Last week my family and I were on the road, heading west to Los Angeles. One morning we stopped for breakfast just short of the California state line. As I was paying and the cashier handed back my receipt, I asked her, “so… how’s your day going today?” She gave me a wary smile and replied “f-i-n-e…”. Then she looked at me a little more carefully and asked back (with no small amount of curiosity), “where you from, anyway?” And that’s when it hit me – I had invaded her personal space. At least, the big-city version of personal space.
Take a step back and assess the town you live in. You’ll quickly decide whether you live in the “small” or the “big” variety. I’m not talking about physical size (though size does matter – ha). No, I’m talking about the chemistry of the place, and how you interact with the people around you.
I live in a rural area, and the surrounding towns are not much bigger than “one-street”. And here’s what I observe. People wave to each other from their cars or when walking on the road. People take face-to-face moments – however small – to have conversation. People gather at the local establishments to catch up with each other. The “hometown” parades and festivals and meals still draw decent crowds.
The big city – for all its energy and activities and diversity – is much more insular at the individual level. Its residents seek the comfort of their personal space, whether that is defined as neighborhood or house or even electronic device (personal space guaranteed by headphones and music). Indeed, retreat to personal space in the big city is a survival tactic – a stab at decompression and calm after the hectic hours on the sidewalk or in the car or office.
Be careful if you assume I favor small-town over big-city – far from it. I simply observe the outward differences as well as the inward coping mechanisms. In small towns we tend to have only one of everything (i.e. Mexican restaurant, Starbucks, dry cleaner). In big cities the choices are so vast that choosing Chipotle over the several local options feels like selling yourself short. As my big-city brother so succinctly puts it: small-town means opening the newspaper to see what there is to do, while big-city means deciding what you want to do; then opening the newspaper to see where it’s happening.
Small-town interactions fill the void of perhaps too much time in isolation. Big-city personal spaces ease the stress of perhaps too much time in the crowds. Hence it’s interesting to flip the dynamic every now and then, as I did with my breakfast cashier. She was comfortable in her personal space until I invaded with my casual question. And maybe just for a moment, she let down her distrust guard and realized I was simply interested in how her day was going.