In a small town, word gets around
Columnist Val Farmer wrote a column, published last week, listing the advantages of rural life.
Trust, long-term friendships, community traditions, volunteerism, conversation, concern for those in crisis were amongst the virtues he listed, which seem to be characteristic of rural life in the Midwest.
I agree with every one of his points.
But before we rubes get big heads, let's examine more closely why we behave with such virtue.
Last November, I found myself standing outside a downtown Minneapolis hotel watching the machines clear the snow from a massive blizzard.
A well-dressed man walked up, looking distraught.
"They towed my car!" he said, throwing out his hands in helpless dismay.
Originally from Los Angeles, the man had just taken a new job in Minneapolis. He was unfamiliar with the snow emergency street parking restrictions.
His wallet was in his car. He had no cash or credit card to take a cab to the impound lot. When he called the impound lot, they said he would need to fork over some money before he would even be allowed to enter his car and get his wallet.
Well! This small town boy thought this was a great chance to show some small town virtue and welcome this erstwhile Californian to the virtuous Midwest.
"How much do you need?" I said.
"Oh, I can't expect you to do that," he said.
No, I insist, I said.
We exchanged cell phone numbers. We tried the numbers to make sure they worked. He would take a cab to the impound lot, get his car out and stop back at the hotel and pay me back.
I gave him a crisp $100 bill and said see you in a bit.
The man thanked me, hugged me, quoted from Corinthians and by the time he hailed a cab, I was pretty full of my virtuous small-town self.
Two hours later, he still hadn't called. So I called him.
The phone went right to a message. It was a clip of a blues song which started, "Somethin's gone very wrong!"
I had been scammed. I looked up the phone number online. It was for a phone, which had been stolen.
At first, I was angry. Then I evaluated my motives for being such a dupe.
I had assumed several things that simply weren't true, at least outside the small town.
First, I assumed I would see the man again at some point, maybe at a basketball game or a funeral, so he wouldn't want to rip me off and have to face me later.
But there are five million people in Minnesota. I will most certainly never see the man again.
Second, I assumed that if I didn't help him out in his time of distress, he would tell everybody he knew what a jerk I was and my reputation would be in the gutter.
Of course, he didn't know me from Adam, and wouldn't know anybody who knew me to tell about my failure to come through in his time of need.
Third, I assumed that the man valued his own reputation. Who wants to be known as a crook? What if word gets around to the people he does business with?
Again, my assumption was stupid. I don't know a soul who knows him. I didn't even remember the man's name. I couldn't ruin his reputation if I tried!
Why do we usually behave pretty well towards each other in small towns, unlike city scumbags like the man who ripped me off?
Because word gets around.
If you rip off people at your business, word gets around.
If you do shoddy work, word gets around.
If you are a jerk to pets and small children, word gets around.
Conversely, if you do honest good deeds, like pulling somebody out of the ditch, word also gets around.
Are we country people nicer people than people in the city?
Not always. We gossip and we shoot people with big ideas down and we are sometimes distant to newcomers and we aren't always paragons of virtue.
But, yes, I think it is fair to say that people in a small town are on balance going to be more trustworthy, more helpful in emergencies, more willing to throw pancake suppers for the ill and pretty darn likely to band together to build a new ball diamond.
But why are small-towners more well-behaved? Is it because we are better people?
Before we get too proud, we should consider the possibility that we do what we do for one reason:
In the small town, word gets around.