Everything I Ever Learned About Civility I Learned in a Small Town

by Katherine Dalton on September 24, 2010 · 16 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Region & Place


Henry County, KY. Lesson One:  Don’t honk unless it’s friendly.  And for goodness’ sake don’t honk at the Ford stopped interminably at the town’s lone traffic light.  It’s bound to be Miss Carrie, age 82, deciding whether or not she needs to go the bank (right), or straight on home to start dinner (left).  What’s your hurry anyway?  Honk and make her jump and you’ll feel guilty for a month.  Also the older men seated on the courthouse bench will catch you at it.

Watch the witticisms, because everybody’s related.  Chances are the ex-magistrate so deserving of a good lambaste is your eager listener’s third cousin.  If you’re talking to one of your favorite ladies from church, you can be sure there’s a relation.

Speaking of tactlessness, if you put your foot in it at the deacons’ meeting (where all deliberations are confidential), be ready to spend the next two years living it down, because love and a cold and a big mouth cannot be hid.

If there are cars at the funeral home, and there’s no message on your answering machine, call and find out who it is.  Odds are three to two it’s somebody you know, or his uncle.  And keep your suit pressed, because you will be at the funeral home a lot—so much so that your city friends won’t begin to understand it.  But no man is an island in a little place.

Nor is there, in a little place, any real stratification by zip code or any way to ignore the poor.  No matter what your income, it’s likely you will live right around the corner from a trailer.  Even if you don’t, you will see all degrees and all sorts at the post office.  The half-crazy lady with no legs who motors her wheelchair around town with a pug on her lap.   The sweet kids from the Section 8 housing around the block.  The poor and old and thrifty beyond imagining.  The poor and young and thriftless beyond imagining.  And the middle class, who have troubles of their own:  the cancer-ridden, the cancer survivors, the postal clerk who found her brother shot dead.  As you go to get your mail you will find there is no shelter to be had from the full range of your neighbors, including their grief and trouble.  It is not always comfortable, to tell the truth.  But it does keep your head out of the sand.

You will find gossip is for some a source of entertainment, for others a weakness, and for a few a bludgeon.  But gossip can also be the way a community sorts through individual disasters and moral dilemmas so it can take a stand.  You will see there are good things to say about gossip.  It is sometimes medicinal–and often mostly informational, since much of the real news never makes the weekly paper.

Though one day a few of your neighbors may show you just how cold people can be to a man who has been good to them for years, you may be equally astonished to discover how much a friend (and not even a close friend) is willing to bear from others in order to spare you some of the consequences of your own folly.

You will certainly discover, now and again, by chance and mistake, how much charity there is—only often nobody sees it, because it’s not meant to be seen.

Still, keep your nose clean, because your life is not really your own, and not only is the good Lord watching—so are about forty other people.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Extollager September 25, 2010 at 10:31 pm

My great novels reading group (in our eleventh year) should see this. I think folks will identify with what you say. We’re in a town of about 2000 people in rural North Dakota.

avatar dave September 27, 2010 at 9:16 am

Well said. I moved from the outskirts of the Imperial City to a small town – whoa, over 25 years ago. Getting old. Luckily I was still malleable enough to adjust to the local civility.

Honking strikes me as an apt metaphor for most of our current political discourse, and it’s hard not to think – these people leaning on their horns just don’t know each other. It’s far too easy to demonize those with whom we never break bread, or a sweat, and for whatever reason our civic and social lives seem increasingly balkanzied. Politics don’t really matter if you’re looking for a few people to help move that doggone sofa for Miss Carrie, and when you figure out she’s wanting to move the sofa to make room for a hospital bed so her sister can die at home, well – hard for me to say, exactly. Maybe it’s a feeling that we’re working too hard on the wrong things.

avatar Chris September 27, 2010 at 7:54 pm

please don’t honk to be friendly. The horn is supposed to be about signaling danger or avoiding it, not saying hello. You can call the person later and say you saw them driving such and such a place. You might cause unnecessary distraction that can result in accidents. I agree that you shouldn’t do it to hurry people along as you are unlikely to see what they are seeing but please don’t use it as a substitute for waving even if your wave is unlikely to be witnessed.

avatar Taliesin September 27, 2010 at 8:16 pm

I confess top being conflicted. Part of me sees this as a life connected to my fellow townspeople, and the other–dare I say more rational part–sees it as a form of homespun hell. A judgemental Mayberry where Aunt Bea and Clara get to deploy their not inconsiderable power.

avatar Hope September 27, 2010 at 8:35 pm

Chris, it’s just normal for people to honk “hello” in a small town. I think that’s the point of including that example.

avatar Hope September 27, 2010 at 8:38 pm

I moved away from the small town (population 1000) where I grew up about 35 years ago. This rings true to me and really captures the spirit of a small town well. A positive spin on everyone watching you, I guess. Which was the primary thing I wanted to escape.

avatar Joey September 27, 2010 at 9:09 pm

I grew up in a small town and am a non-honker. However, I’ve learned that there are different types of honks and not all of them are angry. For example, a short *beep-beep* simply means, “take note, I am here”.

avatar bernie September 27, 2010 at 9:15 pm

And don’t step out of line, for they won’t like you for that.

avatar MNP September 27, 2010 at 10:54 pm

I will now thank God every day I don’t have to live in a small town. I would shoot myself in the head in short order if it was anything like this blog post described it.

avatar Bob September 27, 2010 at 11:47 pm

In the South, we don’t honk, but we ALWAYS lift a forefinger from the steering wheel. I was not really aware of this subconscious habit until we had some guest visiting from Japan. They started copying us, as passengers – lifting their finger at oncoming traffic. Obviously in Japan one would just have to hold it up nonstop.

avatar Sam M September 28, 2010 at 8:07 am

I am from a small town, so I appreciate the sentiment, but I am a bit skeptical. I have live in cities big and small, and things you describe here go on everywhere. Have you ever been to Pittsburgh? Buffalo? Baltimore? Washington, D.C.? It’s not like people are bowling each other over in the frozen foods aisle. In DC, I lived right next to Malcom X Park (or Meridian Hill Park, depending on when you moved there.) They have pick-up soccer games constantly. Drum Circles and farmers markets and neighborhood fairs. I walked around there for 10 minutes and someone had already introduced themselves and invited me to a party.

In another life, I moved to a very small town about 25 miles from where I grew up to research a book about a local industry. I lived there for two years. In that whole time, I never got invited to a party, and exactly one neighbor knocked on my door and introduced herself. The frst thing anyone said to me in a bar was, “Who the hell are you?”

And get this: One of the friendliet places I have ever encountered was the suburbs outside of Pittsbrugh. And not the old, inner ring suburbs that are really just small towns. I am talking about an unincorporated part of the county with big McMansions. My wife bought some kid junk from some lady on Craig’s List and forced me to drive out there to get it. After I did I took my kids to a great community park. It was full of people who knew each other from school and church and made a big deal of checking us out and being nice to the children.

Maybe their souls had not been fully deadened yet, but it seemed to me that they were not even trending in that direction.

avatar Lisa September 28, 2010 at 9:19 am

Some of the comments seem a little unfriendly. I have always lived near larger cities (Manhattan, Midwest, etc…). I got married later in life, and we moved to the small town where my husband grew up.

It is not easy for an “outsider”…but all in all I love it. People know each other, people take care of each other. Dinner conversation at the local restaurant is usually about people I don’t know (and their life history, going back about 3 generations). But if you take it for what it is- a fascinating oral history of a way of life- you enjoy it. I never thought I would, but I enjoy the Ladies Club I joined. We talk about ways to improve the community, the health of our neighbors, and more.

Everyone knows what everyone else is doing- but so what- that’s what makes a community.

avatar aravir September 28, 2010 at 9:25 am

As my old friend Lois once put it:
“The good thing about a small town is that when you’re in trouble, folks will rally around to help you. The bad thing about a small town is that they will then spend the next twenty years talking about it.”

avatar JimWilton September 29, 2010 at 9:54 am

A long time ago (1981) I took a cross country bicycle trip. I rode into a small town in Wyoming and stopped at a diner that had a fireworks shack out back (I think it was the only restaurant in town).

On the counter by the cash register was a coffee can with a slot in the top and a big label that said “Legal Defense Fund”. I asked the waitress (who turned out to be the owner) about it and was treated to a half hour tirade about how her neighbor had done her wrong and how they had a long standing lawsuit. The story included allegations of how the neighbor had poisoned her dog.

So, I appreciate your fantasy. But I would say that heaven is other people — and so is hell.

The difference between a small town and a big city is that in a big city you can more easily change the other people you have to deal with every day. But since changing your mind is the best way to change hell to heaven — I’m all for small town life.

avatar dave October 1, 2010 at 9:14 am

@ JimWilton, “The difference between a small town and a big city is that in a big city you can more easily change the other people you have to deal with every day. But since changing your mind is the best way to change hell to heaven — I’m all for small town life.”

One of the things I got out of the essay – not so much a small town-big city dichotomy, but thinking about the difference between fraternity and civility. It’s natural to seek out fraternity, water running downhill. Civility, which often involves changing your mind, or at least challenging your thinking, takes some effort.

Often I’m struck by the cross-posts – Peters’ post about venting spleen has a place also. Sometimes the subtle is insufficient. But it takes some courage when people are going to notice, and when you have to stand there afterward, both for the venter and the ventee. But if it needs saying, it needs saying.

avatar John B. October 4, 2010 at 8:57 am

MNP said:

I will now thank God every day I don’t have to live in a small town. I would shoot myself in the head in short order if it was anything like this blog post described it.

MNP, we’re kinda glad you’re not here too, bless your heart.

(Small Town Rule #712: Anytime you say anything bad about someone you must immediately say “Bless his/her heart”.)

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