October 5, 2014

Why People are Friendlier in Small Towns

I just read the most interesting op-ed from the LA Times. It posed the idea that the rudeness we have come to expect from people in our everyday interactions has to do with the fact that our societies have gotten too big. Apparently there is science behind the thought that as we live in larger and larger communities where we don't really know each other, our civility decreases.

What interested me most about this is that it pretty much applies scientific thinking to what most of us in the south have always known....folks in smaller communities are friendly.

I'm not saying this only applies to the south, but that's my point of reference (not to mention the focus of this blog). And there are absolutely some terribly rude southerners (just as there are rude people everywhere). But friendliness in small southern towns is just not an anomaly.

According to the LA Times article, people in smaller communities are friendlier because their reputation depends on it. When you feel known and respected in your community, you're more likely to behave better towards people. And alternately, I guess being surrounded by strangers means you don't care as much about protecting your reputation.

Growing up in the small town of Cookeville, Tennessee, being surrounded by strangers was a foreign concept for me. It's not like it was Mayberry or anything, but I just can't remember a time of venturing out and not running into someone who knew me or my family.

Even now when I go back to visit (after living in Knoxville for nearly 14 years!), I always see a familiar face. Maybe it's my preschool teacher or someone my mom used to work with, or somebody I went to church with growing up or maybe a member of my own family. I like to think I would try not to be rude no matter where I am, but the idea of displaying that type of behavior in front of someone who has known me all my life gives me a bad feeling (thus demonstrating that the science mentioned in the article is true for me).

One of my life's mottos (as coined by my dad who said this to us while we were growing up) is "Remember who you are and where you come from." I'm not just one person out there in the world, but in lots of ways I'm the product of the lives lived by the people who came before me. My grandparents, while far from perfect, stood for things that were honest, good and true. And they tried to instill that in my parents who wanted the same for me.

Ultimately, the biggest takeaway I get from articles like this is the importance of community. For awhile my community in Knoxville centered on my college experience. It was sort of a ready-made community with lots of avenues to be involved and connected. After college, I went through a pretty long period of feeling disconnected because most of the friends I had made moved away and I stayed. I had to work really hard to meet people and find new ways to connect and create community. And it's probably just been the last two or three years where I have really felt more plugged in.

It doesn't matter where we go or who we encounter (whether strangers or family), we still have an opportunity to impact the world for good. And it might be something as simple as holding the door for someone.

Maybe you've gone through a transition in life and feel disconnected. I hope that's not the case, but if it is, I want to encourage you. You are not alone. There are other people out there who want to hear your stories, and will laugh at your jokes. Don't spend another day believing the lie of alone.

As we each realize our value (to God, to each other, to our communities), rudeness becomes less of an issue because we are free to love each other instead. And I believe that can happen in communities of every size. But I'm always going to be grateful I grew up in small town. I've been lucky to travel all over the world, but I always love going back home. There's something about being known that gives a kind of comfort anonymity can't hold a candle to.