That Small-Town Feeling: Gone Forever?

Posted on 2011 January 5


Recently the news picked up on a study that paints college students as much less empathetic than their counterparts from thirty years ago. The study suggested that young people today spend more time doing things alone and less time reading stories (which tend to describe characters’ interactions and emotions), with the result that students have diminished awareness of their peers’ thoughts and feelings. It’s almost as if an entire generation is mildly Aspergic.

Commentators and researchers have pointed out how American culture has become more impatient, its humor more harsh, its games and advertisements and TV shows more cruel. What’s going on? Are we becoming a nation of sourpusses?

Much of the problem can be traced to our densely urban lifestyle. One hundred years ago, most of us lived in small towns where nearly everyone we met was an acquaintance whom we could greet with, “Hi! How are you?” Today, most of us live in giant cities where nearly everyone we meet is a stranger who is in our way.

Sure, there are lots of small towns left in America. The problem is that these villages — removed from major employment centers — are hard to afford; vacationers or the retired dwell there. Meanwhile, millions of people have escaped downtowns for the suburbs. But our suburban landscape has, in turn, grown more dense and citified, and the same kinds of alienation crop up.

I’m not arguing that everyone who lives in a major metropolis yearns for the boonies. But now that most of us have long since traded the affable monotony of rural life for the impersonal excitement of the cities, many of us yearn once more for the quiet, companionable pleasures of small towns. Is there any way to bring this low-key atmosphere to the urban setting?

I once lived a couple of blocks from a brand-new supermarket, part of a big chain that made a point of friendly service. Anywhere in the market, and especially at the checkout counters, I could encounter relaxed and friendly employees who always had a cheerful comment, invariably bent over backwards to help me, and smiled as if I were their favorite person. I figured it was a new store trying to make a good impression. Later I happened to move to a place that was within walking distance of a supermarket in the same chain, and they, too, were friendly and relaxed and cheerful to a fault. What struck me was that they worked at a large business in a busy suburban setting, yet they gave the impression that they were the corner grocers in a very small town a hundred miles from anywhere.

And then I got it: I didn’t have to wait for small-town friendliness to find me! I could follow the example of the grocery clerks and create it wherever I found myself. Since then, I’ve made a point of being cheerful and easy to talk to, no matter where I am. I try to conjure that small-town feeling, as if I’m inside a big bubble of relaxed rural warmth that gently parts the seas of urban angst around it. The surprise is that people respond to my friendliness in turn, apparently delighted that someone is willing to treat them with a neighborliness rarely seen in big cities. And they become cheerful and friendly in turn. It’s sort of an instant small town right there on the sidewalk or inside a store.

Here are my three rules of thumb for creating a small-town feeling anywhere you go:

1. Be the friendly person you’re waiting for! If you wait to get lucky, hoping you’ll stumble across a friendly oasis (as I did with those supermarkets), you’ll wait a long time. Take a chance and, when the opportunity arises, smile or say something cheerful. And of course respond with friendliness when others offer it.

2. If they don’t respond, don’t sweat it. Not everyone will appreciate your cheerfulness. Some will stick to their guns, firing off potshots of surliness. Let ’em! They’re entitled to their ways; when they walk away, you’ll be left with the ones who appreciate your goodwill.

3. Slow down! One of the requirements of city living, it seems, is to hurry up. We become slaves to the clock, and the rush pressures us into acting rude to others. In small towns, with their agrarian traditions, people heed the slower timekeepers of nature — they can afford to be relaxed and polite to each other. (Studies show that “hicks” tend to live longer than city slickers. Maybe it’s the fresh air … or maybe it’s the slower tempo of their lives.)

Where can we find examples of small-town attitudes within our urban settings? Here are a some local spots where you can practice your new skills:

–Fairs, festivals, and community events: Attendees have common interests, so there’s a built-in camaraderie, and nearly everyone’s in a good mood because they’re doing things they enjoy, and the vendors and booth attendants tend to be friendly and helpful. These events serve as instant small towns, where you can sense the rhythms of rural life.

–Farmer’s markets: Growing in popularity, they tend to be small and intimate, which makes for easy congeniality. You can find lasting friendships among neighbors you might never otherwise have met.

–National, state and local parks: Okay, these aren’t often inside city limits, but they’re terrific places to practice that small-town feeling. Visitors are imbued with the joys of the countryside. Even where trails and meadows become crowded, the good feelings overwhelm the tensions. And of course there’s no hurry: after all, you’ve arrived! There’s nowhere to rush off to when you’re already in a paradise.

There must be many other ways to generate the atmosphere of a small town within a city; I look forward to hearing from people with suggestions.