Why you might want to rethink using the word ‘tribe’ for your business community

Before we get started, I want to make it clear that this post is not intended as a judgement against anyone. I’m not pointing fingers or saying that you’re wrong if you use the word ‘tribe’, I’m just pointing out a couple of things that you might not be aware of so that you can make an informed choice.

Okay, now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get into the details.

The words we use have enormous weight, and will have a range of different meanings depending on the context in which they’re used, as well as the circumstances of the person on the receiving end. Language that may seem completely innocuous to one person may carry a completely different set of connotations to another.

The word ‘tribe’ has been a popular choice amongst online marketers to describe their business communities and audiences for ages, but especially since marketing guru Seth Godin’s book Tribes came out in 2014.

Now, I have a bit of a problem with this, for two reasons.

Firstly, ‘tribe’ is a racially sensitive word.

Now, I don’t feel like I’m the most qualified person to talk about this, but I do want to bring this to your attention and encourage you to go and do some research of your own.

The word tribe comes from Latin and originally related to the division of Roman voters into three factions, but it has been used throughout history by European colonists to describe the indigenous people who inhabited the lands they colonised, in fact, the word ‘tribal’ was often used synonymously with ‘savage’ or ‘primitive’. It is considered by many to be an offensive term, particularly to African and Native American (First Nations) people.

Even if it is not considered to be offensive by some, to use such a racially charged word in your marketing unthinkingly (or unknowingly) seems very problematic to me, but like I said, do your research and decide for yourself. Here are a couple of resources I found helpful: this, this and this.

Secondly, using ‘tribe’ in this way, is overused, clichéd and jargony.

The internet is a hotbed of trends, with words going in and out of fashion every day, and as writers and marketers we have to keep up and be constantly tweaking our copy and our language to make sure it feels fresh and relevant.

It’s a never-ending cycle: words become fashionable so everyone uses them, all the time, and then they start to lose their meaning and become hackneyed clichés. We have hundreds and thousands of words in the English language, and we have no excuse for resorting to the words that everyone else is using. Apart from anything else, it’s boring, and if there’s one thing I know you and your business are NOT, it’s boring.

Words to use instead

There are a plethora of gorgeous, luscious words you can use to describe your audience or community which haven’t yet been used to death. I would always recommend looking up the etymology and historical usage of the words before you pick one, but why not give one of these a try?

Society

People

Horde

Troupe

Family

Kindreds

Company

Club

Gang

Crew

Squad

Fellowship

Pack

Pool

Troops

Union

Sodality

Circle

Sisterhood/Sorority

Alliance

Band

Bunch

Guild

Ring

League

Order

Coterie

Set

Assembly

Syndicate

Friends

House/Haus*

Folks/Folx*

*these are LGBTQ+ terms so be aware of how you’re using them if you’re not a part of that community

An opportunity to get creative

And if you really want to push the boat out and craft something which is unmistakably YOU, then I recommend doing a bit of brainstorming or crowd-sourcing (i.e. asking your audience) and coming up with an original term that no one else has. Think of Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters, Beyonce’s Beyhive, Amy Walsh’s Imaginauts, or Andy J Pizza’s Creative Pepperonis.

What term do you use to describe your community?

I’d love to know – shoot me an email or drop into my DMs on Instagram and let me know. My personal preference is ‘peeps’ – short for people. It’s not the most creative term but it’s short and sweet, gender-neutral, and friendly. I’ve also been known to use ‘lovelies’, ‘circle’ and plain old ‘community’.