Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Favorite Gripes About Small Communities

May 20, 1996

What are the things about living in a small community that gripe you? Normally we wouldn’t bring these things up in polite company but among trusted friends and in your braver or more foolish moments you might. Of course you would want to preface your thoughts with the reasons why you like living in a rural community so your friends don't get the wrong impression.

  • Gossip and intolerance. People who are too different or break the mold are subject to public criticism and gossip. Teenagers, young single adults, recently divorced and people with trouble in their lives are in the limelight. But so is everybody.

The flip side of the coin is that this closeness and all-knowing quality comes across as care, concern and family feeling when people are in trouble and need help. It also helps keep people from making big mistakes. On the other hand, nobody forgets and lets you live down a mistake.

Someone from Alcoholics Anonymous, presumably an expert in anonymity, feels that a community should have at least 4,000 residents before a semblance of anonymity kicks in. If you don't care - or live above reproach - then you are free from the constraints of public opinion. However, if your life or kids lives have a few bumps in the road, yours and their foibles will be grist for the gossip mill.

Also rural people are competitive with each other. Some feel their place in community prestige and pecking order depends on other people's misfortune. When the mighty fall, they find out there is a lot of secret delight in their troubles.

There are many lonely and fearful people living in rural communities who are afraid to speak the truth about their lives and problems because they think others won’t handle their reputations with charity and understanding. Financial problems and setbacks are especially guarded secrets and many people choose to bear incredible stress alone. The same could be said for problems within the family.

  • Complacency and the status quo. The way things have been is a powerful force in peoples lives. Too many people resist change out of a simple knee jerk reaction. They don't understand how the community needs to grow and adapt to change. Not enough energy or consensus exists to be proactive about the future.

Some people are in burnout roles trying to do everything and wear out with all the community service while others are content to sit on the sidelines and criticize. Volunteers are drying up with dual income families, the aging of rural America, rural commuting, and attrition of people from rural communities. Some communities struggle in passing on the mantle of leadership to the next generation.

Gossip chills out creativity in communities where people are afraid to be too different. Entrepreneurs have to prove their ideas in front of a town of skeptics.

  • Not enough faith in dialogue and communications in resolving disputes. "Let's not make waves," and, "Put your head in the sand," are common responses to difficulties. Resentments and anger can smolder and build while people pretend there is no problem. When it finally boils over into the public arena, people take rigid, uncompromising sides. People personalize their politics and hold grudges that never die.
  • The tyranny of the peer group. The small town bar drinking buddies won't let each other change. Alcohol use is accepted, encouraged and/or ignored while personal and family problems mount. The in-group at the school can be vicious. Children are isolated when a few popular kids wield their social power. There aren't many soft places to land if you are on the outs with the opinion makers in the community.

Who you are in a community and who your family is makes a big difference whether you have status, no matter how many accomplishments might be under your belt. People from the wrong families, poor families, or who have the misfortune of being from somewhere else find cracking into small town prestige an elusive goal. In some communities, the "Good Ole Boy Network" keeps a heavy hand on local politics and prevents newcomers from taking leadership roles.

Small town politics and even justice can be notoriously unfair and based on who you know and who you are. Examples? Who is picked to play on the team? Who is suspended and who is not? Who gets driven home after being picked up for DWI and who gets full treatment of the criminal justice system?

  • Nothing to do. The sameness of rural life can wear on people. People need a certain amount of stimulation, entertainment, growth and variety to life. Rural people who aren't good at creating their own excitement and challenges find the rural community stultifying. Boredom may come from within, but rural people do have to commute for special entertainment and novel experiences.
  • Economics. Small town economies have more than their share of challenges. Rural people who love the lifestyle and enjoy their friends and relatives may face tougher financial conditions as they try to make a living in a community that is shrinking and losing market share to regional trade centers. It is a good life if you can afford to be there.