6.10. The Secret to Strong Communities

Communities develop organically around people’s shared emotions—not through pummeling people into finding meaning.

In sociologist Randall Collins’s book on Interaction Ritual Chains, we have something that approaches a grand theory of what makes communities tick.

It takes into account biological, psychological, and social factors. It works with one-on-one interactions, all the way up to mass movements. And it provides a big clue for how we can strengthen our communities.

It goes like this:

We’re all motivated by our desire for emotional energy.

We want to feel energized and inspired. We want fulfillment, meaning, and purpose. And we want to share those feelings with other people.

That’s what we’re aiming for, when we get together. From the biggest, most public meetings to the most private, one-on-one encounters, we’re trying to all feel good together.

To do that, we use symbols and rituals.

They can be formal or informal. But either way, those things amplify our emotional energy—for better and for worse.

There’s nothing more fulfilling than people rallying together around a powerful symbol, or participating together in a meaningful ritual.

But at the same time, there’s nothing more draining and dispiriting than being forced to endure some boring ritual, full of symbols that don’t mean anything to you.

After all, we don’t all attach the same meanings to things. A symbol or ritual that’s powerful to one person can be totally meaningless to another.

So if we want to strengthen our communities, we need to think about the symbols and rituals we use, and the emotions they activate.

It’s not so much the content of our interactions as the emotional consequences that determine how successful they are.

Were we on the same page? Did we feel a connection? Did we share the same meaningful emotions?

Many of us feel alienated because much of the time, we’re being told by a teacher, a boss, a pastor, a politician, a salesperson, or some other authority that something is important, that we’re supposed to be feeling something—and we don’t buy it.

They’re trying to set the emotional tone, trying to get us invested in their symbols and rituals—and they fail.

And usually, because they’re in charge, and they’re already invested in them, they just keep trying to cram it down our throats.

So if you’re trying to build a community, and other people aren’t as engaged as you are—try something else!

Don’t get too attached to how you do things. If the symbols and rituals you’re using aren’t doing the job…you’ve got to find some other ones that work.

Communities develop organically around people’s shared emotions—not through pummeling people into finding meaning in what’s meaningful to you.

People don’t want to be told what’s important, or how to feel. If it’s too clear that you’re orchestrating everything, overstructuring everything, determining everything—they’re going to see through you.

This is an especially big problem in schools, businesses, religious groups, and other institutions that try to script everything and manufacture the emotional results they want, instead of responding to the emotional reality.

So, don’t do that!

It’s not easy to build strong communities. But being responsive to and tinkering with symbols, rituals, and emotional energy is the closest thing to a silver bullet that we have.


This is the 102nd in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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