In Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World Vivek Murthy (currently the Surgeon General of the US for the second time) writes about the cultures of connection using a metaphor of bowls of different shapes.
In individualistic cultures like the US, society puts little expectation on contact between people. People often move away from family structures and have many shallow connections with many different people. This “bowl” is wide and shallow with lots of room to move around, explore and meet new people, but not a lot of depth.
In contrast, in collective cultures where people live in close-knit extended family groups, people find a lot of support and are rarely alone. But the abundance of people around who are willing to take part in your life, comes with limitations on individual expression. This bowl is very deep and narrow, with not a lot of space to move around.
Since feeling connected is about more than just having people around, both of these types of cultures can breed loneliness.
What he suggests as the ideal, is a third bowl that brings together the best from the other two.
I find it easier to imagine what he calls the first bowl as a plate. There’s lots of room to move around, but you might also fall off the side. The second bowl is more like a cup. It’s cozy in there with lots of people to support you, but it can get a little too tight. The third bowl (which I imagine as an actual bowl) gives you enough room to move around and be yourself but also offers depth in relationships that aren’t necessarily based on circumstances of birth, but your own choosing.
This goldilocks balance he proposes made me realize that all communities, using the word loosely, might fall on this spectrum. Achieving the balance of that third bowl, perhaps should be a goal we aspire to.
There are communities that have no collective rituals and everyone just comes, gets what they want and goes on alone. There’s no galvanizing purpose or reason to gather. For example, many online courses put people into a Facebook group or Slack channel during the course. The students may get feedback and post about their own projects and successes. This doesn’t mean there’s connection happening. What usually ends up happening is that most people interact with only the teacher and get the most knowledge from them. Unless it’s thoughtfully approached, it can even create competition between students who are self-interested, because they haven’t been sold on a collective mission.
Within the last year I was in such a course and at the end was disappointed with the result. I learned some valuable information from the classes, but since I was promised community, it felt like the value I expected hadn’t been delivered.
Every meeting, online course, gathering of people doesn’t need to foster connection. What’s frustrating is that many groups like the one I describe here often call themselves communities, but don’t provide clear opportunities for people to actually connect. If you need a bowl, a plate doesn’t cut it. The mismatched expectations can make the people who are looking for connection feel worse.
On the other hand, there are communities that are so tight-knit with reinforced rituals and customs that you have to jump through lots of hoops to participate. This can make the community unwelcoming to newcomers and even within the group it is common to feel lonely. When taken to its extreme, this is a cult.
I find cults very interesting to study and watch. Most recently 2 different documentary series about NXIVM showed how very tight-knit groups make it possible for leaders to be manipulative and abusive. They weaponize belonging. What’s fascinating, sad and dangerous about cults is that the initial invitations to participate often look a lot like the invitation to participate in a healthy, non-sex-cult community. For NXIVM it was an invitation for self-improvement within a supportive group.
As people get deeper into the organization, it becomes much more about blindly following the rules, isolating from others who weren’t in the group and ultimately listening to the norms of the group more than listening to yourself.
In the case of a cult, people are being manipulated to act on behalf of the leader. But even without the manipulation, communities that rely too much on norms and the personality of one leader aren’t as successful at connection as the ones that embrace collective decision-making and healthy conflict.
Communities like this make it too easy to feel like you don’t belong, even while performing belonging.
This option is definitely harder to design for than the other two. Community cultures that are like a plate leave connection as up to each individual. Cultures that are more like a cup, often end up requiring fear-based leadership that ignore individual needs in favor of a strict code. It tells people who they have to be in order to belong.
So if the ideal is somewhere in between a plate and a cup, what does that look like?
Murthy writes that “in this third bowl, the sense of common ground would be just as solid as in a traditional culture, but individuals would bond on the basis of personal choice, interests, and ideals...”
This means that a healthy, bowl-like community recognizes each member as an individual. It doesn’t try to tell people who they are, it asks them to show up as themselves. And it embraces the conflict that inevitably follows as a healthy part of being humans together.
As we design our vision for our communities, we should be clear and specific about who we are as leaders and what we stand for, but we should never tell people who they are or should be. We should emphasize the choices, interests and ideals we happen to have in common but understand and embrace that there is much more that we will not have in common.
It’s a lot more work to build bowl-like communities than shallow plate-like ones or stifling cup-like ones. But why shouldn’t we try? The research cited in Murthy’s book makes clear that the loneliness epidemic is literally killing people. There’s a real opportunity to not only make lonely people feel seen and heard but also improve our collective wellbeing by increasing our connections to each other. Connection and belonging are worthwhile goals.