Community Comes From Difference, Not Just Commonality

03/28/2014 04:06 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2014

Nowadays, we all live in a fast-paced world; even those of us who drop-out or turn-off, live in this world. Fast is the air we breathe. We also live a in a highly "mobile" world -- we move around a lot and we are constantly on our digital devices. In this context, it is typical to hear people express a longing for "community," for a kind of interpersonal closeness rare in the Internet Age. Similarly, marketers seek to create experiences of their brands' stores and products that contribute to a sense of togetherness costumers can have with like-minded consumers. Politicians and policy planners often join the cacophony, extolling community. The assumption in all these narratives is that community is gained exclusively through a focus on commonalities, the current overlap we have with others. This assumption is not exactly true.

Yes, commonalities are important in the beginning of a conversation or a relationship. But to carry through to the experience of community, difference is required.

Commonality -- or sameness -- simply maintains the status quo. To go a step further to community requires people uncovering and considering their differences.

The exploration of difference challenges our "closed reel" of self-identity. This challenge between cohorts can provoke a mutual self-expansion arrived at through the circuitous route of trust, exploration, surprise, and openness. This requires going beyond one's habitual and stereotypical comfort zone. When people expand their familiar such that they have a new and bigger idea of themselves and their world, they instinctually feel vital and in communion with life. This mutual self-expansion via "The Other" is the bedrock of a felt sense of communality that can tolerate the distance across personal circumstance of demographic or disposition.

Sameness can elicit the beginning of an approach to other people. Difference gets you to something more authentic and intimate and wider.

We rightly see the ubiquitous orientation towards sameness in our everyday, daily routines such as greeting rituals. These rituals, for example, often begin with reference to the weather (a joint circumstance) or to past events shared. This quest for matching occurs in modern life and in pre-literate societies. In a "Reacho" ceremony of the Yanomamo in Amazonia, two tribal leaders, before they can negotiate a grievance, squat down facing each other in a turn-taking chant trying to find something -- anything -- in common. But this is simply prelude so they can get down to the negotiation proper.

I am a cognitive anthropologist and I often travel around the world speaking with people about various aspects of their everyday lives. In recent discussions with people from various walks of life and from cities or towns as different as the Bronx and Beijing, one question I recently asked people was: What do you like to do most? Surprising to me, the most common answer everywhere was: Eat out with friends at a local restaurant. I then asked, why? The answers all eluded to the idea that eating with friends is fun and relaxing... and affords "growth." Explanations went something like this:

• When eating with friends, because they are familiar, one can let their guard down, you can be yourself with no pretense and no inhibitions. You are open.
• Just because of this you can begin to find a natural rhythm and allow yourself to experience different (food) tastes and different (personal) points of view in conversation.
• Eating out with friends at a local restaurant is both mundane and unusual -- a venue for "possibility." It can stimulate your imagination as such it induces storytelling.
• Free-flowing, naturally-occurring, non-stereotypical talk -- the talk after polite, opening gambits such as "How was your day? -- is filled with paradoxes: it's simple and complex, repetitive and surprising, predictable and chaotic, arousing and relaxing, all with nuance and a tension created by the fact that you don't know the end at the beginning.
• Surprise and possibility lurk around the next sentence.
• All this helps expand each person's own personal narrative by creating memories that impact on self-identity.
• Memories that impact on self-identity create community.

By virtue of the structure of self, all human beings -- even those who don't shy away from risk -- are conservative. Homo sapiens like the familiar. The past is in the present. Happily, though, the structure of self is itself paradoxical. It is drawn to the valence of the accustomed and seeks its own self-expansion. Community is based on this essential contradiction.

Difference rocks.