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
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
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
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
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."
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.