On the difference between “friends” and “family”

Members of shared-interest groups and organizations often speak of themselves in terms of family and friendship. You might hear references to “the dojo family,” or “the [style] family” (fill in the name of yours). Attendees at annual trainings or tournaments look forward to seeing old friends (people they might know only through these events), and may describe the event as resembling a family reunion. It’s not uncommon to hear people say their dojo mates and training partners are their best and truest friends.

Shared interest, and especially shared long-term struggle, foster closeness. It’s entirely understandable when people come to speak and feel this way—and not at all wrong. But I want to point out a difference between friends and family; and I want to say that in my view, while family might be an apt metaphor for a dojo or style, no martial arts organization has any business being based on friendship.

Friendship is a fine thing, of course, and my argument is not with friendship, only with its being used as an organizing principle in dojos and other martial arts associations. I’ll admit up front that many if not most of my closest friends, at this stage in my life, are people I’ve come to know through the martial arts, so I could hardly be attacking the idea of dojo friendships.

The problem is, where friends are concerned, we’re selective. We include and exclude based on personal taste and whim. And that’s the difference between friends and family: We choose our friends. We don’t choose our family.

A family reunion is a place where all the kin are welcome—not just your favorite kin, but also the weird uncle, the drunken aunt, her son the parolee, the nieces and nephews screaming and fighting, and your great uncle with the offensive political views. They may sometimes be hard to take, but they’re family, so you listen politely, stick up for them against outsiders, and help them out when you can. And in some crazy way, you love them all.

Among family, you may have some that are also friends. Those are the cousins you see socially all year round—and maybe you speak ill of your less-favored relatives when you’re together. But if the the group of you have a picnic, it’s not a family reunion. That venerable event must be open to everyone in the clan.

If you have a falling out with a friend, you may cease to be friends, but if you fall out with your cousin, you’re still family. You can’t just have him kicked out of the clan. You may both behave badly, but you’re cousins whether you like it or not. That’s a strong motivation, when there’s conflict and disagreement, to find a way to deal with it.

“Blood is thicker than water.”

In a dojo, the “blood” is the desire to train, and everyone who has it is qualified to be family. But they need not be friends. To require them to be so is to depart from the purpose of training.

I knew a dojo where the students were the main source of drinking buddies for the head instructor. It got to be where if a prospective student didn’t fit the mold, they’d be discouraged—one way or another—from joining. If a long-standing member made a change in their social life and no longer played along, they’d be pressured to leave. If two members had a falling out, one would be “favored” and the other would be driven to quit. In my view, this was a social club, not a dojo, and had no business with its pretense to martial arts ideals, which include at a minimum respect for others and a dedication to the resolution of conflict.

I’ve seen cases in perfectly honest dojos where groups of students who enjoy each other turn against individuals they don’t like to train with, and pressure them in ways that make them want to quit. (Does it sound like I’m talking about children? I’m talking about adults.) A good instructor who sees this going on can take measures, but it’s subtle and can go unnoticed until it’s too late.

I’ve seen martial arts associations that have been—for periods of time—not meritocracies, but “amitocracies” (my term), ruled by groups of friends. The result was that favored people rose in stature, the disfavored were disrespected, the ambitious connived to make powerful friends, and the majority simply felt ignored and powerless. Good people left in frustration, and important organizational decisions were made with insufficient input.

The organizations I’ve described were acting on the wrong principle; they were organizing based on friendship. A dojo or style is better thought of as a family, related by the desire and dedication to train. Its members need not like each other, but they must all respect each other, and find ways to work together. They need not resemble each other, but they must find ways to accept and learn from each other. If problems arise, they need to try to solve them with a minimum of damage.

There is so much to be gained from this approach. And isn’t it, on so many levels, a perfectly good metaphor for what we do?

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3 Responses to “On the difference between “friends” and “family””

  1. Interesting post. I can see where a m.a. organization is like a family, with “wise elders” who should be treated with respect and included in decision-making, whether you agree with them or not.
    At the dojo level, though– I have questions: Some people want to make friends and enjoy the people they train with. Are they wrong to do that?
    Also– an unpleasant member can make training unpleasant for everyone and have a bad effect on the dojo. How should they be handled?

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Thanks for writing again, watape. Those are good questions, and I’d be interested to hear what others have to say… I just think friendship is an excellent side benefit of training that has to be kept separate. Training itself has to be the sole focus, when you’re on the mat. But the only way it’s “wrong” to want friends and enjoyment in the dojo is if you start to think it should determine who gets to train and who doesn’t (or if it distracts you when you’re on the mat). People need to be able to work with all kinds; that, too, is part of training. –But that’s just my philosophical position, it doesn’t answer your question about how to handle actual people and issues in the dojo, which can be tricky.

      Anyone out there have any ideas?

  2. serpentstaff Says:

    Just back from a trip, and I see no one has jumped in to comment on this topic… so on to the next one!

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