Density Dilemma II: Additional Observations about the relationship between population density and life.
Note: The first article in this series can be found here.
The first time I looked at population density and the dilemma associated with choosing between highly dense and low density areas I concentrated on three elements that sort of worked together to form something of a cohesive narrative. They were the differences in cost, space, and opportunities. Their is a clear delineation between these when it comes to increasing density. Costs go up the more dense your environment, space is more limited for most people who have average or even above average means, but the more organizations you have, the more opportunities you will have in your professional life. These are fairly quantifiable observations in that they all equate to supply and demand. There are other differences that didn’t quite fit into the first discussion, but I wanted to share some of them. They are cultural aspects that encroach upon the intersection between work and life and should absolutely be considered when considering a move to an area where the population density is dramatically different than what you have experienced previously.
Perception of Timeliness:
There is a temporal component to density. You may have heard it stated that ‘things happen more slowly here’ when in the country or on an island somewhere. Because there is less in so many ways, including less people, less organization’s and less stuff, more consideration is put into interacting with what does exist. The biggest areas we see this is with human exchanges. Less dense areas tend to see a much greater focus on relationships. In my experience these relationships include a more rigid series of norms around formality. As a business example, If you are in the North East, and walk into an appointment your client may start the conversation off with “What do you got for me?”. They are busy, they have a great many things on their plate and little time to entertain the niceties. They wish to get to business quickly. Compare this with the almost religious ceremony that happens when you visit a client in the more rural parts of the south. You sit down, and the first thing you do is talk about the weather, fishing, or about sports teams ranging from little league to Pro. If you really know your client there may be some conversations about borderline taboo topics such as politics you have in common. Only after ten or twenty minutes of this do you actually get down to business. That’s the micro example but i’ve seen the same slow and deliberate pace when it came to how larger organizations move. There is several steps in all process and it always seems like it takes forever to get to the point of action. It’s not just business because business is made of people. These same people exhibit similar cultural norms in familial interactions, in friendly interactions, and throughout all manner of social engagements.
Ultimately the benefit of the slower pace in less dense environments is that there is more time to consider options. There is time to prepare. In the end, usually having more time to achieve a goal is better than having less time, unless of course you really want to get that goal completed. Then density and a focus on the end goal is the better option.
Formality & Reputation:
One of the benefits of a highly dense area is the fact that communities can just be as little as a block or two long. After that it’s very difficult for people to know who you are even in the age of LinkedIn and Facebook. It’s difficult for a negative reputation to travel far. A negative reputation is just not that sticky beyond a certain social or professional circle. It’s easy to escape that circle when you only have to walk a few blocks, or enter a new industry and your in an environment where you can recreate your reputation at will. This is simply not the case in the less dense environment. The best way I have ever heard it described was this way: “In [insert name of small town here] everyone is either kin, or they went to school together, or they go to your church”. I would add as an addendum that everyone has a very long memory. If everyone knows everyone else, and it absolutely seems like that, then your permanent reputation is very important.
In one of the areas that correlates to general lack of wealth, there is less stuff to do in less dense environments. This means there is less focus on achievement and less people trying to sell you an experience. In many cases towns can be defined as the corner of two roads where the Dollar General, a gas station and a couple of other buildings meet. There usually isn’t enough traffic to keep a single screen movie theater in business let alone other urban diversions like bowling alleys sushi restaurants. This is why civic organizations, family, and church tends to take center stage. The pot-luck at the rotary, the car show downtown, and the church sit-in are the big social gatherings. This is where people’s reputation comes in. These events have a statistically larger percentage of the community as a whole take part. What is everyone talking about? Everyone else!
All this means that adhering to the formality and norms of the local community is tremendously important. You need to learn them quickly and never deviate. They are taught at the earliest ages by having the children respond with “Yes Sir” or “Yes Ma’am” and the accepted respectful term for adults is to append Ms. or Mr. to the first name. In addition to the enculturation of respectful interactions, acceptance of the aborhant is simply not something that’s valued, more on this in a bit.
At first glance that formality may seem like a negative, but there are some very strong benefits for formality. Specifically, the formality brings structure to interactions. There are expectations on both sides. The greater the parties meet the expectations the less divergence, this works very well. In other areas, when ‘you don’t quite fit in’, there is definitely the opportunity to become the outcast. Yes, people will be polite to you, but you will wind up finding it difficult to get them to help you move or come over and just hang out. You’ll see the cliques and realize that your not really part of them anymore. I don’t care what the preacher says on Sunday, turning the other cheek is simply not the norm in less dense areas of the country. You can’t go through a bad period of your life and come out two years later and expect everyone to see it. You will always, and I mean always, be tainted by it. This goes back to the idea that by default in less dense areas there isn’t a large group of people who have gone through something similar. It’s more alien for people to have experience dealing with a breakdown or an addiction in their circle so the capacity for compassion and acceptance is diminished.
Differences are so different, they are almost alien.
There are more highly unique personalities in population dense environments.. This results from a positive cycle for aberrant behaviors. If you have developed unique personality traits in the way you dress or act or the values that you have then there is a greater chance that you will run into others like you. You will also have the ability to influence others just by the fact that they interact with you more frequently. If they had a need that could be met by adopting those behaviors, they will do so. The total population of aberrant behaviors ultimately grows. Those that do not need the behavior to have their own psycho social needs met can not escape the aberrant behavior which is now perceived as normal because so many people around them have adopted it.
For the record aberrant behavior could be anything from crossdressing to being a intense intellectual. I’m not really making the judgement on what is aberrant other than to say it’s new and different than what has been exhibited as normal in the past. These new attitudes are adopted and accepted more quickly in the dense areas. It’s almost like a virus, for good or bad, it spreads fast and the whole community adapts to it just as quickly.
Social Impacts Business, this would be obvious except for those that haven’t experienced it before. For some who perceive that they are open minded because of their acceptance of the different behaviors, there is a culture shock that you would experience if you were to go from a dense, or semi-dense area to a country setting. The culture shock doesn’t happen just in the interactions between people on a social level, it permeates all interactions. Going back to the cross dresser, management from a dense area would think they have the experience to deal with ‘all types’ because they lived through things like converting a single sex series of bathrooms to ones designed to accept all sexual variants. I’ve seen these types of ‘I can deal with anyone and anything’ managers move into a country setting and be completely baffled at the unexpected results of their decision making. They are continually reeling because every thing that seems like a common sense decision blows up in their face due to unexpected cultural norms they simply are not experienced enough to comprehend. They do eventually ‘get it’ but it takes always takes a few years for the uninitiated.
Interestingly enough one of the great disconnects between the professional world and life has to do with cultural difference of slow vs. fast and serious vs. casual. You find this difference most pronounced between competitive organizations located in dense areas and country workforces. Many organizations, in a bid to be competitive, will locate manufacturing facilities in much more rural areas than where the home office or home plant is located. The less need for wealth in these areas means that wages and benefits are significantly less than parts of the country that have traditionally been known for industry. Unfortunately management quickly expresses shock that production staff has a tendency to come in on their own time, have no sense of urgency, and request time for for personal, family, and community events. Why can’t I find good people” is a classic lament I have often found from HR Directors and plant managers. They never get the idea that the extra two bucks an hour they fought for a year to get the team wasn’t the only need. The answer is that the culture is different, it takes the company’s many years to realize they are competing for their employees attention, not from another manufacturing organization, but from the employee’s church, their kids and their homies and hunting buddies. Unisex bathrooms and an extra $2/hour for second shift won’t cut it.
A catch-22 for these organizations is that their home office is usually located in areas where the seriousness of the job is much more understood by everyone no matter what the personal identity of the worker is. For these senior managers the concept of rethinking the organization is beyond them. The whole organization needs to comprehend the value of the employees and architect the business in subtle and overt ways. A subtle way is to have a hunting club and shut down for the first week of deer hunting season if the plant has a bunch of deer hunters. I have a hard time believing that corporate leadership located in Ohio would understand the value that brings to a plant located in Siler City, NC filled with country boy welders.
An example of a more outrageous way, would be to accept that the culture of many lower income and less dense areas is one of weekend recreational drug use. Every company on earth it seems has a pee test and nearly 75% — 90% of applicants, many of whom are excellent employees from Monday through Friday, fail to get hired because the test comes back positive. As long term readers will note, my focus area for this blog is the professionals, the ones hiring and managing the workforce in question. When insurance adjuster driven corporate policy demands a workforce environment that is nearly impossible to create, the professionals tasked with creating it and managing it enter into a no win situation. Again, the new bathroom sign won’t cut it.
When writing there are some articles I love because they tell a highly cohesive narrative. There are some I find challenging because although the parts are there, they don’t quite fit together like a well made puzzle. In this case of the Density Dilemma articles, they are the latter. There are clearly massive differences in the reality of dense vs. rural environments and it’s worth noting and exploring their impact on work and life. We see this visually every single election cycle when the red and blue states go up on the election board. Those colors aren’t just political parties, they are completely different lifestyles, values, and cultures. Understanding the cultural difference is good, but sometimes our own life experiences will keep us from every truly understanding or being apart of what is actually going on, even if we mistakenly think we do. If we will never truly understand the culture enough to be apart of it, that’s a very strong point for reconsidering a move away from what you are familiar with, no matter how good the alternate opportunity may seem.
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