How to Create a Community

The gift is to the giver… it cannot fail. -Walt Whitman

Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift has taught me a lot; for one thing, it explains how gifts are the currency of community. The lesson: if you want to make someone a part of your community, be generous to them. If they accept your kindness (and especially if they are generous in return) they are signalling to you that they want to be in your group as well. In this way gift-giving binds us together. We become increasingly in each others’ debt. 

Early European settlers to Pacific North America noticed a lot of the native people applying this idea through rituals:

When someone in one of these tribes was mistakenly insulted, his response, rather than turning to a libel lawyer, was to give a gift to the man who had insulted him; if indeed the insult was mistaken, the man would make a return gift, adding a little extra to demonstrate his good will, a sequence that has the same structure (back and forth with increase) as the potlatch itself. When a gift passes from hand to hand in this spirit, it becomes the binder of many wills (Page 36).

Hyde explains that this kind of response would do far more than make for a healthy, happy community, it would create a spiritus mundi (a unanimous heart) within the tribe. They were showing that they considered their strength to be in each other, rather than in their own material gain.

Applying this idea

We all like to feel we have strong, supportive relationships. But how, in these rushed times, with friends

around the world and so many demands on our time, can we apply this kind of wisdom? Here are a few ideas you can try:

  1. Say it with art. We all appreciate getting a handmade card with a poem in it. Any kind of artistry forces us to be considerate and original and people always love it when you make that kind of effort –whether you’re a natural artist or not. It’s a bit like trying to speak to a local in their own language –they’ll love you for trying.
  2. Don’t let them pay. The Gift tells a story of a daugher in Minnesapolis who agreed to donate a life-saving kidney to her mother, but only if her mother would buy her an expensive fur coat. The mom felt betrayed and held-hostage. The daughter saw the gift as a transaction, so traded what could have been a stronger bond with her mother, for a coat.
  3. Just as with birthday presents, it’s not so much what is given, but the meaning behind it that matters most. So…
  4. Say something sappy. Don’t just give a present and leave it at that. Say something nice to add meaning to the gift, to let them know WHY you’re giving it.
  5. Be on the look-out. Do you have a coworker who stops by your desk every day just to say hi?  If you look for the signs, you might be surprised to find that a lot of people around you are trying to create bonds with you as well.
  6. And finally (the most obvious of all) look for ways to give your time.

Want more?

If this interests you, you might enjoy reading:

  • Guy Kowasaki’s The Art of Creating a Community (a blog post) offers some practical advice for using technology and ideas to grow a community. Or,
  • Seth Godin’s book on “Tribes,” which totally applies here. In fact, one of the reasons I’m writing this blog (besides trying to give something meaningful to the people I care about: a gift :-) is because I want to create a group of people who collaborate to help each other improve their quality of life. I want to develop a strong Quality of Life Tribe. I want to belong to a group of people who generously support each other in their efforts to improve their qualituy of life. Here are some tips on developing a tribe.
  • A great new post from Liz Strauss The Only Way to Attract a Vibrant, High-Trust Community online. An online community isn’t built or befriended, it’s connected by offering and accepting. Community is affinity, identity, and kinship that make room for ideas, thoughts, and solutions.


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