives advice and asks tribes to send in information on theirs. Other sites can give tribe-seekers information on how to meet people with similar interests or backgrounds.
   "The most natural way to join the group is to work on those friendships that tie you into the group. You don't have to show your card at the door. Oftentimes, you just have to show up, really," Watters said. "Just keep showing up."

Urban tribe basics
    Here are some suggestions from Ethan Watters on how to join or form an urban tribe:
    Look around: You may already be a member of a tribe and just not thinking of it that way. With a little more organization and participation, the group might be just what you're after.
    Be a joiner: Many people form or get into tribes based on shared interests, though friendships usually expand beyond that. Organizations of like-minded people are more than happy to absorb new members, even those without much experience with the subject at hand. The Tribune lists everything from bowling leagues to biking groups in its Recreation Roundup; a fabric store will probably have information on sewing groups; and libraries have lists of book clubs. Other examples include bowling clubs, knitting clubs, reading groups, games, sports, dance, film, gardening, the arts, church groups, education and volunteering.
    Don't exclude: Consciously keeping others out of your group is one of the biggest mistakes a tribe can make, especially if those decisions are arbitrary (on the basis of having a different career, religion, etc.). Let anyone tag along who wants to, and the tribe will be richer. The newcomer and existing members will figure out quickly - and naturally - if it's not a good fit.
    Be flexible: Don't go into the group expecting to get something specific out of it (say, a mate). Don't worry if things change; maybe you'll see each other once a week, or maybe only once a year. Keep the communication and friendships open regardless.
    Don't look for leaders: Although people in the group might take on roles within it, the group is in danger if it revolves around one person.
    Be reliable: Watters made himself a fixture at a local restaurant every Tuesday, so everyone knew someone would be there. After the friendship gets rolling, be willing to answer the call for friends who need you.
    Be brave: If you don't know of or aren't interested in any existing tribes, it might be up to you to start one.


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