“Treat every place as if it were a small town.”
This advice comes from Kate Klonick, a professor who teaches courses in information privacy at St. Johns University. She crafted that sentence to warn people against disclosing private information in public places where we think we are unobserved.
But add just seven more words, and her advice skyrockets in relevance: “Treat every place as if it were a small town because this will train you in accountability.”
Born and raised in a small town, I was quick to volunteer for accountability training. At age 5, I showed up in my kindergarten class with a bad bruise on my chin. My teacher asked me how I got the bruise.
The true but embarrassing answer: “I tripped and fell.”
The answer I gave: “My big sister pushed me.”
Within a very few hours, my kindergarten teacher ran into my mother. “I wouldn’t worry,” the teacher said. “My own kids fight all the time.” Puzzled, my mother asked her why she made this remark.
Just a few short minutes later, I was the beneficiary of a lasting lesson in small-town accountability.
Understand, I am not romanticizing small towns, and I am not exaggerating the harmony of those communities. But I am asserting that nearly every day confronts small-town residents with a choice: “Shall I invest a brief amount of time in thinking about what I am tempted to say? Or would I prefer to speak impulsively, and then invest a vast amount of time in cleaning up after myself?”
Given the frailty of human nature, the lesson delivered by making the wrong choice can still require reinforcement. Returning for a visit after I had departed for college, I went with my mother to the annual high school play. Directed by a teacher new to town, the performance went poorly, with many forgotten lines and bungled moves on stage. During the intermission, my mother and I were overcome with hilarity, and we spoke mockingly of the director’s troubles.
And then an acquaintance sitting nearby intervened. “You should know,” he said, “that you are sitting right behind the director’s wife.”
Lesson learned. Or, actually, relearned for the thousandth time.
These lessons in accountability do not add up to a prescription for timid silence. On the contrary, their modest goal is to lower the level of noise and to reinforce the wisdom packed into that familiar phrase, Pick your battles.
So why not frame these final two weeks of March as a large-scale social psychology experiment? Starting now, let’s take those promising ten words — “Treat every place as if it were a small town” — for a well-deserved test run.
Patty Limerick is faculty director and chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.
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