I was issued the above command prior to being shown a contemporary dance routine which, according to its choreographer, captured the main elements of this word. "Tribal".
The routine was fast, gritty, animalistic, and passionate. It aimed to evoke the sentiment of a specific type or types of tribe, namely those of sub-Saharan African tradition. Although, given the context of this statement (the dance would soon form part of a show celebrating African and Caribbean culture), I was not surprised by the choreographer's interpretation of the word, I was most fascinated by the fact that the dance had already been pidgeonholed into this small corner of an otherwise umbrella term even before I had seen any movements or heard any sounds.
Something that is tribal is, quite simply, of or characteristic of a tribe or tribes. So (removing the scenario from its context for a few moments) why had I been expected to construct images of facial markings, bright patterns, shouting and loud song in my mind in relation to something which I had not yet seen?
American writer Seth Godin takes an alternative point of view. In his book of the same title, the nature of a tribe is explaned on page 1:
"A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs not two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate."
For those of you who haven't read Godin's book, I must point out that this definition immediately follows a synopsis on Joel Spolsky, an emerging leader in the world of technology. Here, the shared interest is programming, and the way of communication is through Spolsky's small NYC software company - a modern tribe of sorts. How far away we are now from our initial concept of the 'tribal'!
Based on these simplified, all-inclusive definitions, should I have been surprised if I were met with a contemporary dance routine illustrating the growth of a white-collar corporation, or of a religion such as Christianity or Islam? Because according to Godin, "the professionals at the CIA are a tribe and so are the volunteers at the ACLU". Next time someone uses the word "tribal", think of Godin's simple definition, and challenge your own initial assumptions on the use of that adjective.