By Emily Erickson
With several recent iterations of “guidelines for small-town living” popping up in this publication and elsewhere, I wasn’t able to resist writing a few rules of my own. Growing up in a small, rural community and leaving to explore new cities and far off destinations — all just to land in a different small town, with all the same rules — I feel more than qualified to offer my two cents on small-town life.
Although no two places are exactly the same, there are a few truths that seem to be universal for communities with low populations and limited city limits:
1. Don’t go to the grocery store on a Sunday if you aren’t in the mood to be seen. Someone you know is at the grocery store on a Sunday — even if you go early enough or late enough, or if you have to just grab one quick thing. Sundays at the grocery store are where hungover folks, post-church brunchers, Sunday picnickers and beginning-of-the-week preppers buzz around the aisles, queue in checkout lines and are generous with their quick “hellos.”
2. There’s always a “local’s deal.” From a casually discounted meal or free beer from that one bartender, all the way to a before-market listing on a friend-of-a-friend’s old home, there’s a small-town insiders’ hookup to be found somewhere. The only caveat is, local’s discounts are only to be offered and accepted, not ever to be expected or requested.
3. Don’t be an asshole unless you want to be known as the town asshole. Forget Yelp reviews and Google star ratings — the news of your shitty behavior travels fast and far all on its own. An asshole badge can be earned from all the regular types of egregious asshole behavior, as well as consistent engagement in more minor ugly behaviors, like yelling at customer service employees, not tipping waitstaff and being road-ragey (no, your car is not anonymous).
4. Major life events are always followed by meal trains. Did a new neighbor just settle in down the block? You better pull the casserole dish out from under the stove. Was there a death in someone’s family? That’s a signal to roll out the cling-wrap. Was there a new baby in your friend group? It’s time to ask Siri to serve up recipes for “the best freezable meals for new parents.” There are a lot of ways to say “welcome,” “I’m sorry” or “congratulations” in a small town, but unsolicited food delivery will always take the (not-so-metaphorical) cake.
5. Don’t expect to date someone you’ve never met before, or who hasn’t also dated someone within one degree of separation to you. Yes, you went to the same high school, work in the same bar as their ex, know their parents or have kids in the same class. You’ve heard their name around town, recognize them from the corner coffee shop or have been on a date with their cousin (unless you outsource, of course).
6. Restaurants and stores are not just places to visit — they are establishments to which you swear allegiance. It’s not “the print shop” or “the pizza place,” it’s “my printer” and “the only pizza in town worth ordering.” These allegiances are forcefully interjected into conversations; debated with vehemence between friends, family members and acquaintances; and are passed like nuggets of golden wisdom to newcomers and passers-through.
7. You can only forget someone who remembers your name two (maybe three) times before it’s considered rude — unless, of course, you’re in the service industry or hold a public-facing position. Then, it’s perfectly acceptable to say things like, “You’re oat-milk-latte-guy,” or, “I’m sorry, I recognize you from our last meeting, but can’t remember your name.”
8. The more you participate in the good parts of small-town living and avoid the negative bits, the better, more fulfilled your life will be. This is the Golden Rule; the rule to end all other rules. Be kind, shop local, tip your bartender, help your neighbor move their couch and rent your duplex at an affordable rate.
Don’t gossip, tailgate, sell cars with a nearly-blown engine or avert your eyes at strangers’ waves. Because for all that gets complicated by living in a small town, there is one absolute: The more you put good into your community, the more good comes back to you in beautiful, unexpected and absolutely precious ways.
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