Twice this week people have asked me to address the cultural differences between small towns and big towns. People often think of culture in terms of national boundaries, but there are plenty of sub-cultural differences within the same country, such as: age, gender, education, region and even urban/rural. One of the most common sources of misunderstandings has to do with whether or not a person is more task or relationship orientated.
One small business owner was telling me the challenges of managing people that may not only be from a totally different country, but also live right around the corner. It is a lot harder for a boss to take a hard line on an employee that they may see at church, the supermarket or the Sunday concert on the green. Also, the nature of the job in small towns tends to be more intimate whereby people are working closely together and therefore tend to know more about each other.
That may be one reason people in small towns tend to be more relationship-oriented than their city counterparts. Generally speaking, compared to their city cousins, the tendency is to prioritize affiliations and maintaining harmony over getting down to business. For example, a person in a small town may sign a contract with someone who is familiar and trustworthy rather than with someone who may have a cheaper and “better” product. Or a small town boss may opt for the familiarity and predictability of someone they know over the experience of someone they don’t. In that case, some employees expect their bosses to be more flexible around their personal obligations. When the boss knows an employee’s family members they are going to be far more prone to make allowances.
This doesn’t mean that people in small towns don’t work hard; it just means they do it differently and in a different rhythm. In a task-oriented culture, people decide if they have a mutually beneficial reason to work together and then focus on the relationship though dinners or baseballs games, for example. Not so in small towns. The relationship is how things get done, so paying attention to personal connectedness, from greetings to being flexible with time, is important.
If you live in a small town where you have family and neighbors that you see regularly, you are more prone to stop and help them on your way to work than say, “Hey, I’m too busy.” Lateness in a small town work environment may therefore be more acceptable (although no less frustrating) than in a large town. People living in urban centers aren’t bumping into familiar faces as often and therefore tend to be much more obsessed with punctuality and less forgiving of lateness. Big city bosses don’t want to know about personal issues, small town bosses can’t avoid it.
These differences can even be observed when simply walking down the street. Helen Vasiliadis, Buyer Agent at the office of Jan and Dan Laytham Long and Foster reality in Great Falls, Virginia noted that when she lived and worked in New York City nobody looked at each other or smiled. She found this disconcerting and said, “I’ll take suburban living any day of the week!”
So if the relationship is prioritized over the task, then how does anything ever get accomplished? In a small town, community is how things get done. People rely on other people within their network and prioritize them over all else. When the relationships are strong and loyalty is shared, there is a mobilization that occurs that can be more effective than even the most task-focused approach. That loyalty to in-group members is therefore a primary motivating factor and should be considered when setting out roles for new employee or simply visiting a new place.
Bosses want their subordinates to have that kind of connectedness because it will make their employees work harder and be happier. It also enables employees to rely upon friends and family to help with non-work related issues that inevitably arise. The cultural differences of a small town can’t explain away personality challenges people face when interacting, but they can give city people insight into the mindset of their more rural counterparts. It may seem counter-intuitive to a task-oriented boss or an urbanite, but when trying to get things done in a village environment it may be helpful to remember – Slow down. You’ll get there faster.