Posted by: justawriter | April 7, 2010

Far Afield – This is why we can’t have nice things

I had an interesting chat with a local businessman the other day. He was explaining why he hardly ever wanted to put anything about his business in the paper.
“If you write that I’m doing well, the coffee drinking crowd will start saying I’m cheating my customers. If I say things are slow, I’m a whiner. Shoot, if I make a donation someone will say I just did it to get some free advertising.”
This person was honestly concerned that sharing a little good news, something that would indicate to the rest of the world that Beulah is a growing and thriving community, would cost the business customers. This is something I have seen again and again over the years reporting on communities in North Dakota.
I grew up in a town not much bigger than Zap. My dad moved there when Truman was president and he was still one of the “new people” in town when Clinton was elected. I understand how stories get started in a place like Beulah and how the “Coffee Shop Press Service” operates. Getting together and sharing what is going around in the town is part of the glue that holds a community together. It is integral to make us human, going all the way back to when everyone was sitting around a fire in a cave.
But the morning coffee culture can have its dark side. The juiciest stories, the ones most likely to be repeated all across town are the ones that have the potential to be the most hurtful. What did the star athlete get caught at? Who was seen in Bismarck with someone who isn’t their spouse? The more prominent and upright the person, the more titillating the rumor and the more it is repeated.
There are a couple of things wrong with the “Coffee Shop Press Service.” One is that often we don’t know how these stories got started. By the time the story is repeated the third or fourth time, the original teller is forgotten. The other danger is that the stories grow more lurid over time. Like the old parlor game “telephone,” details get added or dropped in each telling until the original teller wouldn’t recognize the story. “An officer stopped to help Johnny change a tire” becomes “a cop pulled over Johnny” and ends up “Did you hear Johnny got a DUI?” Which is a huge surprise to both Johnny and the officer involved.
Much of what passes through the coffee shop are harmless stories of weather, fishing or calving. The stories that do affect people in a bad way are generally limited to the people involved. But the strength of the coffee shop crowd can hurt a community.
Recently there was a story out of Hazelton about a couple who took advantage of a local program for attracting new residents. They came from out of state and wanted to fix up a house and start a business. But they never felt accepted by the community and left after about a year with a very bad taste in their mouths. I have heard similar stories about many other towns in North Dakota over the years.
Our insularity – the things that bind us together as a town – is one of Beulah’s great strengths. It is what gets dozens of volunteers out to fill sandbags. It’s what drives people to hold fundraiser after fundraiser for both people in need and the local agencies that help them. It is what makes us reach out and lend a hand whenever it is needed.
But that same impulse also makes us suspicious of the stranger, the new person in town. We look for differences that highlight their strangeness and use that as fodder for the gossip mill. Being new or different in a small town can be a lonely, isolating experience. Not every person is like that and neither is every small town. But that impulse is common enough that it can make small town America an unappealing place to relocate to live or start a business.
Mercer County is blessed in a way. The energy plants have drawn employees from all over the state and nation over the last 25 years. The recreation opportunities make our area a place where people want to come to retire. We have passed the critical point, I think, where there are enough “new people” in the area where being new isn’t such a strange experience anymore. It is one of the things that make Beulah an attractive place for people to move to and settle down. We need to work to keep it that way.

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