Saturday, August 18, 2012

Mama Bean knows you on a certain level, you know?

When I was in university, I concocted a system of interpersonal knowledge levels by which I evaluated and/or grew friendships/relationships. Despite the world of adult relationships being vastly more complicated than how complicated I thought my social life was in my early 20s, I still find the system useful, at least for analyzing my placement in a particular friendship or wider group/web of relationships.

The system has three levels. Primary knowledge is the basic nuts and bolts info about someone's life - their family, their occupation, what they do on a day to day basis. Obviously, knowledge at this level can be pretty superficial (dog's name, what car they drive) and can get very deep (particularly detailed knowledge of someone's history, for example, or in this day and age, a solid understanding of their religious or political views, perhaps.) And every relationship starts here, with the basic exchange of information. Secondary knowledge has to do with preferences - again from a superficial level (favourite restaurant, hobbies, taste in music) to the more detailed (I don't know how to describe it, but just a very solid idea of their world view, to the point of predicting what they'd like in novel circumstances, maybe?) And this level also encompasses understanding a bit about value systems, but not so much as the third and final level. Tertiary knowledge is when you know someone well enough to know their motivations and drivers, their values, an understanding of their personality. This gets more into having predictive abilities as far as their choices or behaviours go - you know what they'll do or what they're thinking/feeling. It's more than just knowing opinions. For me, being a Myers-Briggs junkie, I need tertiary knowledge to feel comfortable guessing at your four letters. (By the by, the very fact that I have this system fits perfectly with my INFJ personality type, and I thought that was hilarious when I found out.)

So I've been thinking about this as applied to groups, as Papa Bean and I have been examining ourselves during this church search, and also a little bit as it pertains to parenting (and cloud parenting). I think a group that comes together on the basis of some primary level commonality is what I'd call a community. Any given church congregation is a community of people joined at this primary level of common religion. Your workplace is a community of people with a primary level common business/service. Mom groups of many shapes exist on the very basic primary commonality of motherhood. And depending on the specificity of the primary information, the community can be loose or tight, you know? 

I think when we start to look at people joined by a secondary level of commonality, we're talking about a tribe (in the meme-y meta way that we now use that word.) When PB and I consider the church we want to serve in, we're thinking about finding a tribe - not only joined by common religion, but a common specific expression of preferences within that religion, a particular progressiveness and politic. I don't think I have to say that this is a difficult thing to find! I think if you look at really cohesive workplaces or fantastically successful businesses (Apple?) you'll find more of a tribe mentality - people have bought in, have invested in a common goal/vision/process/preference. And I think I've written before about how comforting the Interwebz can be for finding your parenting tribe, somewhere in the Cloud - something that can be near impossible on the ground. 

I suppose a really tight tribe would start to approach a tertiary level of knowledge and connectedness, which I would call synergy. But I'd say it's pretty hard to get cohesive understanding of motivations and values across very large groups of people (churches have split over much smaller issues than that, amiright?) I'd say it's even pretty rare in two person relationships - I mean, I'd hope most marriages start here and grow into it from there. I can count on one hand the number of people I feel I know (or used to know) on the tertiary level and who know me the same. (Well, and being an introvert, I wouldn't want that number to be much bigger, but tell me extroverts if you have the same experience?)

The complexity of adulthood muddies my system on many many levels. For one thing: geography! When I was in university, everyone most important to me (give or take) lived in my city; not so anymore. I have these synergistic friends living their primary lives miles away from me, and I am ashamed to admit how little time I invest in maintaining that primary knowledge - what do they do day to day? What car do they drive? Let alone their parenting strategies, their workplace conflicts, their political activity... I know I can't hold onto my tertiary or deep secondary laurels with these friends forever, without supportive knowledge of their actual physical life. Because everything changes, and that's the other thing: time! I mean, values and personality are relatively stable over time, but still - people are falling in love, making new humans, building empires or destroying them!

More than anything, having indulged in some profound nostalgia of late (five year college reunions will do that) I find myself wishing (oh so dangerously tinged with regret is wishing) that I'd known then, when I was spending my valuable hours thinking myself so clever for figuring out the world in three simple levels, when I was discovering who my secondary and tertiary levels really were at Palmer, when I was growing and developing that selfhood in early marriage and now in early parenthood... I wish I'd known what and who really mattered. And I wish I'd taken the time - I wish I would take the time now to tell those people, to say what I feel, to hash it out with them, "Hey, here's where we're community and I like that, let's keep that" or, "Hey, here's where we're tribal, it's awesome, and I like it, let's keep it" or, "Hey, I think you know that we have something beautiful and synergistic between us, and I treasure that, please... please, keep that with me." I mean, I don't think every relationship can necessarily handle that exact depth of conversation, but in this age of ridiculous digital-connectedness, you'd think I could find the time to at least be honest.

So, tell me things: do you organize your sense of friendship in a system like this? Does your personality jive or clash with this system? (It's not perfect, so I'm not going to be insulted if you've got other ideas.) How do you navigate the communities and tribes in your life? How do you cultivate or communicate your way through tribalism or synergy? Think about it while we enjoy the sweet dulcet tones of Mr. John Mayer.


  1. Dear Superawesome Mama Bean,
    I have definitely thought that friendships have variable depth, although I haven't classified that depth into levels. The community vs tribe concept is pretty intriguing though. As for nostalgia, I too think that if I knew during the Palmer years who I would still be talking to, I would have hung out with those people more. Like skipping class and going to see Tegan and Sara in Wisconsin. That would have kicked ass. I also wanted to have a deep conversation at dinner about being grown ups last Saturday, but coloring on the placemat and talking about the properties of bubbles with Bean was just as cool. Deep conversations happen in this tribe space anyhow. I just consider myself fortunate to be able to keep up with you and PB through this medium, especially because I get to piggyback on your cloud parenting. Hopefully soon (fingers crossed).
    Sincerely, Palmer Friend

  2. Wow. I don't put any thought into the friendship/tribe thing. I think my brain is too busy keeping up with 5 very socially/athletically active kids sprinkled in with massive drama from an ex-husband, my husband's ex-wife and 3 stepkids... there is no time left for friendships anyhow. I exchange small talk with the parents of the friends of my kids (and shamefully I admit sometimes I don't even know their names, last name nor have I been in their houses). I trudge through the day, I get 15% of what needs done done and I keep telling myself one day I'll be organized, my house clean (and finished) and I'll have friends.


    Good for you for having time to even think about it let alone act upon your concepts.

  3. I too quickly put people in my tribe bucket, if you will.
    (my friend organization looks a lot more messy than yours.. Yours is so.. Formulaic. But I wouldn't expect any different)
    Then when I get shit on by people I thought were in my tribe, I quickly want to oust everyone.. Especially if I can do it without their knowing.
    Most days I'm just thankful there are a few people who dont hate me.. Friends are just an added bonus.