If you are like so many city people who ask, “How do you do it? How do you get people to talk to you in rural communities,” I finally have a bit of a primer for you.
I’ve got to be honest. This has been a challenge to answer. Getting people to talk to me as been so easy. It’s so easy, in fact, it’s hard to figure out how I do it. Over the last few weeks, a number of people have messaged me saying they want to gain the confidence to go out on their own.
This is such good news! So, here tis . . . my GOING RURAL primer with five essential tips on how to connect in rural communities.
FIRST: Before you go, ask yourself, “Why am I going?”
Are you sincerely interested in the people? Or are you just interested in how they voted? Are you curious about their life? Or do you want to tell them how their life should be.
Going with an open mind is so important!
Look for the good. If you go seeking the worst in the world, that is what you will find. Seek out goodness.
If you’re ready to take the leap, I want to assure you, “Don’t worry if you’re not perfect. You will stumble. I continue to stumble and bumble. People are so generous in their kindness to city-folk blunders. If your heart is in the right place, people will usher you in ways you never imagined.”
Go to learn.
My first significant stop in a rural region was the Mississippi Delta. I had all sorts of judgments about Mississippi. If I’m fully honest, I was a bit high and mighty, looking to confirm some of my beliefs. On that early morning waiting for my coffee at a little restaurant, a man called me over to his table of four men. He asked, in a very southern hospitality way, “Where are you from? What brings you to the Delta?” I launched into my project.
When I was done he smiled and said, “If you come to judge, you’ll last a minute. If you come to listen, we’ll tell you everything you want to know.” I left the coffee shop and thought about how I could do this project from a place of curiosity rather than rigid conviction.
To this day, I am so thankful to that man. We are living in a time of such intense and destructive division. I decided in that moment to never, ever debate. I would ask questions, and then more questions. If they asked my opinion, which they seldom did, I would answer and then ask another question.
Before you go, take a minute and ask yourself the following questions.
What do you want to know about their place, their challenges and their hopes?
If you are sincerely interested in their life, you’ll be amazed how much they will gladly share.
SECOND: Go alone.
Without a doubt, it can feel a bit scary at first—kind of like when you were the new kid in middle school. Don’t worry though. In most places, before you know it, people will take you under their wing and introduce you to others.
Going alone gives me freedom to wander where I will and be drawn into where life and conversations take me.
I also love going alone because I’m free of worrying about anyone else. If you’ve ever gone to an event, a march or a protest with me, you know—I tend to float off into the crowd. If you are like me and decide to go with someone, schedule time alone. Schedule time together to share what you learned or to meet-up with new friends.
I’ve found being solo is less threatening. People talk more openly, and freely. From what others have shared, going solo I create more lasting friendships than people who travel together.
THIRD: Go where locals go.
PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE – Go to learn, rather than prove others wrong-minded.
~ Ask friends if they have friends or family in the rural region you are thinking about going to. With this project, my destinations are chosen by people who recommend I go to certain places based on what I say I’m looking to learn. If you know where you’re going and why, reach out and ask for connections.
~ Stop at a gas station at the edge of town and ask where they go for a good, cheap meal. I don’t go for the dining experience, but more to connect with people in the town. If you are a foodie, I’d recommend bringing some snacks and, perhaps, eating a bit before you dine. Finding food that matches a city sensibility is not always realistic. And, please, try not to be the snobby eater.
~Go to the visitors center, if there is one. Let them know you’d like to go to a local hangout. They will often put away the tourist map and tell you the scoop IF you look sincerely interested. Remember, many of these small communities are now built around tourism. Most tourists want tourist places. Let them know what you’re looking for and you will most likely find some really wonderful places.
~ Before you go, find out community meeting schedules. Check when their city council meets. Here again, be respectful. Watch. Listen. Be curious. Be ready for people to ask, “Why are you here?” If your reason is to find out how they voted, they will, most likely not be very receptive. If you are sincerely interested, they’ll respond.
~ Go to a church service. As many of these communities have lost church membership due to a loss of population, having a new visitor can be quite a treat. However, I can’t repeat enough: go because you care and want to learn, or just to enjoy praising with them.
~Go to an event. A concert, a talk, a farmer’s market.
FOURTH: Be ready to hang out.
Rural time is far more leisurely than city time. I’ve found that the smaller the town the longer I tend to stay. People get to talking, then connect you with someone else who connects you to someone else. It’s quite a treat.
People are going it suss you out. Give time for that to happen. In these regions where friendship and family reign supreme, make sure you make time to have time.
FIFTH: Be an ambassador for humanity.
If you want to elevate the world and reclaim public discourse, be a model for initiating open and respectful conversation.
You might find them to be more in line with your thinking than you know. You might find that they take a completely different view on life. Take a breath. Ask another question. Then another. My personal rule has been never to debate. It just doesn’t get anyone anywhere. We all stay entrenched in our point of view.
You’ll see. It’s quite inspiring. When we live in a time of judgement, it doesn’t take much to be an ambassador for respect and kindness. Oh, and after you go, send me a message. I’d love to hear how it went!
POST NOTE: I have a term I call “stranger talking.” Last winter John Poelstra interviewed me on his podcast. We talk in depth for an hour about the power and importance of curiosity and respect. Take a listen.