Where Everyone’s Out of One’s Depth, Including Newcomers
Written by: Benjamin E. Ruark
Introduction to Rural Utopia
Thinking of relocating out of suburbia to a small town? Sampling the best of both worlds by adopting a chic, perhaps roguishly-coveted town and country lifestyle? Where the only thing greener than the open spaces is the envy of close relatives and friends, wishing they’d done the same. Don’t put that For-Sale sign up in the front yard just yet. Unless yours is a family of die-hard introverts, the personality of many small towns deviates—all things considered—markedly from the folksy ambiance of the Mayberry stereotype seen on television reruns. And by small town, cities of several hundred thousand are not only included, they’re chiefly the focal point of this paper; especially if they’re situated in a rural segment of a state.
How intoxicating the lure is, of a ten-minute commute to work. No worries over leaving the front and back doors unlocked during the day. Of actually knowing most of the neighbors on one’s block. Of taking secure comfort in knowing many people along Main Street on a first name basis. For that matter, being able to park right on Main Street—even for free on weekends. The whole notion of living life at a slower pace, too, what’s not to like?
Big cities relish their parks, but somehow the pastoral aura of taking a leisurely walk down a country lane, or along an open space parkway, is more…is, well, homier to a palpable point where you can feel the relaxation settling from shoulders, right on down to your core. The stresses and weight of frenetic demands of modern life purging from your body. Other things are flowing, too: the traffic. One can’t help but smile wryly when approaching a traffic jam; just think, you can actually see where the jam begins. And it lasts, what? A few minutes, tops.
And the local events? Well, they’re plentiful, to say the least. There’s something going on all the time—and as sure as death and taxes, count on most of your friends and neighbors being there. The kinds of events where the whole family gets involved. Couldn’t agree more with what others have said before: there’s a deeply satisfying feeling from being so intimately immersed within one’s local community. Like a really, really close extended family, except without the bloodlines.
What’s the Harm in Trying Small-town Life in the Country?
If only forewarnings that one’s life is about to be snared in the throes of mental anguish could faithfully appear in bright neon. With that kind of foreshadowed impunity, one could, let’s say, relocate to Cary, North Carolina and not encounter a surprise that makes them wish neon signs were hanging from trees. Or Waterville, Maine. Or Rock Island, Illinois. Or Denver, Colorado. Houston, Texas. Concord, California. Lafayette, Louisiana. Madison or Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Well, I’ve lived in all of those places—some of them smack in the middle of rural settings—and had no need for any neon warning to blindingly blaze in lobster pink ‘Think Again!’
But then we look to the Northwest. Where according to Politico’s reporting, the worst racists can be found. I’ve tried Roseburg, Oregon. Left Roseburg in a hurry. Tried Portland. Left Portland, never looking back. But not entirely for reasons of mental anguish, which are about to be described herein. No, my omen-in-neon didn’t go unmistakably slack until I’d relocated out of state. Under a supposition that small-city life promised me a utopian sanctuary, a retreat from the vagaries and manic pace of big-city life, this was to be my retirement niche. I’d lived on the outskirts of the Cotswolds, in the UK, and hoped to resurrect some semblance of same pastoral tranquility here as well. As fate began to unspool, however, I was completely out of my depth.
All Vying for the Title of Village Idiot
When an outsider relocates to a small city in a rural area, they risk be stripped of the normal ebb and flow of life; the back and forth rhythm of being fully in their groove, then temporarily out of it, but then getting it back, and so on. No upswings and downswings here, in Small Town: just the inertial drone of the downswing. The slump. Not only is it existentially off-putting, it can produce repetitions of bungling emanating from all compass points. Each one precipitating its own level of tension, until eventually they all cascade into the same pool of mental anguish.
It’s difficult to imagine an actual physical setting, a place that measures in square miles, where, as time scrolls onward, what one might initially perceive as occasional acts of stupidity soon proves instead to be as commonplace as the smile. A place where such acts are allowed to flourish under zero threat of collective alarm and anxious calls for redress.
Yet for the wary reader there awaits a fertile crop of adjectives springing from the pages of articles depicting small town/rural mentality; one that paints a dismal profile of what to expect from next-door neighbors to farmer’s market, from playground to street corner, from various church groups, and of course from a smorgasbord of local clerks in stores, post office, and offices of city government. Each of these entities draws its favorite bushel of traits from a commodious barrel of tainted apples: arrogant, cavalier, close-minded, dogmatic, entitled, haughty, ignorant, illogical, imperious, inflexible, insensitive, insular, intolerable, narrow-minded, obtuse, obtrusive, parochial, provincial, slow-witted, and of course stupid.
Eleven shy of 31 flavors.
Is my account yet another personal vendetta, exposing my bias and clichéd stereotypes? In a 2016 Psychology Today article by psychologist, Edward Shorter, he explains how two recent studies expose a surprising flip in toxicity levels between big versus small cities and rural areas. “By almost every measure of mental health,” he states, “the countryside now does worse than the big city, and the amount of pathology increases as you go from metropolis to suburb to small town. This reverses completely generations of sociological findings…[and is further substantiated by] rates of opioid use in the past year were twice as high among rural teens and young adults as in the nation as a whole.”
As empirical evidence, I’m laying down a series of either personally experienced or directly witnessed bread crumbs for readers to draw their own conclusions with regard to small town life’s agonizing preponderance for engagement in acts of stupidity:
• A pair of furniture movers are performing a short move between two apartments on the same floor of a large apartment complex. The resident had been talking to the complex manager in the living room when he sees the lead mover tip his huge desk in the study on end, onto a squat piano dolly. All the contents inside fell from the up-righted end through empty spaces surrounding the drawers, falling full length to the low-end atop the dolly: business cards, office supplies, important papers, etc. All scrambled in one big pile.
The lead mover didn’t first ask about secured items. Didn’t ask if tipping the desk on end would create a problem. He didn’t even have a look for himself. He just acted, full stop. No professional mover in a large city would have committed such an error. Apparently even trial and error over the course of accrued experience hadn’t taught this lead mover anything.
• Director of a nursing home is told that one of his nurses administered the wrong medication to a patient, who’d thankfully caught the error in time before taking it orally. The director then asked the patient—still standing there—what the patient wanted ‘now.’ The patient asserted that the director needed to show enough concern as to say that he’d investigate the root cause and eliminate it so that it couldn’t reoccur for any patient, ever again. Instead, the director explained that since no harm was done, no further action was required. [He holds a masters in long term health care administration.]
• The general manager (GM) of a local retirement community (affiliate of a national chain) is forwarded a note that a new resident sent to kitchen staff, ‘given the pricey entry fee just paid, plus the monthly rental fee, a request for a nutritionally better grade of cereal wasn’t being unreasonable.’ In large cities, the standard response would’ve been to accede to a customer’s wishes without any further words needed. This GM—in a role not unlike that of boarding school headmaster—confronted the resident with overtones of imperiously dogmatic and defensively close-minded, but not so intense that it masked an undertone of obtuseness.
Unable to differentiate between handling employees and handling customers, the GM needed to ‘correct’ the new resident about how ‘we do it here,’ and he shouldn’t have to explain himself or why things are done the way they are. After several minutes of unpersuasive back and forth with the GM, the resident realized the impotency of further discussion, and flat out apologized. In this instance the best defense was not offense. It wasn’t even defense. It was surrender: the only concept the GM understood. With peace being made, the victor’s world again intact, all was right again in this unenlightened replica of Mayberry in the Northwest.
• The supervisor of food services (under contract) in one establishment is told by a patron that the dietary specifications that had been submitted were being routinely violated by lunch and dinner cooks. The supervisor took copious notes. All salient points were overtly outlined and agreed-on by both supervisor and patron. If stated as rules, the changes couldn’t have been more black and white. That evening, a deviation as obvious as the Grand Canyon appeared in the patron’s dinner menu: it contained the exact of the agreed new menu order.
Over a staggering next six weeks and a half-dozen more ‘talks’ with the supervisor—followed by a half dozen more ‘this should clear things up’ reconciliations by the same supervisor—the food orders continued to be consistently off-spec. The decibel levels of both the patron’s and supervisor’s voices reaching stratospheric, the supervisor swore he’d investigate further. He later contacted the patron, offering as culprit an outdated dietary request that hadn’t been deleted from their computer system. As if that solved everything. The patron remarked that a computer glitch discovery didn’t explain why verbal supervisory orders to the cooks wouldn’t override obsolete computer orders. The supervisor’s reply: The cooks sometimes get too busy to think about what I said.
• The former patient of a nursing home moves to a private dwelling, completes the mail forwarding card and several days later gets a note from the local post office that his mail won’t be forwarded since his former address was a business address, which they don’t recognize as a legitimate premise for forwarding private mail.
• In a different retirement village one new resident requests of management that a notice be posted on the billiard room door: please keep door closed when in use. The next day, scrawled on the posted notice was an anonymous snooty message suggesting that newcomers needed to either grow up or go back where they came from.
Hindsight being inapt, regretfully, there are too few notes on record to accurately demonstrate the wide variety of both personal and business-related instances of stupidity witnessed in this current place I have the unfortunate obligation to call home. Yet their everyday acts of stupidity are statistically too frequent to go unnoticed; too casually accepted as innocuous by the local citizenry; and too costly and aggravating in their ubiquity for those on the receiving end. Or as economic historian, Carlo Cipolla, would rejoin: “a stupid person is one who causes losses to another person or group of persons, while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses” (the third of his five basic laws of human stupidity).
It bears repeating: it’s in the nature of the stupid person to invariably and unwittingly cause losses to other people. As their daily routine tends to roll along, the stupid person seldom hears of the losses they’ve caused, or fails to both spot and connect the dots they’ve so grievously laid down. Or they don’t comprehend the full meaning and measure of the losses their negative impact has had on each unfortunate victim. Theirs may not be a parallel universe, yet it tips acutely enough away normal that others will fervently wish they’d not entered it.
All Out of Their Depth
It’s fair to assume that time spent in rural small towns comes with a basic caveat: we’re to expect the shortsightedly, ludicrously unexpected. With businesses, expect a product defect here, an inferior service there; sans the apology. In various establishments, prepare to be snobbishly eyeballed head to toe by locals as their singular form of people watching. For local news commentary, count on waitresses, bus and truck drivers, and park bench warmers to volunteer unabashed comments waxing lyrical on conservatism while fervidly decrying liberalism. Of persons in a position to make impactful decisions, cross your fingers, as they tend to do so more from a rash and uninitiated stance than an informed, rational one.
Across all types of settings, expect to be served by unsupervised help staff whose attention spans aren’t equipped to outdistance fulfillment of all details a service entails. What’s more, if a favorite patron is nearby, it’s a safe bet that a server’s attention to a new customer’s arrival won’t materialize. Interacting with managers for the purposes of complaining or offering suggestions is likely to be met with defensive posturing buoyed by an imperious lecture; and highly unlikely to be about how they’re keen on making their establishment the flagship of stupendous service and word-of-mouth customer praises.
My takeaway’s this. There’s a discernible thread penetrating the core of many insular communities: they’ve adopted an affectation of newfound social cache. Of contemporarily being in-the-know. All thanks to the gratuity of a more sophisticated reality getting filtered through widescreen TV right into every family room in America. Whereby locals then misconstrue themselves to be just as worldly, just as socially aware, hip, and adept as everyone else cavorting two-dimensionally inside that platinum LCD/LED widescreen. Instead, and more in line with the Urban Dictionary’s metaphor for rural townsfolk mentality, equating it with a mental box: less [firsthand] knowledge of the outside world equals a smaller box. Small minds…
What they think they know about modern life requires reification that only comes through real and varied life—i.e., worldly—experience; hence, they have only their default small-town ways and thinking to fall back on: the narrower, now outdated, norms, values, and mores reflective of simpler times past.
For all of mainstream culture’s shortcomings as purveyor of mostly over-the-top pressures to ‘fit in,’ such as it is, our culture does have its occasional positive influences of merit. In the larger cities, the citizenry is more well-read, more mobile, widely experienced, and attuned and well-honed to the nuances and subtleties of social interaction. Personal conduct and business practices are more dynamic and continually evolving. Experimenting. In meeting rooms, coffee shops, and educational events, peer shoulders routinely rub together and share knowledge, expand understandings, propose new ideas for improvement, new avenues for business and personal exploration. Continuous learning operates of its own agency nonstop. Whereas in small towns, what’s most likely on the daily venue is sameness. An equally qualifying word is stagnation.
Put differently, amid the rural landscape the only cross-fertilization going on is by garden plants. Unlike in large metropolitan areas, the natural inference is correct: that people’s minds get upgraded en masse, whether it’s in workshops, conference rooms, social and fraternal organizations, and so on. There’s a palpable energy, a vitality and sense of ongoing push toward advancement, progress, and accomplishment, altogether not present in the rural backdrop.
So, a move to the smaller city, especially one in a rural setting, is unwise. If it needs to be tested first hand, then, when in Rome… But be prepared to lower the tolerance threshold for acts of stupidity and their adverse consequences. The village has its way own ways of functioning—and both you and they will be out of depth to bring conventional normalcy and stability to any likeness of a lasting culmination.