Hunkering and the Art of Rural Communication

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The standard hunkering position, from which much producting conversation can flow.

Longhairs, gentle people, back-to-the-earthers … whatever name we go by, we’re all going to make it in our venture with the land in proportion to our practical and psychological readiness, plus our ability to learn as we go along.

And, I conjecture, some of us will fail because we don’t know how to hunker … and never find out.

On one level, hunkering is the squatting-on-the-haunches posture assumed by many country folk outdoors, especially when there’s something serious to discuss or ponder. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck describes the position like this:

. . . and then he squatted down in the dust and found astick to draw with. One foot was flat to the ground, the other rested on the ball and slightly back, so that one knee was higher than the other. Left forearm rested on the lower, left, knee; the right elbow on the right knee, and the right fist cupped for the chin …

But the art of hunkering goes far beyond physical posture to encompass tact, sensitivity and all the other aspects of effective communication between human beings. I use the word to mean the whole process of relating to other people, especially to those whose values are not one’s own. And I believe that mastering this skill just might be the key to success in your particular corner of the Gentle Revolution.

Obviously, the suggestions I offer here are meant basically for those who are living in the country for the first time and trying to make a go of homesteading with a little book learning and a lot of grit. But I think that the principles of hunkering will help anyone who’s working to create his own lifestyle in a community of strangers … whatever the setting may be.

Then again, why should you go out of your way to communicate … particularly with people whose ways are radically different from your own? Well, there are solid philosophical reasons having to do with understanding other points of view, respecting such beliefs, and enriching your own life thereby … but let’s stick with the pragmatics of the situation.

Say you need to know how to hitch up a team, when to plant strawberries, how deep to sink a fence post-hole, or the answer to any one of a thousand other day-to-day questions. No amount of reading and research is going to provide all the information you need, and even MOTHER EARTH NEWS can’t help you when the problem involves the peculiarities of a given county, township, or 20-acre field. So, if you’re going to succeed on your own special bit of land, you need on-the-spot aid and advice … and what better source is there than your neighbor, who likely met up with and solved the same problem 40 years ago?

OK, you’re willing to ask for assistance. That’s half the battle, but only half … because that man up the road is not an automated teaching device but a human being. If he likes you, he’ll lend you a hand. But if he thinks you’re nothing but a longhaired hippie weirdo (who’s running down property values just by being around and should have stayed where you came from), he won’t lift a finger for you.

Maybe that’s not the way it should be, but in my experience, that’s the way it is. If you want the blessings of neighborliness, you’ll have to put some work into establishing good relations. And if your efforts help–even a tittle bit–to improve the image of gentle people with the larger community, maybe the rest of us will benefit. It’s worth a try anyway.

One more point before we get down to the meat of this hunkering business: my credentials. First, all the places I’ve lived over the past seven years–in two states and a province–have been in the country. Then I’ve had dealings of one sort or another with scores of rural families and learned a lot from my mistakes and insensitivities. And that learning has been essential for me because, as a freelance writer, I’m pretty much dependent for my material on the good will of others who have little or nothing to gain from spending hours on end to satisfy my curiosity about their affairs. Beyond that, I have some training in psychology that’s been more or less helpful in making local contacts. I’ve also talked at length with an anthropologist and a practicing psychologist (country dwellers both) about the techniques of hunkering. Much of the following advice is based on their trained observations.

My first suggestion is that in your early contacts with local people it’s important to rid yourself of any notion that you’re “bringing yourself down to their level”. True, you’re probably better educated, more widely traveled, and maybe even wealthier than your new neighbors. You read more, and perhaps you’re more in tune with the times. But you’re the one who’s going to them for help and advice, not the other way around. Their experience has made them experts at the kind of life you’re seeking. They have the knowhow you need. Nobody’s lowering himself in this interaction . . . you’re just moving over toward the other fellow’s position. I hope that point seems obvious to you. I took a devil of a long time to learn it.

With that basic ground rule established, let’s say you’re approaching Ed Hopkins–the owner of the next farm over–with a specific problem: you need to know who owns the fence between your field and his. You moved in a few weeks ago, but you haven’t had any contact with this chap other than a wave as you go by on the road.

Although you might view your visit as a fairly straightforward errand, Ed sees the transaction in a somewhat different light. You need only some basic information, but he wants to know who you are, where you come from, what you’re doing over there on the old McAllister place, and the identity of those other people living with you. That’s the conversational small change he’ll spend talking down at the store with his cronies … and that’s part of the price you have to pay for what you want to know. It’s no use bemoaning the infringement on your precious privacy. The “nosiness” of rural neighbors is inevitable. If you want perfect isolation, you’ll get it in a warrenlike Manhattan apartment house, not in the country.

So you find your neighbor in his driveway, fiddling with his hay baler … and willy-nilly, you start getting your message across even before you open your mouth. Among other cues, Ed notes your looks, your clothes, long hair, beard or whatever. He may or may not be put off by your “different” appearance, and he may stare … but it’s likely that he’ll be more tolerant of your oddities than the average bank teller or department store clerk in the city.

At this point, how you approach can make a vast difference in Mr. Hopkins’ reaction. The speed with which you walk up to him, the expression on your face, whether you’re smiling or not, your posture and the way you hold your arms all speak volumes about your intentions toward him. You can come on belligerently and seemingly hostile, or you can be open and friendly. You can appear aggressive and threatening–by closing the distance between Ed and yourself too rapidly–or you can be diffident and respectful in your advance. Bear clown on your neighbor with a tense, clenched manner and you’ve created an atmosphere that makes it easy for him to dislike you.

But draw near in a relaxed, easygoing, candid fashion … and you’re in business.

It’s important to respect psychological distance between strangers, both in terms of open space between your persons and in terms of eye contact. You need to move in slowly and know when to stop (the other person’s body language will tell you) to avoid his recoiling from you. Also, take care not to be too aggressive when you look at your neighbor. Good communication calls for a frank, nonfurtive meeting of the eyes, but it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. If you don’t shift your gaze just before or just after Ed does, he’ll regard your stare–at least on some subconscious level-either as insolence or as a downright threat.

All this communication, remember, occurs before you’ve said a word and sets the scene for the discussion to come. And if you think my description of a “simple” action sounds a bit complicated or overdone, please recall one fact: Although the city person may have dozens of contacts with strangers every day, the country dweller may go for weeks without seeing anyone but his family and longtime friends. What is a casual meeting for you may be an event for him.

Now, what do you say when you do open the conversation, and how do you say it? Chances are–rural communication systems being what they are–Ed already knows your name and something about you … but it won’t hurt to introduce ourself with a smile and a “Good morning, Mr. Hopkins”. If you don’t know his name, “sir” will do nicely. Then, you’ll want to observe the universal rapport-breeding ritual of brief chitchat about the weather and the crops.

These preliminaries serve not only to break the ice but also to give you an idea of Ed’s reaction to you and your approach. If he’s sullen, cold and defensive, you’ll have to work on building a warmer climate before popping your question. On the other hand. if he’s friendly and receptive half the work is done.

That first reading of Hopkins’ response to you is crucial–because his early impression is the basis on which everything else is built. This fellow isn’t a gas station attendant with whom your our contact is limited to “Fill ‘er up”. He’s your neighbor, and you’re going to be seeing a lot of him. Also, it may be this initial meeting that establishes your reputation in the community either as a smart alec or as a reasonable, well-intentioned person.

Which judgment Ed makes will depend at least in part on how you talk during this meeting and those to come. I found early on that I had to watch the tone and pace of my speech very carefully. The voice needs to be low, slow, modulated and friendly … not brisk or clipped. Also, although your natural tendency may be to ask your question and get out of there, this just can’t be done in rural intercourse. If you’re like me, you may have to continually force yourself to take your time about coming to the point, to slow your speech and even to allow occasional silences. It seems to me-though I have no real evidence for my belief–that country folk are less upset than city dwellers by lapses in conversation and feel less need to fill the pauses with idle chatter.

In fact, I find that as I grow to know my neighbors better I have to allow myself more and more time to accomplish simple errands … because I know I’ll be a while coming to the reason for my visit and perhaps even longer lingering in conversation afterward.

Now what can be said about the point itself, that is, the phrasing of your question or request? Probably best is an indirect form that gives the other person an out and leaves him the option of helping you or not, rather than putting him into a situation he has to wriggle away from. Master such phrasing as “Say, I’ve been wondering how . . . ” instead of “Do you know how. . . ” and “Do you know anyone who might. . . ” instead of “Will you . . . “. When you use these graceful and considerate forms, Ed can back out easily–turn you down–without feeling like an ogre. In addition, he has the option of referring you to someone else better able to handle the problem if he’s unwilling or unable to help you himself.

Moreover, your query or request ought to be just as specific and well thought out as you can make it. After all, your accent is probably strange, your appearance distracting, and your point somewhat out of the ordinary. You want to avoid confusing Mr. Hopkins. There’s nothing quite so pitiful as two people talking at each other when neither has anything but the haziest idea of what the other is driving at.

In my contacts with neighbors, I’ve found that my readiness to ask questions and to admit my ignorance is a substantial help in building friendly relations. Nobody feels threatened by an inquirer who acknowledges the other person’s expertise and his own lack of it. This approach also serves to remind me of my real place in the situation whenever I’m getting high-flown ideas of my own competence. Pleasure at being asked for an opinion is not unique to country people, of course, and much of what I’ve already suggested is good psychology anywhere. There are, however, specific rural conventions of speech and behavior that need to be respected. One universal country custom–and one that you should be aware of if you drop in at the Hopkins’ farm sometime when no one is in sight–is announcing one’s presence by some less startling means than knocking on the door or ringing the bell (there probably isn’t one anyway). The dog is likely to arouse the household, but if not, it’s a good idea to approach the house slowly and maybe even to holler “Hello!”.

Then, when your neighbor eventually shows up, don’t be surprised if he prefers to transact business outside in good weather … probably hunkered down in the yard. After some practice the position is comfortable, and the conversation is less strained outdoors than it would be sitting stiffly in the parlor (the domain of the women and the formally visiting preacher). When you find yourself quite automatically lowering yourself to your haunches and looking for something to do with your hands (twisting a piece of grass or baling poking at the gravel or maybe drawing designs in the dust with a stick), you’re on your way to productive rural communication.

Finally, when you have the information you need–or the means of getting it elsewhere–don’t break off the contact abruptly as you might with a clerk or TV repairman. The code of rural neighborliness requires more than perfunctory conversation before taking leave. And who knows but that you’ll find out something you hadn’t thought to ask?

I recall one incident that points up the necessity for respecting convention and for being sensitive to local usages. An old man, a bachelor neighbor of 80 or so, used to make his way over to my place aided by his tobacco stick cane … ostensibly to check the condition of the leaf curing in my rented barn space, but really because he was lonesome. Old George used to say, as he was leaving my yard, “C’mon over now.” I would answer, “Sure, I’ll do that,” and promptly forget about it … until I finally realized that his invitation was a genuine, literal one: he wanted me to go back with him right then, both to accompany him and to partake of his hospitality when we got there. Up to that time I had been blatantly insensitive to his meaning.

And this brings up the necessity for having contact with your neighbors at times when you don’t need anything from them, just to be neighborly. You’ll probably have to take the initiative for the first visits on yourself. Seek out the oldtimers … they were farming before there was much machinery, before the one-crop megafarms.

Eventually–if you’re going about all this in the right way and the folks nearby come to like you as a person–you’ll find yourself being tested in a friendly, nonmalevolent way. You may be invited to swallow a raw clam (as I was by French-speaking clam-diggers in New Brunswick) or to try your hand at some demanding chore like tobacco stripping … or to eat uncooked salmon, as my anthropologist friend Mary Selden was asked to do by Eskimo families she visited in Alaska. The point here is not whether you “pass” or “fail” the test but whether you’re willing to play the game with grace and good will. You may bungle the “job”, but–if you’re a good sport, willing to laugh at your own ineptness and not take your own dignity too seriously–you’ll prove the stuff you’re made of and come through the initiation in good style. “Primitive” people have been doing this sort of thing to anthropologists and other visitors for a long time, I’m told. Some outsiders make the grade and others fail dismally.

Finally, consider this summation of the art of hunkering written many years ago by Horace Kephart, a man who made a new life for himself among the people of the southern Appalachians:

Tact… implies the will and the insight to put yourself truly in the other man’s place. Imagine yourself born, bred, circumstanced like him. It implies, also, the courtesy of doing as you would be done by if you were in that fellow’s shoes. No arrogance, no condescension, but man to man on a footing of equal manliness.