Family Is

Over the last half decade I’ve been running into more and more organizations who co-opt the term family to describe how they hope people feel about being part of them.

Is it possible for members of a workplace, religious or community group, or neighbourhood to grow this close? Absolutely. The vast majority of the time this does not happen, though, and it seems insincere and vaguely Newspeak-y to act otherwise.

Your idea of the term family may not line up with my examples of how one functions. I know people who assembled a chosen family after being cut off from their biological one and others who draw a bright, red line between those they are related to through blood, marriage and adoption and everyone else in the world. That’s ok.

Family Is

  • Genuinely wanting the best for someone.
  • Knowing about a loved ones medical, religious or ethical diet restrictions and making sure they have more than enough to eat when they come to visit.
  • Adopted. Biological. Foster. Step. Once removed. Chosen.
  • Helping someone move in the middle of winter.
  • Mutual unconditional love and acceptance.
  • Holding the fussy baby so a new parent can finally shower and grab a bite to eat.
  • Being thrilled when a loved one lands the perfect job or introduces you to their new significant other.
  • Slogging through the grief together after a death.
  • Saying, “come sleep in my spare room until you get back on your feet!”
  • A soft place to fall.

It cannot be compelled into existence. Deciding that an organization or group is a family because you like the sound of the word or want people to remain loyal to the group is about as effective as writing down the name of your favourite extinct animal on a piece of paper, taping it to a cat and then calling the local zoo to ask what they would recommend feeding a [brontosaurus, mammoth, dodo, golden toad, etc.].

I propose that organizations who want to emphasize how well they treat their members or how close everyone is either make up a new word or dust off and re-imagine old terms like horde, sodality or coterie.


What do you think of organizations who refer to their members as a family? Do you agree with my alternatives to that word?


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7 Responses to Family Is

  1. Many [biological] families meet the definitions you offered, but just as many don’t.  If we are at all honest, I would guess that the vast majority of bona fide families are partially or wholly dysfunctional!

    Consequently, the word has lost an absolute meaning.  It now means just about anything.  So, it can be applied anywhere and everywhere.

    Does that make any sense?

    • Flat Stanley

      “I would guess that the vast majority of bona fide families are partially or wholly dysfunctional.”

      Flat Stanley suggests that the difficulty in accepting the idea of “family” is that the concept is rooted in a false idea. “Family” is held up as the standard, and any imperfections exist only as blemishes, skin deep, easily healed, temporary.

      When has there ever been such a thing as the Perfect Family? Never. But for a lot of us, and by “us,” FS means people with the time, skills and money to post on blogs, Family provides the nurturing and care, no how matter how dysfunctional, that lets us grow up and try to be better. Family condemns us when we fail and rallies to our side under certain, ever-changing circumstances. So maybe the groups that promise family are spot-on?

      • I hadn’t thought of that definition of family before, FS. 

        What about the idea that most of these groups are _not_ going to be part of our lives in 5, 10, 20 years? Most people don’t have the same job, attend the same church, or volunteer at the same non-profit for their entire adult lives. 

        Family seems like too permanent a word to apply to transitory stuff like this. What do you think?

        • Flat Stanley

          FS did not consider the idea of contact time in thinking of family . . .  but, thanks to the World Wide Web and social networking, Flat Stanley and spouse now maintain light-touch, long-term relationships with a geographically diverse group of people whose common denominator is membership in Toastmasters. Nobody set out to make it like family, yet when we meet up with these people, many of whom we nurtured and coached through their own communication and leadership journeys, it is with a strong sense of appreciation and connection. The difference is, the connection is based on membership in an organization rather than membership by birth.

          Therefore, the expectations surrounding the nature of the relationships is very different–it’s not family-level personal, and it is free of family-level sets of obligations. And yet, there are expectations. These expectations are based on encouragement and appreciation of each other’s personal development. The family size (number of relationships and acquaintances) ebbs and flows and the depth of each relationship depends upon the effort, or investment, each person devotes to the goals of the organization.

          Agreed, calling something “family” doesn’t make it so. The sense of family comes from each member.

    • I do see where you’re coming from. Yes, there are a lot of dysfunctional families out there. 

      What bothers me the most is the manipulation behind the use of that word. The places where we work, attend religious services ( for some), volunteer or participate in social activities already have some sort of value or we wouldn’t continue to be a part of them.  Trying to force them into parts of our lives in which they don’t actually fit just doesn’t seem intellectually honest.

  2. Twyseschoch

    most of the time when they talk like this, I am suspicious that they are going for absolute loyalty from the employees, but nothing of that sort from the top people in return.  emotion is used to control employees who ought to be looking out for themselves.

    I also find it insulting to most families, as I have enjoyed much friendly camaraderie with coworkers while I have never thought of them as family.  family is so much bigger and better and enduring than coworker relationships.

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