Just before we ended our trip, Greg and I got a letter in response to our midway posting. It was from a couple in Wells, Nevada. And they weren’t pleased.
The letter addressed some interesting concerns – our experiences being too brief to really witness a full town; timing; circumstance. The thought that we are judging a whole town on just the few people that we meet.
Because the person who wrote the letter has not given me explicit permission to post it, I will refrain. But I would like to post our response, because I think it gets at something important.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. [Person],
Thank you so much for your feedback. We apologize for anything we may have said that offended you.
We reread our blog post after receiving your email. We'd love to post your letter along with this response on the blog if you don't mind - I think the feedback could start a very positive conversation about first the affect of our film and commentary.
The blog is about our impressions, our voices; but in the movie the story will be told by the voices of the others; Wells will speak for itself.
We would, however, like to address your concerns about our impressions and the commentary we chose to make.
Our comments were not mean to be derogatory but simply a description of what we experienced. We're sorry that we did not include the two of you and your kindness in the description of our day. But, as you'll notice we did certainly mention some of the other friendly people we met, who eventually led us to our hosts in the evening.
This post is about first impressions. If you'll notice I cited my own bad mood and rough start in the morning as a partial cause of my negative impression, The entirety of the post focuses on the fact that even when we start with a bad impression and a bad mood we can still have a positive day. Each blog post is about a lesson we learned. That was the lesson that Wells taught us.
Unfortunately, we can only spend a day in each town, and that day is all we get to glimpse the people. We don't pick who we interact with intending to have a bad experience - our film and our comfort depend on us finding the kindness in others. And we are making this film because we feel positively about the country. But, the people we met in Wells were not always so friendly - we had not yet experienced the kind of dismissal that happened frequently there.
You cited rushing as the source of this rudeness, a wedding is an important thing to be on time to, but tone and action speak much louder than words. And even if you are rushing, it's not difficult to say the same words in a nice way. Everyone is an ambassador for where they live - and you represented your city well. But the city manager, the people in the parking lot at the grocery store, they could have been nicer without taking up any more of their time.
I do feel badly about my first paragraph - but as I said, that was our first impression. The dilapidated buildings rarely speak for the people, and I distinguish very carefully appearance and experience. We have visited other communities where our first impressions were rather jarring. And we acknowledge that first impressions are often proven wrong. In other places we've visited we have had amazing experiences despite the first few minutes, and that's what makes an interesting story. Every first impression raises questions about a town - especially in a case like Wells - and we use our interviews to try and answer them. But so much of our project is about people, and this is how people interact all the time. We form an understanding of someone within a few seconds of meeting them; it's through conversation that a person is able to reinforce that understanding or alter it. Only through experience can we begin to understand.
I am from the West. Southern Colorado to be exact and I am very proud of the way that I represent that part of the country and the way that part of the country represents me. In general, I would hope that you would not let your perception of our blog taint your opinion of everyone in a certain group: your assumed Easterners. Your email wants us to see that a few people cannot speak for a whole town, I'd ask you to do the same. I wrote the blog post about Wells; Greg (who is from the East) had no part of it. I tried to write it as honestly as I could - but in a way that would reflect who I am and my opinions. The blog cannot be completely unbiased because it is only my voice; it's a travelogue. This portion of the story is not supposed to be fact (I think both of us have our biases based on our experiences).
We've talked a lot about tone. The way in which someone says something having a huge impact on how we received it. The tone of your email and the words that you chose suggest to me that you are angry and saddened at the way we received your town - but acting hostilely towards us is not the best way help us see your town in a better light.
I want to apologize for making you feel like we did not enjoy our experiences in Wells - we did. It was a day that we learned a lot from. I did not mean to make you feel sad or angry and I would like it if you would allow me to post your letter so that people can see the pride that you have for your town. I think it's a very positive thing that your community came together after the earthquake and I very much appreciated your interview.
I would also like to ask that you support me in wanting to visit Wells in the future. The last line of your email suggested that you never want to see us again; but I would love to give you the opportunity to show us the parts of Wells that you are so fond of. We I have always talked about doing a screening tour with the film, visiting all the communities we initially stayed in and creating a positive dialogue on trust, fear and American culture. We'd love to return and have that conversation.
Thank you for your email, we are always learning and always willing to learn.
We look forward to your response.
Sarah Sellman and Greg Grano
The thing I keep thinking about is this: Our opinions are just a small part of a larger picture, but also, the way we interact with communities was consistent throughout our travels. Every town had the same opportunity to make a good or bad impression.
And that’s really all it is for now - an impression. I don’t mean that all of our experiences were surface level, but only that the assessments of each community were less than full and thorough – though our experiences with individuals speak towards the character of the place. We got to know the individuals incredible well. I am excited to continue speaking to all of the people we met, to continue creating a solid relationship and maybe eventually visit them again.
And I think I’d like to befriend Wells. There were some pretty friendly people there – some pretty kind hearted strangers, even if the majority of experiences were with people who had strange tones. And even if the letter from the enraged citizen was harsh, they cared enough to write it, so it must be a pretty wonderful place (to them at the very least).