Life in a small town, particularly a small Alaskan town, means people know you and your business. The title of Heather Lende’s first and most famous book says it all: If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name. This truth can be comforting, or discomforting, depending on the specific situation.
I grew up in small towns, many of them in Alaska. Nevertheless, as a shy person, I’m often taken aback by small town friendliness. While my upbringing and temperament allows me to fall easily into casual conversation with strangers, I am often left wondering if the people with whom I interact are simply being small town friendly, or if they actually know me.
Commonly, as we chat with a store clerk who seems to be treating us kindly as strangers, we notice that they are preparing our purchases for long haul carrying. They’ll ask if the items are packed properly for crossing the bay, indicating that they know exactly who we are! People who stop and tell me they read this blog probably throw me off balance the most.
This puts me at a disadvantage, because I’m pretty poor with names, and not much better with faces. Everybody looks familiar to me, so I conversely assume that I don’t really know who I’m talking to. Even fairly familiar people change in some way in the long spaces between “sightings,” so I’m never sure if I have the right person. I imagine that my blank stare, as I try to decide if I’m guessing the person’s identity correctly or not, is somewhat off-putting. It’s embarrassing, and may be the reason I tend to pass through town largely unnoticed on most visits.
Michelle once assessed our family’s familiarity in town this way: Aly is our most well known family member. Many people know her by name, and are on friendly terms. This is no surprise. We’ve grown used to it. In Juneau, people we’d never seen before would greet her by name on the street, even when she was too young to tell us how she knew the people. There’s an unsettling moment for new parents!
Michelle is second-best known. She is somewhat familiar in her own right, but also has the advantage of being identified as “Aly’s Mom” by a segment of town. Her noteriety has increased since she started her part time job; since Aly went south for college, Michelle has probably gained on her in this regard.
I’m the least well known of us three. I’m often asked if I’m new to town (I say “yes;” we’ve only lived here seven years). Occasionally, someone will ask me who I am. I generally start with the most likely point of reference: “Aly’s dad,” or “Michelle’s husband.” My advantage comes from hanging around with Michelle. If they see me with her, they can guess who I am. When Aly and I get out together, I’ve got it made.
None of this would matter to me nearly so much, except for two former jobs. In Juneau, I worked in radio for several years. Later, I worked at the mental health center. In the former position, people knew who I was, and, if they listened to my show, felt like they knew me, whether I recognized them or not. In the latter, confidentiality dictated that I not greet center clients, unless they greeted me first. Even then, I had to be discrete. For years, when people I didn’t immediately recognize talked to me in public, I had to sort them between the two possible groups before I could react appropriately. That split second of social akwardness always felt like it lasted a lot longer than it did.
I guess that’s why I try to greet everyone I meet with a smile, or at least a pleasant expression. After all, it never seems to hurt.