Should You Date Outside Your Tribe?

Feb 10, 2012 | Updated Apr 11, 2012

With Valentine's Day approaching, here's an interesting letter I got recently, applying to both men and women:

Hi Dr. Ali,

I just bought and read your book on my Kindle this weekend and as a 28-year-old Persian girl born in America, was wondering how you think your principles would work with Persian men. I am at a point where I am ready to settle down and it seems like all the Persian men just want to play around.

The principles in your book make so much sense but it just seems like the Persian community has its own dating rules... What's your take? Forget the Persian men who play around and start dating guys from all backgrounds? -- Mary M.

Well, well. I hope some of you are out fishing right now, because we're about to open up a big can of worms here. Let's talk about dating within your tribe, and whether it's a good idea or not.

First, let's think about where these tribes come from. Until recently, people used to live and die within 10 miles of where they were born. Similar people concentrating in one area made up cities and countries.

Then, planes, trains and automobiles allowed people to move to potentially nicer spots, like America, Australia, Canada and Brazil. So those countries have seriously multi-ethnic populations now.

Interestingly, after those immigrants put themselves through all that trouble to leave, they re-created in the new world miniature versions of their homeland -- Little Italies, Koreatowns, Little Tokyos, Tehrangeles and so on.

I'm all for preservation of cultural and linguistic heritage (and have written about it before). But if all your food, music and company's all going to be from the old country, then why bother ever leaving the old country?

Usually, it's for the economic opportunity. But the treasure immigrants stumble upon is diversity. In the same way that your immune system strengthens by exposure to different environments, so does your mind expand by exposure to different people and their languages, traditions and ideas. Come for the sizzle; stay for the steak.

Now let's use Mary's case to illustrate. There are about 1 million Iranians out of 300 million in the U.S. To limit yourself to that 0.3 percent of the population through some self-imposed rule is to deny yourself the abundance of the universe -- and the opportunity for growth it's offering through diversity.

If the right guy happens to be Iranian -- hey, game on. But in this country, there's a 99.7 percent chance he won't be. In any case, guys from other backgrounds will appreciate you more (because to them you're exotic).

This even has a name: "hybrid vigor." Evidence shows the more the immune systems between mother and father differ, the better their children can fight off certain infections.

That's the health part. As for smarter: If you raise your kid bilingual, he's going to be more verbally adept and better at picking up languages. Not only that, but there's new research showing that bilingual kids receive a host of other cognitive benefits.

For example, children who speak two languages test higher on executive function skills than monolingual kids. What are executive function skills good for, you ask? Everything: response inhibition, working memory, organizational skills, reasoning, problem solving and abstract thinking. Also, scientists speculate that a lifetime of living with two languages protects against age-related cognitive decline. Think of it as long-term brain insurance.

As for better-looking -- scientists have conclusively proven that halfsies, hapas, biracials and multiracials are just plain hot. Kidding aside, psychologists hypothesize that average features are the most attractive. Perhaps mixed-race kids end up with more average features instead of reinforcing the idiosyncrasies of a single ethnicity.

So. If there are so many advantages to dating and mating outside your tribe, why do so many people in the U.S. go out of their way to stay within their tribe? Parental pressure may have something to do with it. Anecdotally, Indian and Jewish parents can get pretty rabid about marrying only a desi or MOT. And perhaps there's some primitive, selfish-gene mechanism at work here, too. By marrying within the tribe, maybe you stand a better chance of perpetuating genes similar to your own.

But I believe there are some other factors going on here. One is simply fear of the unknown. You're comfortable with your own tribe and culture, but those other people? Their ideas and traditions are frankly a little weird and scary.

Actually, it goes beyond that. Somewhere deep down inside, in the dark corners of your mind that you would never expose to daylight scrutiny, you secretly think that your culture is superior to theirs.

Maybe you're particularly open-minded and don't think that way. But I'm pretty sure that most Americans think they're cooler than everyone else. I'm pretty sure the Japanese think that way, too. And the French. And the Chinese, Italians, Germans and most definitely the Iranians.

And you know what? They can't all be right, which means they're all wrong. And that's the honest truth.

Being attached to such randomly assigned entities as your ethnicity, culture and even name is like being attached to a roll of a die: "Omigod, I'm a five! Five is the best number, like, ever! Fives rule! All you non-fives suck!"

Sounds silly, doesn't it? And yet people do exactly that all the time, and are willing to beat up others with a different number. That "number" sometimes shows up as being white, black, Hutu, Tutsi, Serbian, Croatian, Israeli, Arab, Hittite, Phoenician, Roman, Trojan, Carthaginian, Merovingian, Spartan, Babylonian, Assyrian or any other number of arbitrary labels that have since expired or will soon.

There are cognitive biases -- such as the "mere exposure effect," which makes us prefer things we've seen before -- that make us consistently behave in such irrational ways. All you have to do is randomly assign red and blue jerseys to a bunch of preschoolers, and soon they'll say the other team is less deserving of candy.

This wouldn't be so much of a problem if attachment to identity didn't cause a feeling of separation -- what Alan Watts called "the illusion of being this isolated bag of skin."

The price of holding on to the illusion of separation is the loss of a much more expanded vision of ourselves as infinite beings. When you see yourself as one with your different-looking neighbors, it's not a stretch to include people on the other side of the world as well. And from there, it's easy to include other animals in the fellowship. And then maybe rocks and water and stars and everything else are a part of you, too. That's why it's called a universe -- all one. Tat tvam asi -- you're it.

And that expansiveness, that inclusion -- that is real love, and an infinitely rich life. Exclusion (manifesting as identity, ethnocentrism and nationalism) is ego, smallness and a limited life.

So to get back to the original question that motivated this article: If you find a companion who is a partner and catalyst in your continued growth who just happens to be in your tribe, go for it. At the same time, realize that dating outside of your tribe is an opportunity for even greater growth, learning and expansiveness, both for you and your future offspring. I leave you with this from Joseph Campbell:

"We must recognize the various tribes we belong to and begin extricating ourselves from the unexamined assumptions each of them mistakes for the truth." And ain't that the truth.

For more by Dr. Ali Binazir, click here.

For more on relationships, click here.

For love advice for smart, strong women, get my book The Tao of Dating: The Smart Woman's Guide to Being Absolutely Irresistible. Now available as book, ebook, audiobook, on Kindle™, and Sinai ForeverTablet™.

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