Rural America and “fitting in”

When my grandparents moved to a nearby small town, they were told by a well-meaning neighbor that they would never be fully accepted. The neighbor was wrong. My grandfather was a very likable fellow and made many friends. My grandmother joined the Women’s Club and made friends of her own. It didn’t happen overnight, but they were good-hearted and patient. They helped their neighbors and tried to make themselves useful. Although they were never really part of the town’s “inner circle” of old-timers, they were accepted enough to be considered full members of the community.

This interesting article explores the dynamics of insiders and outsiders in rural America. The good news is that America’s small towns and rural districts need new blood. The small town “brain drain” is not a myth. The bad news is that, although they need you, they don’t need you as much as you think they do. And if you have an attitude about it, they may not want you at all:

“Most communities in rural areas have had no in-migration in a century. A few people from businesses and schools come and go, but the structure has stayed intact and usually declined in size. You can identify these areas when everybody is related to everybody else. A newcomer has to watch his mouth, as any comment about any citizen will get back to them from the relative to whom it was delivered. This stratification is hard to break without a large influx caused by a new industry or the town becoming a bedroom community or a retirement haven.

The easiest way to disturb the status quo in rural America is with aggressive behavior. This is not tolerated, even among insiders …

If we are aware of our tendencies, perhaps we can better deal with them. It is said that the old favor stability and the young favor change. Most rural towns need new business and industry to survive but the residents fear disruption of their lives. The new residents should be sensitive and respectful of those who were born and bred in a town, but the lifers should not expect them to defer on matters of importance. Once change is set in motion, it takes active participation to steer it to benefit all concerned.”

In general, I’ve found that most Orlanders are very friendly and tolerant of newcomers. The town, long depressed, is finally in something of growth phase, and the business class recognizes the economic need for new residents. Out in the country, new neighbors are valued simply because neighbors are scarce. But friendliness should not be mistaken for anything deeper than that. You’re still a stranger and will need to pay your dues before getting invited over for dinner.

I’ve also seen how “rocking the boat” has the potential to get a newcomer into trouble – whether coming from the left or the right. Orland is milquetoast central. That is an endearing quality in many respects and one of the reasons we like it here. But part of the milquetoast personality is a rather uncritical acceptance of what currently passes for American values. When I complained to the Glenn County Office of Education for inviting a wicked east-side abortion provider to one of their events, the reply was that they “can’t discriminate” against any group based on “personal beliefs”. At a meeting of a local civic organization, it was suggested that some literature might not be acceptable for display in the conference room. This idea was rebuffed with an appeal to “freedom of speech” because “this is America” where we “don’t believe in censorship”. These comments come from decent, solid, respectable people in the community. (These same people, I am sure, would draw a line in the sand before Orland turned into Haight-Ashbury.) But the price of this respectability is upholding in principle whatever values are currently mainstream.

Back to the topic at hand … for your edification I will repost my “How To Move To a Small Town” rules from the old blog:


… drive 15 mph over the speed limit just because there aren’t any cars around. In small towns where crime rates are low, lawmen have more time on their hands and don’t mind issuing speeding tickets all day.

… be frightened by the “BACK OFF, CITY BOY” decals on the rear windows of pickup trucks. (Unless, of course, you are a chronic tailgater who can’t read.)

… assume your new home is Mayberry, USA. Just because everyone knows everyone else doesn’t mean everyone likes everyone else: be very careful when name-dropping.

… let your new neighbors suck you into a local clique too fast. Keep your distance from feuds you know nothing about.

… expect your neighbors to roll out the red carpet for you. You are the foreigner, the stranger, the uninvited guest. Be humble and grateful, and a few of your neighbors might just take a liking to you.

… expect to make friends quickly. Unlike city people who tend to be rootless and highly mobile (and thereby more open to new acquaintances), your small-town neighbors have plenty of friends already – friends they’ve known from childhood.

… get involved in local politics until you’ve lived there for at least five years (preferably ten).

… expect much in the way of privacy. A house in a suburban Sacramento cul-de-sac is more private than a farmhouse on a few acres outside of town.

… obsess over your “place” in the town. Whatever it is will be made known to you in due time.

… worry too much about those strange folks whose yards are full of barking dogs, junk cars, and broken-down farm equipment. Not everyone is cut out to be a Martha Stewart clone. Chances are they’re good but eccentric neighbors whom you just might need someday.


… patronize local businesses whenever possible. One easy way to become “accepted” in town is to become a good customer.

… bring your neighbors cookies and gifts on holidays and feasts – especially if they are Catholic.

… wave at strangers, especially when driving down the road you live on. A polite assumption of familiarity often results in actual familiarity.

… be interested in your neighbors. Not nosy, but genuinely interested. Introduce yourself, ask questions, listen, and learn. People like people who are interested in them.

… realize that social class is important in a small town. If you are an educated person who listens to classical music and reads high-falutin’ magazines, the working class people can smell it on you before you so much as open your mouth. There are exceptions, but most won’t get too close. You make them nervous, even when you’re bending over backwards to be friendly.

… realize that there is nothing wrong with social class. You can love your neighbors and be plenty neighborly without sharing their beans and barbeque.

… keep your “emotional distance” for a few years. Small towns are hard to know, and a bad small town can really sting you.

… stick around for the reward. Once you’ve graduated from small-town bootcamp (and it can be brutal), you’ll have something that few people these days now enjoy: a real home.

9 thoughts on “Rural America and “fitting in”

  1. Interesting point about how small towns buy into whatever is most respectable in the larger world. They can’t defend themselves or their way of life conceptually. I suppose that’s one reason for an authoritative universal Church.


  2. Indeed. I should add that, from what I can tell, this is mostly a phenomenon among those with some college education. Members of the working class don’t have the same ideological commitments. Once again it seems that the Church offers the only coherent, alternative intellectual framework.


  3. +JMJ+

    Believe it or not, I have read similar observations about insiders and outsiders in a book about that most cosmopolitan of big cities: Rome! The author, a foreign (i.e. non-Roman) journalist, said that even other Italians are never considered properly Roman by the locals. Even those who have lived in Rome for most of their lives, married Romans, raised their children to be Romans, and cut all ties with their original homes, will be identified as “Julia from England” or “Neapolitan Maria” (or whatever applies) for as long as they live.

    Paradoxically, most of the families whose names are most commonly associated with Rome (e.g. the Borgias) were not origianlly Roman. Even though the first generation of “immigrants,” being so disreputably non-Roman, were never fully accepted by the “real” Romans, it was their descendants who ended up being “more Roman than the Romans.” Perhaps overcompensation does produce the right results–even if they take much longer to come about. :P

    The author concludes that the Roman attitude towards foreigners is due to all the foreigners who have passed through Rome for over 2,000 years. If the natives had not clung tenaciously to their roots (or to be more Roman, to their foundations), then the tides of change would have rendered their beloved city unrecognisable even faster than, say, Troy was demolished and wiped off the face of the earth.


  4. Wow. I was born in Orland, moved away for a few years, then back again when I was six. Other than several years spent in Chico, and a year and a half out of state, I’ve always lived here. Your post brought a lot of things home to me that I haven’t thought of. I agree with most of it.

    There are other ways to determine pecking order, too, such as race and religion, of course, but the deepest gulfs I’ve encountered were over education and personal fortune.

    And sometimes, the “outsiders” are the ones to rebuff the locals, strangely enough! People are weirder than anyone, eh?

    Good topic, Jeff!



  5. Marissa: Thanks for your counter-intuitive insights about Rome. I shouldn’t be too surprised I guess, since Rome is a very old world city, and Italians are renowned for their clannishness!

    Laurie: I figured you might have something to say about it. In our case, I think outsiders have a little better standing due to Orland’s being stuck in the shadow of Chico. In other words, the town isn’t really isolated enough to be as cliquish as it could be!


  6. Pauli,
    You just can’t afford to make a real enemy of any neighbors. you can disagree, fight, yell and struggle, but never burn that bridge. So you never “flip the bird” or use the verbal equivalent, and you don’t call the police unless you are actually concerned about someone’s physical safety. Calling the cops because, for example, your neighbor’s goat got out again, or his party is too loud for your liking, could wind up costing him a few hundred in cash money, and a misdemeanor conviction (at least where I live.) That’s serious evil to wish upon somebody. So you just don’t do it.


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