Small Towns: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Common wisdom is that small towns are great places for kids to grow up. Yes and No. My first town had a population of 70, the next one was 800, and the next was 5,000. When my very large family moved away from each of these towns we put a dent in the population statistics. I’ve always felt blessed to have had the experience of a small town where everyone knew my name. It was a good thing, except when it wasn’t.

The Good: People know what you’re up to. You can’t get away with bad behavior because your parents will know about it before you get home. There’s a sense of   community and kids can play safely almost anywhere in a small town because people have doors open and are watching. If disaster hits you or your town, everyone pitches in to help. In my towns I learned the Midwestern Work Ethic first hand.

The anonymity of large cities added to the internet’s anonymity has created a nastier culture. People can sink to their lowest instincts when hiding behind an alias online, or when no one knows them at the store or out on the street. We were generally a nicer country when we had only 154 million people and most lived in small towns.

The Bad: People know what you’re up to. You can’t get away with anything!! If you sneeze at midnight in your own home, for the next three days neighbors will ask if you have a cold. If you leave an empty appliance box outside, neighbors will comment on your wastefulness for purchasing a new stove instead of repairing the old one like they did. Every action begets an opinion.

I also notice I’m more of a privacy advocate than some who grew up in big cities because of growing up around a handful of snoops and gossipers.

The Ugly: People know what you’re up to. And they have loooooooong memories. I had a wonderful time at my High School reunion recently. It was great to reconnect with old friends and see how well so many of them were doing. But I noticed a “disturbance in the force.” A very few who had never left were still holding on to extremely old memories of past hurts and past transgressions; they hadn’t moved on yet.

Those few (and there weren’t that many. luckily) who were living in the past were unable to let anyone off the hook. You got a DUI at age 17? Never mind you are now a successful family man and Prosecuting Attorney who hasn’t had a drink in 30 years, you are still labeled a “Drunk.” You got pregnant at 16 and had to give your baby up for adoption? Never mind that you have married and have 4 beautiful children, a happy home and a wonderful husband. You are still a “slut” and don’t deserve happiness. It’s no wonder the outliers skedaddle out of small town for a new start.

I’m a fairly assertive person, so I wasn’t bullied much, and I was lucky: our town didn’t seem to have many bullies. Though in many small towns this kind of small town thinking can lead to bullying for anyone who is outside the norm. That stifles creativity, individuation and expression. And it can cause lifelong depression if the person doesn’t realize the opinions of the town people don’t define him/her.

Gossip is the order of the day in a lot of small towns across the planet. Indeed it’s been that way since the dawn of time. My college Psych professor theorized it was the earliest way populations taught children how to behave. If kids overheard their moms talking about the “town thief” they knew not to do that because those behaviors were noticed.

We aren’t off the hook in cities, however. Humans have a way of creating small towns or tribes within the largest cities. Whether your tribe is a jazz club, a country music bar, your local church or a bowling alley, you live inside a tribe. Gossiping, bullying those who are different, paying attention to things that are none of your business, and attempting to control other people are human traits. So are compassion, caring, detachment, forgiveness, tolerance and kindness. We each get to choose on a daily basis.

How’d you do today?

© 2014 Beth Terry, CSP • All Rights Reserved

About Beth Terry

Beth Terry, CSP, is a speaker, coach, writer and cowgirl. Her audiences are from around the world: she has spoken to almost half a million people in 6 countries. Her passion is watching the "popcorn popper" go off in people's heads when they 'get it.'

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