Help me either leave my urban tribe, or accept my place in it
March 6, 2013 9:20 PM   Subscribe

This past year I got involved in a local community of people. I have mixed feelings and am looking for your relevant experiences with close-knit urban tribes.

I won't say exactly what community this is, but picture a community of geeks, artists, and regular folks, along the lines of community theater, burners, makers, the body mod community, juggalos, [insert your alternative community here]. In the city where I live, there is some overlap among all the fringe communities anyway and the particular one I'm in is irrelevant. There are common local events and parties as well as national events. I am in a major US city. The group includes people ages 22-40ish.

I first got involved via someone I dated, and I was drawn to the friendship, activities and a culture that felt consistent with my interests since I was a yougin. I remember the first party I went to and thought, "This feels like home!" The romantic relationship may or may not have ended as a trainwreck. I say it may not have, because through the shared community, there has been some ongoing relationship/friendship/drama, though the dating ended painfully last year. I've always been out of contact with exes, but it seemed near impossible in this case because I was so strongly drawn to the friendship group as a whole.

I like the closeness in this local community, but I also dislike the inclusivity and cultural mixing for other reasons. Sociopaths and douchebags are not typically turned away, and there is a fair amount of mental illness and irresponsibility. There is relational drama with everyone having dated everyone else. E.g., seeing many of a person's prior, and subsequent, partners can be awkward or painful.

My alternative is to stick with people who are closer to my own culture, young professionals bordering on "the 1%," people with top notch educations, etc. In my social group outside of the urban tribe, there are more one-on-one relationships and less group cohesion. I feel like there is more safety, healthy behavior, and predictability, but also less closeness and creativity. There are fewer big parties and opportunities to socialize. That being said, the urban tribe does have a feeling of staleness to it sometimes. And, I do have hobbies outside of it.

There were times in the past year that I actually cried from happiness at the thought of having stumbled upon this excellent community. On the contrary, there were times I was frustrated to the eyeballs from drama, and other times when I saw some really despicable people and thought that I didn't want to be within a degree of separation from them.

TLDR: I am a bit conflicted about whether to keep participating in my urban tribe, for lack of a better phrase. I'm looking for advice, anecdotes from your own life, or links to resources that could help me understand this a bit more.
posted by htid to Human Relations (23 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

You don't say how old you are, I don't think.

My main observation would be that it's not one or the other. You may in fact be a little more grounded, mentally healthy and able to carry on multiple relationships and inhabit multiple spaces than the people in the "tribe." That's fine. But that doesn't mean you have to totally cut them off and go live a separate existence. It's likely you can participate in things they do and even, perhaps, single out a few people for closer personal friendship, without going whole hog and becoming part of a very insular world. You could end up being good for them as well as the other way round.

And if you think the people "closer to your own culture" with the "top notch educations" are better at one-on-one friendships right now, note that that might not always be the case, and they might be the very people whose tendency to form tighter, smaller social networks leads them into the world of family and very close friends and not into social connections with a broader group who is not taking part in their exact lifestyle. That happens all the time.

In short, not sure why there needs to be a decision point here. You are a person who enjoys different kinds of people and communities, and you can function in many kinds of communities, and that's a rare and wonderful set of attributes to have. Enjoy it. Do what pleases you, and interact with the people you choose to interact with, when you want to. You can definitely draw clear boundaries about not spending time with "douchebags" and you can resist getting drawn into drama; you can even perfect small speeches about how "I don't like getting drawn into drama, I'm not the type to gossip,"etc. Create your own boundaries and be your own person. You don't need to see yourself as intractably part of one "culture" or another. You have the ability to form bonds with many kinds of people and you have a little something to teach everyone. There's no obligation to wear uniforms or pick sides. Over time you might find your friend set changes or you get tired of one type of person or another, but don't feel you have to cut off entire communities. Instead, develop the personal skills to navigate amongst them, which will really set you up to be the kind of person, later in life, that people respect for being able to relate to many different kinds of people, and for knowing themselves truthfully and well.
posted by Miko at 9:29 PM on March 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

I think you can move on if you want to - it may in fact just be the experience of growing up that you're going through. I'm around 40, and there is a group of folks who went to university together who are still hanging out together and doing stuff. I resumed things with these folks when we returned from living overseas, but there were too many differences, so we left them.

The thing is, you can start your own thing, and interact with people who are more on your wavelength. That's what we did. It's a process of discovery, making new friends, and takes some reaching out, and some perseverance. But I think you can do it.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:35 PM on March 6, 2013

Is there a way you could give some relevant hints as to what the community actually is? I'm having a lot of trouble picturing the context, with it simply being given as "urban tribe". That concept doesn't have much meaning to me (though it might for other answerers!).
posted by threeants at 9:48 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you want to be healthy and free of drama, then hang out with people who are healthy and free of drama. I'm not oversimplifying it. I'm serious.

It's not a binary choice. You can see them occasionally but centering your life around people who are unhealthy is never in your own best interest.
posted by 26.2 at 9:52 PM on March 6, 2013 [8 favorites]

I've been there.

The acceptance of creeps and douchebags, along with the excessive drinking and lack of real intellectualism led me to dropping out and not coming back.

When you consider that 50% of people are stupider than the average person, if you're reasonably bright you're going to have a hard time finding a large group of people to click with. The standards of behavior in large crowds is going to be at a very low level.

I find it's better to find a few really close friends who are really smart, and be happy about that. They don't have to be stuffy 1% types- indeed, they probably won't be. Just maintain contact with the few people who really matter to you, and pursue what really matters. Hanging out with a large group really isn't that great.
posted by dunkadunc at 10:03 PM on March 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

Sociopaths and douchebags are not typically turned away, and there is a fair amount of mental illness and irresponsibility. There is relational drama with everyone having dated everyone else. E.g., seeing many of a person's prior, and subsequent, partners can be awkward or painful.

Sounds like the rave scene when I was in it. Just avoid the sociopaths, try not to sleep with too many people in the same social circle and live a balanced life. Where you party at on the weekends doesn't have to define who you are.
posted by empath at 10:31 PM on March 6, 2013 [6 favorites]

I can't deal with this kind of scene myself, to the point where I pass up some quasi-professional opportunities (unpaid, but getting my work out there) to avoid the local "tribe" that runs some fairly significant events. I think that my decision is a wise one in the long run, since this group routinely experiences giant drama eruptions.

But, you know, I am a cranky old lady. You might be different, but oh god if I never hear someone's Deep Thoughts about polyamory in a hot tub it will not be a second too soon.

I like having friends with boundaries.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:07 PM on March 6, 2013 [23 favorites]

Best answer: I used to be in this kind of scene, but now I'm at the periphery. Like Sidhedevil, I got sick of the Deep Thoughts about polyamory, the sociopaths and douchebags, and what I now realize was the overwhelming sexism of that kind of scene. Men judged by their actions and women by their looks and usefulness to the men. Men providing each other with opportunities, while women dress up in pretty alternative costumes like some kind of living fantasy enactment... ugh.

Anyway, I don't base my identity on my "urban tribe" anymore. I can go to a rave, a festival, a maker event, a freaky costume event... and I can also hang out with the 1% at an upscale club, and everything in between.

I contain multitudes. You do too.
posted by carolinaherrera at 12:28 AM on March 7, 2013 [17 favorites]

I spent about 5 years enmeshed in one of these sorts of tribes, never comfortable with the group behavior but sticking around because I valued friendships with just a few key individuals, and because I didn't know what else to do with my time. Most of the other people were young like I was, and I think were trying to establish some sense of connection, status and community after having been alienated from their families, dropped out of college, rejected their religion or otherwise found themselves to be unwilling outsiders. Acceptance was what everyone craved, and what everyone was expected to offer, which seemed great to me ("This feels like home!") until I realized that much of what I was being asked to accept was a lot of stupidity, craziness and drama.

I got out, and that whole social edifice has long-since crumbled. In retrospect I think it was useful and almost inevitable for me to have been involved in something like that, at that point in my life. It was by nature a temporary phase in the lives of everyone involved, and that's okay. If you've had enough, move on. If my experience is any guide then everyone else will move on too, when they're ready.
posted by jon1270 at 2:04 AM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've always mingled in two or three of these subscenes at the same time, as long as I can remember. Highbrow discussions about the futility of aesthetics in conceptual art in the morning, baking cakes in the afternoon, because Auntie is coming over for tea, loud music and banter with the r'n'r crowd at night. Over the years, I always traded one of these scenes for another, because the scenes faded, or I did, for the same reasons you mentioned. I never committed exclusively to one circle, but always kept in mind that I had to move forward. Some wonderful friendships stayed over the years and my never ending curiosity brings me in contact with new people, new ideas and new visions year after year. So looking back, I still have connections to all walks of life, I have met a lot of wonderful people, most of which I hardly see anymore, but I have never regretted this, as I've stayed close to the inner circle of close friends.
posted by ouke at 3:13 AM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a rower in college, my rule of thumb was not to date rowers, because generally after 6 months there was potential for half your boat to have dated the same person. It happened all the time. I hung out with mostly rowers, but I spent my time dating other folks after I moved to that modus operandi. Your ex, may have encountered this same phenomenon, meaning that there was a reason you were brought into the fold, and that your ex didn't continue to date within the preexisting group.

When I cooked and was active in Boston's bike culture, there were a lot of folks who also basically dated tight to the culture (be it restaurant or bike). There was also a lot of unsavory characters in the mix. There's a lot to be said about rescuing someone twice your age from a heroin den to have them sleep on your couch and soak it in urine. There's a lot to be said to getting out of that culture.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:07 AM on March 7, 2013

Sounds like you are outgrowing your 20s. Nothing wrong with pulling back from the tribe mentality while still keeping connected via creative projects, events, concerts etc.

Don't be surprised if your 1%er alternative group has all the same kinds of drama going on behind closed doors. People with more traditional backgrounds and more formal education tend to also be schooled on keeping up appearances.
posted by headnsouth at 4:41 AM on March 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Can you maintain friendships with just some of these people? I mean, I'm part of a loose agglomeration of...well, probably a more political version of the people you describe, and even when I was younger I was never one for making the scene and hitting the parties. I have close friendships with people from within this group and we hang out in smaller groups or just two people at a time.

You'll probably sort of age out of this crowd anyway - I'm old for mine and have been lucky enough to maintain friendships both within and outside the crowd with people my own age and older as well as friendships with younger folks. But the fact that the crowd skews young means that even if I did want to go to all the parties and shows, I wouldn't fit in very well anymore. Not that people would be unpleasant about it, and there's always a few really-quite-older people in their fifties or so, but it's not really my thing.

Think twice about this 1%-er wheeze, though. I have some social/financial elite semi-friends and I have not been terribly impressed by the "maturity" with which they've conducted themselves as they've gotten older, and I've been extremely unimpressed by the values that rise to the surface in that crowd as soon as they get serious about getting ahead in life .
posted by Frowner at 5:22 AM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I hear you.

10 years down the road, you will have moved on and progressed in your profession, and much of your urban tribe will be stuck in the same drama, if they're around at all. The flip side is that your young professional friends will be paired off at this point or moved away and even less socially accessible at that point than they are now. There are too ways of handling this... one is the carefully pick through the members of your tribe and figure out which are the ones most like you. There's bound to be a biochemistry grad student or similar hiding in there, somewhere.

The other option is to actually give your professional colleagues/former classmates more of a fair shake. Truth be told, it's probably not the case that they have the same kinds of drama as the urban tribe going on behind closed doors, but they probably have some really interesting things going on in their lives and aspects to their personality that you would only get to find out about if you get to know them better. The other angle here is to be the person that hosts parties with your young professional friends. Throw those parties. Organize those outings, host those brunches. They probably want to have more fun and social opportunities in their lives, too, and if you give them the chance, they might take you up on it.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 5:26 AM on March 7, 2013

I think this is super-common among interest groups and I believe that most of these things eventually collapse under their own weight. Here's a breakdown of how the process works.

1. Find an interest group, on-line or IRL. It's interesting so you start hanging out on the fringes of it.

2. Meet a couple of really great people in the group and become very enthusiastic about it.

3. You can barely concentrate on your regular life because everything and everyone in the group is so exciting and fun! There are parties, live chats on-line, side projects and good times.

4. You start to notice that the group has some really disturbed members in it, people who creep you right-the-fuck-out. So you cling to the folks you really like.

5. Your friendships within the group split off, perhaps you date another member (or marry him, as I did) you see the other folks away from the group and find that you have a lot in common aside from the special interest you started with.

6. The group becomes embroiled in DRAMAZ! This will involve homelessness, suicide attempts, theft, pregnancy, deportation and other indoor sports.

7. The sane people will disengage and form their own sub-groups. The main group will continue to meet, attracting newer folks, for whom the cycle is just beginning.

8. It's hard to disengage completely because at heart, you really like the thing at the core of the group, so you check back in every so often. It's a diminishing return though. Of the newer folks, you like maybe 2% of them, the wackadoodles are still there in force, and it's just not the same.

9. You leave the group completely, keeping your husband and friends, and occasionally, you become wistful for Camelot. But that is a bygone era.

This is just the natural process of these things. I think you're at stage 8 right now. Intellectually you know that the thing is just not for you, but the nostalgia keeps you going back.

You could always get involved with a new thing. Husbunny went from Daria, to Women's Basketball to Dr. Who to Eurovision. Start the process all over again!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:19 AM on March 7, 2013 [8 favorites]

I once sought out a group of interesting people and joined them, to the best of my abilities. I didn't always mesh, but I had some fun times. Years later, though, when I was thoroughly tired of trying to keep track of Person A's many partners, or what horrible thing Person B said to Person C because Person C had called out Person D at work, I found it was kind of hard to let myself disengage -- even though I shared few interests with them and our original reason for connecting (a craft night) had faded away.

The problem, I think, was that I still recognized the effort I'd put into trying to join the group in the first place. Now I was guilting myself into a sort of "beggars can't be choosers" situation. You know when you're all excited to buy something new, and suddenly you realize that they hurt your feet and don't quite match anything... but you'll be damned if you take them to Goodwill or something because you spent a lot of money on them? Same deal. The amount of money you spent means nothing. Objectively, at this point in your life, they are worthless to you.

So you may need to take a little time to unpack your feelings and figure out the worthwhile things about this community that you want to keep (via continuing individual relationships) and the things you could really do without (via disengaging).

You'll find, too, that just as you are more drawn to certain individuals as friends, other less-noticed members may be the ones who quietly hold the group together in a way that really speaks to you. When those people leave, or scale back their involvement, the group can suddenly and inexplicably become intolerable.
posted by Madamina at 6:20 AM on March 7, 2013

I'm looking for advice, anecdotes from your own life, or links to resources that could help me understand this a bit more.

I aged out of mine. I lived in an urban culture where I was a member of a few overlapping tribes of folks. I had a great time. And at some point realized I wanted to be someplace more rural and closer to my family. I left. The people I was closest with stayed in touch, many many other people didn't, not even on facebook. The tribe was a little ... into itself at the expense of any individual people. Fine for some people, not ultimately my thing.

I also realized a few things about myself in the process which was

- I fit in a lot of places and my brain has a tendency to tell me "Oh thank god I finally fit somewhere!" but it does this over and over, it's not like there's one final destination (I am now in my 40s) and this is a brain thing not a "where do I fit" thing
- Drama is exhausting and keeps you from getting other things done. As Sidhedevil says, getting to know adults with boundaries is a wonderful thing.
- Anyone who tells you that you have to put up with sociopaths and douchebags is someone with different priorities than me and, apparently, you. It's totally okay for this to be something you don't want. It's weird because I still see people who are more exclusive as a little snobby or something, but man I love not having parties disrupted by giant fights over nothing. I think the two go hand in hand a little.

I just got to a point where I needed to take a different sort of care of myself (less drinking/drugging, more attention to job and family, more book reading and less partying) and I couldn't go there with this group and they weren't even really happy for me that that was the direction I was going. Just time to move on. It's okay to move on.
posted by jessamyn at 7:26 AM on March 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

I am heavily involved in an "urban tribe" such as you describe. But I also maintain a certain amount of distance from it. The two are not incompatible. I have some friends who have all of their social, professional, and romantic contacts within that tribe. I would find that stifling. You can be fully engaged in your tribe without being exclusively engaged in your tribe.

For that matter, there are sub-tribes within that tribe, and I wouldn't be surprised if the same is true of yours. There are some that you might find more congenial to hang out with.

Finally, if your tribe is anything like mine, there are a few people who are beyond creepy, but there are a lot of people who are reasonable, who value their community, want to keep it healthy, and defend it from the creeps. You can seek those people out and try to work with them to keep your tribe healthy.
posted by adamrice at 8:10 AM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you read the five geek social fallacies? I think they'd help, particularly with the creeps and douchebags.

Over the years, I've learned to be wary of people who declare their love for an individual or a group too fast. This strange intensity can be seductive and charming ("They really like me! I've found my place!") but the truth is, early on, you're still strangers and it's good to be a little guarded. Because, after all, sociopaths don't usually announce themselves; creeps can occasionally be charming. So in the future, be a little wary of people who make you one of them immediately. That's not to say that they might not be worthwhile, just that it's not good to build your social identity around strangers you know nothing about.

In this case, I'd maintain a friendly involvement while distancing myself and establishing new friendships. A few more friends never hurt anyone.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:21 AM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In addition to social considerations, look closely at how the community could be affecting your income and, as a result, your future security.

I'm your future. I'm 52. I was in a similar group in my 20s through my 40s. I began to realize that my "community" was literally limiting my income. In addition to my expensive boyfriends, who never had steady jobs and always "borrowed" money, the overall idea in the group was that money is bad and we should all be proud of how little money we make and isn't it great that we all get together to donate money for X's operation because like most of us X doesn't have health insurance.

I was building my business during this time and it became increasingly clear that I wasn't going to go very far with the weight of that community holding me down. One person told me that what I was doing (consulting with corporations) was "evil." Most of the others simply didn't understand what I was trying to do, and increasingly it became clear that when I was excited about landing a new client or getting invited to present somewhere cool I could tell almost no one about it.

For this and many other reasons I moved to another country, and now I'm intentionally working my way into the upwardly mobile, educated, entrepreneurial scene. There's less drama and a lot more functioning, and it's intellectually way more interesting. In addition to having businesses, these people enjoy setting other challenges, too -- they work out, they learn new skills all the time, they travel, and they're curious and open-minded.

I think if I had sought out this scene 10-15 years ago I would be financially in a much better position and I might have a long-term partner, instead of the long string of short-term "creative" spongers on which I spent too much time and money for three decades.

There's apparently research that backs this up, saying that the financial condition, health, and dysfunctions of your social scene infect you, too. I'm currently reading Connected, which you might find interesting.
posted by ceiba at 8:23 AM on March 7, 2013 [12 favorites]

If you live in a major US city, i think that you might have a false sense of choice for friendships - I would seek out some new friendships and communities that offer the good without the dramaz.
A important part of making good friendships for me at least is not mistaking partying for closeness and drama for creativity.
posted by florencetnoa at 8:36 AM on March 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've been looking into intentional communities and co-ops as one way to increase my sense of being part of a community, while trying to avoid some of the potential down sides you mention. I, too, have found that folks from an upper middle class background, while often great friends individually, don't necessarily often have the ... ethos of solidarity that I was raised with, with my more working class background, but which I have found in other groups, but I don't entirely fit into the other groups either for various reasons. Anyway, it sounds like you've realized that you value a certain sense of community. That is a good thing to know about yourself. It's okay to look for (or intentionally create from scratch for yourself) a different group that will provide you with the same sense of community, with fewer of the negatives that are making you ambivalent about this current group. This may or may not include members of your current tribe who you feel closer to.
posted by eviemath at 12:58 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I decided to quit the community (mostly) whole hog. There are a few physical/practical resources that are still useful for some of my pastimes, which I will most likely still use. However, reading this thread has made me take a big step back from the so-called friendships. I think most of those friendships were quite superficial anyway. Thanks for the perspectives, everyone.
posted by htid at 9:46 PM on March 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

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