Writer Jesse Knadler learned the hard way that smiling and nodding is often the best policy.
When I first moved from New York City to rural Virginia, more than a decade ago, my husband, Jake, gave me this advice: “Don’t make enemies here.” What he meant was that you have to be nice to everyone in a small town because you will end up running into the person you insulted at the grocery store. Maybe not this week or next month or even next year. But eventually.
So you learn to smile a lot. You learn to be really nice. Or, rather, niceness works its way into you. Of course, in New York, no one expects nice. It’s the personality equivalent of a butterscotch lozenge: safe, a bit cloying. Getting to the point is preferred.
But brusque talk doesn’t translate in a land where the pace is slower and social orbits overlap constantly. The waiter I called out for botching my order? (Hey, I was just being honest.) He’s also—surprise!—a volunteer firefighter who could one day rush to my place to extinguish a blaze. The mom who organizes an annual function I trashed to her face without realizing it was her creation? Turns out our kids are friends and she’s one of the only upholsterers in town. (Guess I’ll be re-covering those dining chairs myself.) Screwups here have a long half-life thanks to the grinding, omnipresent rumor mill that never seems to run out of grist.
As Jake warned, the close proximity of small-town life comes to a head at the grocery store, where I’m forced to confront all the little social faux pas and strained relationships I’ve racked up over the years. When I spot the party organizer/upholsterer, I dive for the dairy aisle at the back of the store. The waiter/firefighter? I drill down on the fine print on the cereal box, wishing I had just held my tongue. The five seconds of self-satisfaction I got by telling it like it is wasn’t worth the hassle of forever trying to avoid people all over town.
I’ve learned that maybe it’s not necessary to be so up-front about everything. I get why so many people in small towns stick with safe topics, like a recipe or the ins and outs of raising chickens. The funny thing is, it’s actually through this innocuous Southern small talk that I learned more about the art of conversation—and it is an art. Banter reveals the social fabric of a place, its rhythms and rules; establishing common ground is valued over merely communicating a point of view. It has connected me to the people of this town in a way that was invisible to me before. And I haven’t made an enemy for a really long time (I hope).