What’s Your Tribe’s Secret Language?


I picked up a couple of Nancy Mitford novels while I was on vacation in Taos a few weeks ago. Mitford wrote acidly funny, impeccably observed novels about her own background, which was as a child of the minor aristocracy growing up in Great Britain between the world wars.

It’s probably a bad idea for me to read any of the Mitfords (there were six sisters, all brilliant, some nasty, each with her own brand of insanity), because I find myself wanting to refer to things as heaven, or begin sentences with Any Danube peasant knows better than to . . .

Nancy Mitford became notorious in 1954 for a semi-satirical essay she wrote about “U” and “Non-U” pronunciation, the “U” standing for upper class.

(She didn’t coin the term “U,” but she did make it ubiquitous. U vs. Non-U was still a rowdy discussion when I first went to London in the 1980s.)

She outlined the situation neatly in her earlier bestselling novel The Pursuit of Love, in which the family patriarch is outraged because a young girl who’s a friend of the family is learning to say note-paper at boarding school, instead of writing-paper, and mirror instead of looking-glass.

Like her female characters, Nancy Mitford didn’t attend school at all, and thus couldn’t go to university as she had very much wanted to do. But by damn, she would have endured torture before she said note-paper.

It’s not about money

Mitford’s observations caused a lot of hand-wringing about snobbery and social class, which I suspect she found hilarious. She was born and bred to be a comic novelist, a brilliant observer but unable and unwilling to take anything very seriously.

What I find fascinating about it all is how fiercely tribal Mitford was, and how good she was at describing her tribe’s customs.

It wasn’t just about money. At various points in their lives, the real Mitford sisters lived on much more modest means than Nancy’s fictional characters did. (Money was a significant factor in the girls not going to school, for example.)

In fact, The Pursuit of Love details precisely the conflict between the rich middle class and the poorer (but in Mitford’s eyes, much more attractive) aristocrats and landed gentry.

Every tribe has a language

Whether it’s rabid fans of a sports team, residents of a neighborhood, members of a social class, or just people who share an interesting obsession, every tribe has a language.

When you’re writing to persuade a particular tribe, you’ve got to find the language that they use every day. Every time you say note-paper when they expect writing-paper, you send a signal that you’re not one of them.

Develop the novelist’s habit of writing down scraps of conversation that you hear. Keep file folders of customer comments, and go through it looking for interesting turns of phrase. Don’t “clean up” client testimonials too much—leave the linguistic quirks and oddities.

Listen more than you talk, and read more than you write.

If you’re building a tribe

You don’t just have to stick with the tribes that exist already. Creating your own is one of the most effective (and fun) ways to build a business or project.

When you build a tribe, remember that every tribe needs its own language. (The six Mitford sisters had one just among themselves, in fact.)

Over on Copyblogger, we’ve started to use the expression Third Tribe to mean “smart, ethical business based on great content and solid direct response copywriting.”

When I write about audience there, I talk about each of us building a village of customers.

We define ourselves as content net creators, as opposed to the “harpooners.” (Defining “the other” is also a big part of creating a tribe. I try to do this with respect and without vilifying anyone.)

When we overcome objections and build trust with customers, it’s called killing trolls.

You don’t have to force this “secret language.” (In fact, trying to force it is probably a terrible idea.) But you keep your ears open for the ideas and metaphors your villagers respond to.

When you come up with a good turn of phrase, keep using it. Repetition is your friend.

How about you? What’s the secret language of your tribe?

Flickr Creative Commons image by aturkus


  1. I’ve loved the idea of tribes ever since Seth Godin detailed the concept in his book, Tribes. Specifically in regards to what you say above about building a village of customers. I believe that one of the best ways for this to happen is to ask people–potential fans or tribe members–for advice and feedback. When a movie test screens for an audience months before the release, you’re engaging those people and building a tribe (and buzz around the movie). For a while I’ve thought that the same concept should be used for writing–not just novels, but shorter works like short stories, essays, anecdotes, poems, etc. So a few months ago, I set about to create a site that allowed for written creativity to be nurtured that way, and the result is TypeTribe.com, a site that will launch in a few months. Please excuse the shameless plug, but if you’re interested in being notified when the site launches, you can go to the current site (http://typetribe.com) and enter your e-mail so you can be notified when the site launches (of course there are incentives for people who sign up early for this launch).

    Thanks for writing about this idea so enlighteningly.

  2. Suzannah says:

    Hmm, interesting. I’ve often wondered if I tend to use phrases or terms on my website that only make sense to other writers. Sometimes I think this will put off newcomers, but at the same time, my site is FOR writers. Don’t know if I’ve coined any tribe-specific phrases just yet, but I will definitely be more aware of them if they pop up.

    Suzannahs last blog post..7 Foolproof Ways to Get Your Book Rejected

  3. Nice to see the origin of tribes concept. Ethan Waters wrote a book about this a few years ago and it is funny how my group of friends all read and shared the book. Hanging out with a group of friends who were all transplant marketers in the Midwestfor F500, we had our own language, rules, and roles.

    Seth Godin TED video is nothing new, or as Michael Stipe said,”I get paid to overstate the obvious.” I think the power of tribes, networked social groups, and context needs to be constantly repeated. This is how we get authentic responses and tribes and people connecting once again.

    More here on my attempt to overstte the obvious. http://bit.ly/DrOCs

  4. Jody says:

    Enhancing communication with readers is what every writer strives for. The concept put forth in this post is a giant step in the right direction, for which I say thank you in all caps.

  5. I think it’s been hard for me to pick out certain phrases that my tribe uses. I’m a pretty good listener, but only recently have I been able to tune into my readers. I’ve been blogging for over 3 years and 1.5 at my last blog.

    Listening is a skill that I’m learning to harness. This post just proves that I still need to take my listening skills to the next level. That means doing even more writing about topics that they are interested in, not just my interests. It’s a fine balance.

    Karl Staib – Work Happy Nows last blog post..The Target in the Bull(y)’s Eye

  6. I guess that’s why it’s a good idea to write or work on what you love, as chances are high that you belong to the tribe and know the tribe language.

  7. Laroquod says:

    I really don’t enjoy tribal ingroup/outgroup thinking. It’s hard to avoid and I’m sure it helps build readership but so would killing those who refuse. This is my exaggerated way of saying that tribes are an imaccurate way of perceiving the world and the main danger in starting one is that people will take their tribe seriously as a sign of superiority and that may well cause s lot of grief for a lot of other people. Ultimately if I conscipusly used anti-outgroup lingo the worst that could happen is that people would listen, and I try not attempt things that I really wouldn’t want to succeed too wildly, know what I mean? No outgroups.

  8. Sonia Simone says:

    Laroquod, I do understand that, and I try to be very aware of the negative side of tribalism in my communication.

    Where I’ve ended up with it is that, at the end of the day, we’re a tribal creature whether we want to be or not. We form tribes around bowling leagues and departments in companies and whether or not we buy organic milk.

    But we also have the capacity to educate and inform ourselves so that we don’t throw rocks at the other tribes. Or villages. Or whatever metaphor you might like to use.

  9. Laroquod, I also understand your post. For example, when I write a short story, I write it alone. When I’m actually writing it, I don’t want a bunch of different people chiming in with their ideas–I want my vision executed the way I want.

    However, as soon as I finish the story, my first thought is, “Is this any good?” I have a few options at that point. I can send it out to publishers who will accept or reject it (odds are for rejection), and most likely I won’t hear from them for 2-6 months. Or I can send the story to a few friends to ask what they think, but friends, as great as they are, are unreliable. You can’t expect them to follow through in a timely manner or give you the feedback you want.

    I could also post it on my blog, but few blog readers will stick around to read a 5,000 story.

    That’s how I came up with the idea of TypeTribe. It’s a place to form a tribe the way you want your tribe to be. And not just one general tribe of followers like on Twitter, but specific mini tribes for every individual work that you write. I’m creating the site, but I already know that I’m going to be one of its biggest users. Although writing is an solitary act for me, I always want to know what other people think.

  10. Oooooh its a lovely one…a rare piece of info that can be put to use in so many creative ways


    How to Write a Writings last blog post..Elements of a Good Thesis Statement

  11. I love your concept of the 3rd tribe, and it’s really beginning to sink in for me. I studied some of the harpoon-type tactics, but I felt more drawn to people like Havi & Naomi, and now you. :) So now I get that there’s a way to make it in a new tribe.

    Your description of language here is great. It’s something I’ve been keeping an eye on, personally. Now it’s just time to start including more of it in my writing and speaking, which is the trickier part. ;)

    Nathalie Lussiers last blog post..Saying Thank You: Raw Food Gratitude

  12. terena says:

    Excellent writing. And as a bonus, an author I still haven’t read. How did I miss the Mitords?


    terenas last blog post..How to Tell When You’ve Reached the Limit of What You Can Manag

  13. Renbaudus says:

    In my tribe we have a not-so-secret language too.
    We talk about ourselves as nutriti, going to the schola every day, listening to boring lectiones before going to Vespers. One day, as a miles christi, I will go to Terra Sancta. Our logo is a cross and our motto is ‘Deus Vult’. Pretty good? Yep, our campaign was handled by the best PR guys from the Vatican :)

  14. Kevin Walsh says:

    Great article, Sonia. And aren’t those novels absolute heaven? :-)

    I once had a landlord whose first wife was Nancy Mitford’s niece (he moved on to a second wife, she to a second and third husband).

    Talk about a tribe…

    Kevin Walshs last blog post..Want to remember it? Forget it instead.

  15. Sonia Simone says:

    The Mitfords & their tribe definitely cheated on the “tribe expansion” thing by marrying so many people. :)

    @Renbaudus, excellent example!

  16. Peter Beck says:

    I belong to my family’s tribe (the oldest definition that fits that term), a bodywork tribe (kettlebells and CST), a martial arts tribe (more like a mish mashed village), a Twilight/New Moon/fanfiction tribe, and both a medical and healthcare IT tribe.

    Most of these are based in live contacts; some are entirely virtual. They all have their own lingo, for brevity if nothing else (easier to say, “C&J,” than to describe its 3 linked movements). But some probably wouldn’t exist at all without the secret tribal lingo.

    Especially virtually, and especially when what defines the tribe are discussions of ideas, it really is all about building conversations out of blocks of the secret tribal vocab. The tribal lingo isn’t the tribe, but the tribe wouldn’t exist, wouldn’t be able to talk to itself, without the lingo.

  17. The language is, indeed, a key to tribal identity. I had a hard time fitting in with the ‘cool kids’ at first – in part – because I used individualized, non-standardized vocabulary that didn’t fit into any of molds or patterns they were expecting.

  18. I loved this. “Every tribe has a lnguage”. When combined with, “language is necessary for sharing wisdom”, we get to this “Every tribe has a wealth of knowledge”. By allowing them to express themselves, we are adding a great treasure to our wisdom. Unfortunately, some tribes are on the path to extinction and we may never be able to recover those lost treasures.

  19. deborah says:

    I had a hard time following and relating to this post. Maybe it’s just too early for me. Or maybe it’s because I don’t have a tribe.
    .-= deborah´s last blog ..Disclosure Policy Creative Gift Ideas =-.

  20. Jessica says:

    Is this related to The Thrid Tribe of which Darren Rowse a part?
    Jessica´s last [type] ..Cho Yung Tea User Reviews

  21. Sonia Simone says:

    Jessica, this post isn’t about Third Tribe, exactly, but Darren and I are partners in that project, along with Brian Clark and Chris Brogan.

  22. Will Pena says:

    Wow. How do you find out peoples language when there are so many of them?

    I understand the concept though. When I worked as a minister for a particular church (in the past), they had an uncanny ability to create new words and use them repeatedly. It was where I learned to use the word “Awesome” in every sentence, or phrases like “I was really impacted by that message” (which really means constipated, but I could not tell them that).

    So I will be on the lookout for the words, and make up a few of my own.

    Great post.

  23. Adam says:

    Very interest concepts writing you have here.. you have defined it in a whole new meaning of blogging.. great stuff…
    I’m still new to this… nice to see different perspective of all writers… great work

  24. Long time reader – 1st time commenter :)

    Sonia – you are truly awesome! You bring such great insight and understanding into an industry that can seem so elusive (when in reality, it’s not).

    Thank you so much!
    Keith Gilmore´s last [type] ..1 Key to Increase Your Online Conversion


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