New Kid on the Block
NOTE: The opinions and commentary expressed in this essay are those of the author and are an exercise of free speech. They do not necessarily represent the views of Free State Project Inc., its Directors, its Officers, or its Participants.
New Kid on the Block
How to make the move easier for everyone
(from lessons learned the hard way)
In my 42 years of life I have moved from one town to another 16 times. That's an average of once every 2½ years! It's also an average which gives me a unique perspective on what it takes to pull up stakes and transplant oneself in surroundings which are very different from what one may be accustomed to.
So what do you do when you find yourself in unfamiliar territory? It's a question many FSP participants will be asking themselves fairly soon.
Many of us will be urbanites who, for the first time in our lives, will be living in a state which has fewer people than the city we just left behind. Even if we move to a town which has a population equivalent to that of our former home, we may find that regional differences stop any other comparisons cold. It's a fact that must be dealt with. Smaller communities are fundamentally different from larger ones, and they have a whole differerent set of "rules". And moving under any set of circumstances always brings about new challenges.
I offer the following suggestions to all FSP participants in the hopes that they will be able to learn from my experiences. By doing so we can go a long way toward making our presence more acceptable to our new neighbors in a manner as painless as possible for all of us. You may not like some of the following, but trust me these observations can absolutely can save you some heartache and hassle.
- Think of yourself as a guest one who is on probation.
Swallow that pride. Yes, you may be important wherever it is you are now. But you know what? Your new neighbors really don't care, so don't try to impress them. Mind your manners. You must not give the locals any fuel for the fire of suspicion that will be inherent. It will be the obligation of all FSP participants to set an exemplary standard of behavior. If we fail to gain respect the whole project may fail. It really is as simple as that.
- Learn the Art of Patience and practice it vigilantly.
Lots of things will be different in your new home, including some things which seem so routine now that you take them for granted as universal. A good example of this is how we drive our vehicles. In small towns, for example, people tend to drive more slowly. When I moved from Baltimore to a small town in Kansas, I was enraged at how slowly everyone drove. In many small towns it is not unusual to see people traveling in opposite directions suddenly stop their cars in the middle of the street to chat. Resist the urge to flip them off! Chances are good that if the offending drivers are not your banker and barber, they are at least related to them and the word will get around. Just wait patiently, or slowly and politely drive around them.
- Adjust your Life Clock not just your time zone.
What the heck is a Life Clock? It's a term I use to describe the sense of time and urgency that varies from one locale to another. It's more than an old adage that time passes more slowly in a small town it's a fact! People in small towns are not always governed by the clock as rigidly as you may now be. Rather than complaining about how sloppy and causal everyone else is, try instead to recognize that you are simply wound too tightly and really need to relax! If something doesn't happen exactly when and how you want it to, accept the fact gracefully and move on. Never forget that you are the newcomer.
- Observe and respect vernacular ways.
Are you ever annoyed by the thoughtless cell phone user in a restaurant? Believe it or not, you may appear just as crass to the locals when you fail to conform to their way of doing things. People in big cities tend to talk more loudly (and quickly) than small town people. Like it or not, this can offend people. I don't mean to suggest that you need to acquire a fake accent. Just use common sense and be aware of how you communicate, when out and about. It's simply a matter of trying to be more conscientious than usual about routine behavior when in unfamiliar territory. It won't take long before you get the hang of things. The little extra effort you need to begin with, will pay off in the long run.
- You are highly visible!
At the risk of sounding patronizing, I can't emphasize enough the importance of truly understanding your new context. In an urban area, we regularly encounter people every day who we will never see again in our entire lives. It isn't like that in a small town. The people you see today are the same people you will see tomorrow and the next day. And they are seemingly all related to one another! Put more thought than usual into your interactions with others. Tip the waitress even if she is slow, error-prone and preoccupied. She'll remember if you don't. You may feel invisible, but more than likely you are sticking out of the crowd like a sore thumb.
- Be a friend and neighbor even if they don't do it first.
It's natural for small town people to be curious about newcomers. Especially if you come rolling into town with exotic out-of-state plates. Don't be hurt if they don't run over with a freshly baked pie right off the bat. You are on probation, remember? If they do, that's great. Use the opportunity to open up and get to know them. Look for little ways to be a friend. Help push their car when stuck in the snow. Carry their mislaid newspaper to the door. It doesn't take much to express respect and friendship. You don't want to meet your new neighbors for the first time by advising them that their dog is spending too much time in your yard.
- Resist the urge to change everything all at once!
It may be the Free State to you but your neighbors still think things are the same as they were before you got there! Remember, change happens slowly over many years. Like it or not, you will have to change yourself before you can make substantive changes around you.
- Join a group but consider your motive carefully.
Joining a social club or community group can be an excellent way to begin the sometimes arduous process of acclimating and "fitting in". However, in doing so, it's important to not lose sight of that very fact; that your goal is to fit in and be accepted not to alienate them.
Let's say you join the local Historical Society and they're planning a promotional window display in an empty storefront. Unless they specifically ask for your help, it is probably best to initially put aside your 15 years experience as the Senior Window Dresser for the biggest upscale retail store in Philadelphia. The fact is, Eileen Snodgrass has been in charge of such things for the Historical Society for almost as long, and she likes doing it. So be a sport and recognize the fact. Yeah, you could do it better a lot better in fact, but that's not the point. The point is to demonstrate a willingness to support the community. If helping Eileen create an amateurish window display will do that, then that is what you must do. If you prove yourself in this way, you will slowly earn the kind of respect you had back home and eventually your skills and opinion will be sought out. But not right away.
These suggestions are by no means comprehensive, but I think they convey something about the delicate cultural situations that are inevitably confronted when we move from one type of community to another. The most important thing of all, I think, is to make a conscious effort at anticipating potential hot spots and doing our best to respect existing conditions.
Personally, I look forward to the challenge of learning about the existing Free