Tuesday, August 02, 2005

On Small-Town Civility

One of the most notable characteristics of living in a small town is that even people who hate your guts will be nice to you in public. Some people think that's repulsively phony, but if you live in a small town for a while, you will begin to understand just how adaptive it is.

In a big city, pissing somebody off is no big deal. When there are millions of people out there, you're not likely to miss the friendship of a few of them, nor are you likely to encounter them again. If you don't get along with your plumber, you can always find a new one. But in a small town, there's only one plumber, and your pipes aren't going to last forever without needing his services. So you suck it up and be nice to him, because if he were ever to refuse you service, you'd really be up a creek without a paddle. And then there's only one funeral director, and only one or two grocers, and only a few local merchants and one librarian who's also the county recorder, so you soon find that sucking it up and being nice has become a way of life. You can't bounce a check or your neighbors will know, not because they're nosy but because your neighbors work at the store and the bank. That student you gave an F to is fixing your car right now. Piss off that teenage girl, and next time you come through her register with a box of condoms, she'll make sure everyone knows.

In a large city it is easy to build a circle of friends and acquaintances composed entirely of people you like, but in a small town you don't have much choice. You still have the basic human needs for acceptance and community-- these never go away-- but since your pool of applicants for friends and community contacts is much smaller, if you want to meet these needs, you have to put up with the quirks of people who in a large city would never be your friends. So being nice to people you don't like is not a sign of phoniness; it's an adaptation to life under different conditions. And given the proportion of the population that lives in small-town America, you might even argue that it's small-town civility that's normal, and what's unnatural is the anonymity of the city that allows you the luxury of rejecting people you don't like.