Commentary: How to Understand Rural/Urban Differences, Both Real and Imagined

An informal work-place “study” shows us some of the ways rural and urban residents talk about their values differently.


George Washington warned us all too well of the dangers of extreme partisanship–stating in his Farewell Address, “It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and … foments occasionally riot and insurrection.” Today most of us are seeing, if not experiencing, the contempt that many liberals hold for conservatives, and conservatives for liberals.

Since the presidential election, there has also been a lot of discussion about the rural/urban “divide.” While it is fair to say that rural communities tend to be more conservative than most urban communities, many rural communities are pretty “purple,” with a healthy mix of both parties.

If we want to better understand and bridge the rural/urban “divide” we need to dig deeper than just repeating stereotypes about conservatives and liberals.

To that end, a couple weeks ago, I walked around the offices of the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative Office & Training Center in Sauk City. I informally asked people what they had heard from urban individuals and organizations that seemed different from what they hear in rural Wisconsin; what expressions or ideas just didn’t ring “true”?

The things I heard were illuminating, and I’ve listed some of them below. I don’t offer these as absolute truths. There’s too much variety in both rural and urban places to come up with a single set of statements about either. I intend this list as a place to start conversations, not end them.

Here’s some of what we found in our Saulk City office:

“Urban” Talk May Tend Toward “Rural” Talk May Tend Toward
My Values Don’t Differ from Rural My Values Differ from Urban
With Healthcare, Bigger Is Better With Healthcare, Local Is Better
Regulated Interdependence Voluntary Interdependence
Specialists Are More Useful Generalists Are More Useful
Appreciate Government Support Feel Get Unfair Share Government $
“Progressive” Describes Progress “Progressive” May Not Be Progress
Separation of Church and State Under Siege Christianity Under Siege
Equity Is About Outcomes Fairness Is About the Process
Equity Focus on Racial Disparities Fairness Focus on Economic Disparities
Happy Holidays Merry Christmas

I am grateful to be part of Wisconsin Partners (a new association of statewide associations and local regional community building initiatives.) Our focus is on doing real work but understanding that it must start by taking the time to build relationships. With help from Wisconsin Partners colleagues, I have learned that taking the time to better understand each other as individuals is a great way to “find the common ground” to accomplish real work.

Yaffa Fredrick, in her essay “Welcome to the Fractured States of America,” quotes the American filmmaker Ken Burns: “We all have stories. And sometimes they lead us back to emotions and feelings we have in common.” She goes on to say, “That may require breaking out of our red and blue silos and actually grabbing beers with someone of a different political persuasion.”

With or without beer (or cheese curds), we can find that rural and urban have more in common if we take the time to discuss our real differences and understand our imagined ones.

Forty-one pairs of “Conversation Starters re Urban-Rural Language Differences and Other Stumbling Blocks to Understanding Our Working Together” are available at:

Tim Size is executive director of the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative.