Laying a Myth to Rest

I’d like to put to rest the myth that everybody in a small town knows everybody else. It’s a nice idea, suggesting coziness and harmony, maybe why small-towners go along with it. We have to know it’s not realistic. Maybe we just like to fool big-city people.

If you grow up in a small town, you think you know everybody because you know everybody who matters to you. It’s true that most places you go, you’ll see several people you know, and a few who know your parents. As a kid, you probably behave a little better, knowing there’s someone around who knows you. Or your parents.

Big-city people visiting a small town might think everybody knows everybody else when their hosts are frequently greeted by name in public places. I think the frequency of personal greetings is greater in small towns because there are fewer places to congregate.

I grew up in a town of 7,000. Knowing people was easier then. We walked to school. Most men walked to work, and women walked a few blocks to a corner grocery every day. Grownups were more social, with heavy participation in churches, lodges, social and public service groups. In summer, we sat on the porch steps and spoke to those walking by. People didn’t travel far to work or shop. The same kids were in my class every year. But everybody didn’t know everybody—not even close.

There probably were a few long-time residents, those who’d dealt with the public for many years, who knew almost everybody. Mrs. Steen, operator of the license bureau in my town, comes to mind. You may remember some like her.

Today I live near a small town of 3,000, and can testify that everybody does not know everybody else. Kids are bussed to school and their parents drive half an hour or more to work. Evenings, most close themselves in their homes and socialize via Internet. The old social, religious, and civic groups have dwindled, though there are more organized activities for kids, like recreational sports. On nice days, people walk through town for exercise.

Small town people may care more about knowing everybody because it’s almost possible. But unless it’s a town of fewer than, say, a thousand residents, knowing everyone requires major effort. Today it’s harder, I think, because we’re so mobile, and residents come and go. But in small towns it’s still polite to speak when you pass someone on the street, still important to get to know your neighbors, and though the retail shops of most small towns are gone, there are still restaurants where on buffet night you know by name or sight more than half the diners. It feels like you know everybody.