"You can't choose your family, but you can choose your friends" is an often-used saying. What about neighbors, though? They fall, I say, somewhere between — whether we own or rent, are financially comfortable or struggling, most of us get some say in where we live. When we're in the process of looking for a new home, many of us actively consider not just the location and the physical features of the neighborhood, but also the people in it. Some of us may even knock on some potential neighbors' doors to feel them out before making the decision.
My two kids and I have been living in an apartment in the center of a large-ish city for two years now, and overall, I really like the neighborhood. It's a place of at-first-glance anonymous apartment buildings, broken up by busy streets, not the kind of place where everyone has known each other for 30 years and knows what blood pressure meds their next-door neighbor is on. I'm a person who likes minding her own business and who appreciates it when others do the same — "hello!" and "great weather today!" is really my maximum preferred interaction with people who happen to live nearby, though I don't mind lending tools if someone's washing machine broke, or something like that.
I got exactly that level of communication until an older woman I'd never seen before in my life approached me while my children and I were walking to the little shop a few minutes away to grab some cat food. "Excuse me?", she said. "Yes?", I answered, wondering if she'd be asking for directions or the time or something. The interaction that followed was much more unsettling.
That was it.
OK, lady, if you see us playing cards even though we have blinds and use them, you've probably seen me in my underwear, too. Sorry, I guess.
The next day, we went out to buy those plastic sheets that are meant to prevent people from seeing in — blinds alone weren't doing the job, apparently. The story has an epilogue, one that provoked this article — back at the aforementioned little shop, months and months on, the cashier mentioned that neighbor. I assume it's the same one, anyway. "She was talking about you, saying how great you are." That's nice, I guess, but it doesn't feel that way. This is someone whose name I don't know. Someone I would never be able to pick out from a police line-up. But she knows me, apparently, and my children. Excuse me if the fact that she is able to watch us from across a pretty wide street, closely enough to then recognize us in the neighborhood, freaks me out. Excuse me if her talking about us, who are total strangers to her, feels a little stalkerish.
Oh, we live in Eastern Europe, by the way. When I mentioned this little anecdote to a US friend from a big city, she said to call the cops. My cousin in Western Europe, meanwhile, thought that this kind of interaction would make the perfect start to a suburban horror movie. My friend from the same general area had a different reaction — "you might not know your neighbors, but boy do they know you", she simply observed.
That got me thinking. People from "here" who live in Western Europe often comment on the coldness of their neighbors. "They don't even say hello" is a sentiment I've frequently heard. Sounds like heaven to me from where I'm sitting right now (probably under neighborly observation), but different people have different needs. Research shows, for instance, that good relations with neighbors strengthen psychological wellbeing in older adults, and that initiatives aiming to "get neighbors together" are growing in popularity .
Some people rely on their neighbors as their informal support networks , while architects and urban planners contemplate how the physical features of a space influence neighbors' ability to socialize with one another , though others note that social interaction between neighbors requires at least some degree of shared values, background, or interests .
"When I went into anaphylactic shock from an allergy to medication I was taking, all it took was a quick call — my neighbor was happy to drive me to hospital," she continued, "something for which I'm especially grateful because I'm pretty sure an ambulance would have had trouble finding my address."
Carol, who doesn't live anywhere as remotely, had a similar story — when her young son wanted to see what happened if he stuck his hands in the blender and turned it on, her neighbors were happy to look after their older kids while they spent the night at the ER.
Medical emergencies can bring neighbors together and help us circumvent the barriers that usually remain up, but discussions about health issues can also be an unwelcome intrusion. When I asked for neighbor stories, I heard about the person who thought it was appropriate to mention he'd had a vasectomy when he learned his neighbor was pregnant, the gardener sharing the excrutiating details of his humungous hemhorroids — "I'm gonna have to get them lasered off" — and the woman who described her uterine prolapse and the surgery she was going to have to fix it.
Some neighbors are real keepers — when Rachel and Alex got back from their honeymoon, they would have returned to a huge hole in their roof if it wasn't for their neighbor. He spotted the raccoon who caused it and patched up the hole. Brian, meanwhile, grew up in the kind of neighborhood that organized collective camping trips for the children, and is still good friends with some of them.
Still, ask for neighbor stories, and you'll mostly get bad ones. Katherine's child was bitten by the dog her neighbor persistently refused to leash. Dale and Abby's neighbor broke into their house while they were away, and trashed the place. When Jenny's cat did what cats do, and killed a pigeon, her neighbor called the police to "have her arrested for murder", right in front of her. No, they didn't show up. People may think that suburban living is less isolating and more conducive to happiness than living in bustling urban centers , but these stories, all of which come from suburbs, cast some doubt.
Lilly's story's got to be the highlight of all the ones I was told, but not because it was so shocking. You see, I wanted to get neighbor-related stories from as diverse a group of people as possible, so I asked for them on a private Facebook group, announcing I was writing an article and wanted some juice.
"If you're OK with really petty," Lilly said, "I've got a good one for you. PM me." I did. A while later, a series of recordings landed in my message box. Lilly was driving as she spoke — I could hear the sounds of an indicator. "We had a barely one-year-old baby," she explained in a very articulate and distinctly American voice, "and being so busy, we'd let our garden go a bit." Onto the next recording. "So our neighbor got a ladder out, climbed over the fence, and hacked all our rhubarb down." Next recording. "So I called the cops," Lilly said almost giddily. The cops came over and told the neighbor to grow up, she added in the messenger.
The lady across the street? Nope, I'm not comfortable with her in the least. Lilly, however, was comfortable with me, as much of a stranger to her as that neighbor is to me, to the point of sending me recordings of her voice. She was sharing the exact kind of story our parents and grandparents would probably have told to their neighbors.
This leads me to a conclusion that's quite different from the one I thought I'd be writing — older adults benefit from closer relationship with their neighbors, and Japanese men are happier when they live in areas with neighborhood associations . For the rest of us, the internet has become our global neighborhood. You may be uncomfortable when your elderly neighbor shares his hemhorroid stories in person, but hiding behind screens, that'd be fair game, too. We're all human, and we all need other humans. As we interact, we form connections and even friendships, or get into fights and even become enemies. Folks on the internet? Neighbors? Maybe there's no real difference.