I’ve lived in many places over the course of my life. I’ve lived in many kinds of places, too. Apartments, condos, and single-family homes both in urban and suburban neighborhoods. I’ve lived in these places as single person, with a roommate, and as part of a family. In the suburban neighborhood in which I currently reside, a place I’ve called home for three years, neighbors are folks I wave to and occasionally have a brief conversation with – usually about the weather. I know what kinds of cars they drive, if they have kids and/or dogs, and if they do their own yardwork. It’s fine, but there’s no real sense of community, of belonging. It can be a bit lonely, especially if my partner is travelling, and my friends are busy.
I hadn’t thought about it too much, until I learned the story of a friend’s daughter who moved from her city apartment in another state to her childhood home in the suburbs to settle her father’s estate. She’d not lived in the house for a decade, and many of the neighbors had changed since she lived there last. She was there alone, but within months, knew all the neighbors, their kids, and their pets by name. And she could count on several of these neighbors to give her a lift somewhere (being a city girl, she’d never learned to drive), check for packages left on the front porch, pet sit her dog, keep an eye on her house when she traveled, or join her for a glass of wine. And she would babysit their kids and watch their pups. Before heading back to her city apartment for the holidays, she delivered homemade treats to all these new friends.
Which kind of neighbor are you? Do you know your neighbors? Do you want to know your neighbors? After comparing my most recent neighbor experience to that of my friend’s daughter, I found myself a bit envious. Although I am an introvert, the idea of having people nearby who could do more that nod their head in passing has great appeal. According to NPR’s Life Kit podcast, a 2018 Pew Research study found that roughly a quarter of adults under 30 report that they don’t know any of their neighbors. So I am not alone!
Research says that there’s a sense of comfort and safety that can come with knowing your neighbors — and building a safe and caring community is a valuable way to stay connected to the place you live. So how exactly does one go about becoming neighborly?
Say More Than Hi
Get out of your comfort zone and make an effort to learn the names of your neighbors, what they do for a living, if they have kids or pets. Not only is this a great first step in getting to know them, it a great frist step in know how to be the kind of neighbor they will appreciate. You’ll know if there are times you need to keep the volume down because of their work schedule or baby’s sleep schedule. And if you are respectful of their needs, they will probably reciprocate. If you feel comfortable, let them know that you’re there to help, if they ever need another hand.
It doesn’t take a lot of money or a grand gesture to be a good neighbor. You don’t have to show up with a fresh apple pie (although that would be awesome). It’s truly as simple as saying hello, introducing yourself and asking an open-ended question. If all your neighbors have been around for a while, this may feel like an awkward activity, but can be easily resolved with a simple conversation opener like, “Hey, neighbor! We’ve shared a wall for months, but I don’t even know your name. I’m John; what’s your name?”
Practice Small Kind Gestures
Life Kit suggests that another way to take care of your neighborhood, and to show your neighbors that you care, is by making small acts of kindness a daily practice. Even apartment dwellers can get in on this concept by picking up litter, cleaning up missed pet poop, or bringing your neighbor’s package up from the mailroom. Maybe you can offer to pick up mail, walk a dog, or pick up milk and bread for a neighbor who is ill, or a new parent who is harried.
Being Connected Feels Good
Life Kit goes on to say, “It can feel so easy to just go home, close your door and turn on the TV without having to make small talk, but connecting with others is worth the effort. As nerve-wracking as it is, reaching out to new people can actually boost your mood in the long run. According to an article by Emma Seppälä, “social connectedness … generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being.”
This can be the first step in the concept of Paying It Forward we’ve all heard about. Marta Zaraska, who is the author of Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100, shares that once in 2013, “there was an instance in Winnipeg at a local Tim Hortons, where one driver decided to pay for the meal or the coffee of the driver behind him at the drive-thru. And that driver was so grateful, he decided to pay for the driver behind him.” According to reports on this incident, the chain of kindness went on for more than 200 drivers! This phenomenon continues onto this day. How can you incorporate this idea into being a better neighbor?
Expand Your People Horizons
It’s easy to stay within our comfort zone, keep our heads down, and avoid interaction with those who live near us. As kids we’re taught about “stranger danger”; perhaps mistrustfulness of folks we don’t know is a carryover from our youth. But taking the initiative to know your neighbors can have so many benefits. It can open the door to easing conflicts such as loud music, stomping, barking dogs, etc. as these kinds of issues are always more easily resolved with a friendly conversation than getting management involved. It could also lead to making new friends.
Check Your Bias
Looking out for your neighbors is an important part of creating a sense of community. But, as Life Kit points out, “before you go all “neighborhood watch” on someone, if something is making you feel unsafe, take a deeper look at the power dynamics at play: Why do you feel like someone doesn’t fit in?” If you are inclined to report someone to management, or call the police, ask yourself why you feel uncomfortable and unsafe, rather than putting the blame on your neighbors. Getting to know your neighbors and taking care of your community are valuable ways to feel safer in your community. Even if your goal is not to make friends with those who live around you, it’s important to treat everyone with respect and care.
And you never know, new friends and better neighbors can be right next door.