Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Unspoken Rules For Country Living

April 21, 2008

Rural people love their neighbors. They have perfected neighboring to a fine art. It is at the heart of rural society. If a list of characteristics were made to distinguish rural from urban communities, neighboring would rank at the top.

Why do country people get along so well with their neighbors? How do they do it? Admittedly, there are all kinds of people in the country and not all of them make good neighbors. Yet on the whole, there is an unusual amount of tolerance, if not affection, between rural families.

Pioneer experiences. The attitude of caring and lending a helping hand has its roots in the pioneering or homesteading heritage of previous generations. In an environment of hardship, isolation and danger, neighbors banded together for economic and physical survival.

Neighbors were the most important resource a family could have. At times, neighbors could mean the difference between life and death. Under such conditions, pioneering families learned to tolerate and to accept differences.

They learned to keep their complaints to themselves and overlook problems that would give others in society great offense. They knew there would come a time when they would need their neighbor's goodwill and help in an emergency.

Even in our modern society, the hazards of farming, weather and remoteness of services requires a measure of cooperation and mutual dependency. At their core, the traditions and patterns of rural etiquette are still based on issues of survival.

The unspoken rules. What are the unspoken rules and codes of living that smooth out the rough edges in rural communities?

- Awareness. If something seems amiss or out of the ordinary, people stop to inquire or offer assistance. This acute awareness of the way things should be is a key to timely aid. The country "gossip" about what is happening to whom acquaints people with the special needs of their neighbors.

- Emotional support. Attending funerals, weddings, showers, graduations, christenings, baptisms, birthday celebrations, anniversary parties and other such events, shows emotional support during special times. Busy people find a way to assist or participate in these occasions.

In the case of a tragedy or disaster, everybody helps. Food is brought in. Food and clothing are provided. Emotional support is given. Funds are raised.

If a farmer has a disabling illness or injury, his neighbors put in his crop or harvest it. In case of any emergency, people drop everything to rush to a neighbor’s aid.

- Community participation. A good neighbor sets aside time to support community and neighborhood traditions such as fire districts, church activities, brandings, school functions, 4-H, FFA and the many celebrations that make a community a community.

- No taking sides. When there are problems between different families, good neighbors know enough to stay out of it. After the dispute is resolved, the lingering resentment may be toward those who took sides. The countryside is full of diplomats who walk a fine line of offering support without alienating anyone.

Probably the biggest thing rural neighbors learn to do is to swallow their pride, keep their anger to themselves, avoid confrontations that cannot be undone, to keep their complaints and frustrations to themselves and to do good anyway.

- Squaring accounts. Neighbors will seek help when they know there will be a future opportunity to return the favor. Allowing a neighbor to give assistance builds bonds of love. People grow to love that which they serve. A good neighbor is as gracious in accepting help as he or she is in giving it.

Favors are returned. Appreciation is expressed. Accounts are squared, if not in the short term, then definitely in the long term. Out of pocket expenses are reimbursed. Good neighbors know the difference between short-term assistance and custom work. After material assistance of some form is given, good neighbors delicately attempt to balance the scales by questions such as, "What do I owe you?" and, "What is it worth to you?"

- Borrowing. Borrowing has its own set of rules. Loan to everyone that asks. Return the borrowed item promptly so the neighbor doesn't have to ask for it. If a borrowed item breaks down, buy parts, fix it and return it in as good a condition as you borrowed it. Vehicles are returned with their tanks full.

- Good fences. Good neighbors are aware of how they affect their neighbors. Animals are kept where they do not cause problems for their neighbor's livestock. Fences are kept up and expenses are shared or rotated. If the neighbor's stock is out, they are notified.

The rural art of living. So when all is said and done, there is a lot we can learn from country neighbors. These are basic lessons in life. To be a good neighbor is to be more concerned about another’s happiness than your own convenience and comfort. It is to be attentive and to give service to others when it is needed.

A good neighbor sets aside his or her personal wants, needs or feelings to meet the very human needs of others. In a world where there is so much emphasis on "I," "me," and "mine," a good neighbor thinks in terms of "we," "you," and "ours." It is nice to live in a world where our fellow human beings retain the ability to sacrifice themselves on behalf of others. The art of neighboring is the art of living.