Small Towns, “Knowing Everybody,” and Erasure – Hidden Power of Words Series, #25

Today at lunch I overheard a comment the greeter made to a customer as she seated him. She said something to the effect of so you’ve been in Lake Jackson for fifty years and then said, “so you know everybody and their dog, too.”

So-called “small towns” have a long habit of suggesting and believing that individuals with a certain amount of residency and/or visibility “know everybody.” While such is typically not meant to be taken completely seriously because how could any one know everybody?? (all kinds of different studies suggest a person can only know around 150 people), there are a number of problems.

This ideology is perpetuated in media, too. In the clip below from America’s Got Talent Daniel Joyner says that he lives in Alamo, Tennessee, a town with 5,000 people and that “every one of them knows your name.” 

Lake Jackson, the town where the comment occurred, has a population of around 30,000 people, plus there are thousands of additional people in other “small towns” that are right next door. The collective area easily has 100,000 people.

The “you know everybody” rhetoric in addition to being an exaggeration/figure of speech is also embodied with White privilege, often accompanied by male privilege and heterosexual privilege, too. When we say a person “knows everybody” it doesn’t include and can’t include people who for some reason or another do not and cannot exist in public spaces. This includes people who are too sick whether because of age or physical or mental disability to live beyond their place of residence. People who are incarcerated, people who homeless, or people who lack the economic resources (cars, food, being in public is expensive) are also excluded from “you know everybody” by definition and beyond any personal choice. Children are also deleted. Because of privilege and discrimination, people who are non-cis-male, non-White, non-heterosexual are more likely to exist in positions that are beyond the seen and known everyday world of Whiteness and the privilege it brings. 

When we say a person “knows everybody” we are erasing the humanity of those who can’t be known, people society has said can’t and shouldn’t be known in many cases.

“Knows everybody” rhetoric, additionally, tends to embody inaccurate notions about the supposed and imagined homogenous nature of society and “small towns.” When we label somebody as “knowing everybody” or someone says they “know everybody” they are typically not picturing people in the full spectrum of human diversity that is all around them even though they don’t and can’t see it.     

There is also a problem with the “and their dog” comment. Partly, this blindly perpetuates notion of what it means to be a United Statesian and live the “dream.” Additionally and much more importantly, it perpetuates a problem of elevating cats and dogs above non-White people in part because non-White people are frequently omited from “everybody” (I got this particular idea in an article I read sometime this summer, but I don’t remember which one and can’t find it).

Words matter.

For my other blogs about the peculiar nature of the small town, see The Myth of the Small TownInescapable Problems, and Exercises in the Philosophy of History

Andrew Joseph Pegoda