The Art and Science of Being a Good Neighbor


One day when I was about 9, my mom received a frantic phone call from our next door neighbor, Mrs. King, who wasn’t home at the time. She had been trying to reach the babysitter who was watching her daughter, and no one was picking up. Could my mom go over to the house to check on them? We ran over and found them — fortunately unharmed — locked in a closet by a burglar!

We didn’t socialize with the Kings regularly, though occasionally I played with their daughter. (She had an amazing wardrobe for her Barbies.) But we knew we could count on each other for everyday help and emergencies. Our interactions with our other next-door neighbors were less dramatic — I babysat their two little boys. My parents’ friends, the Lawrences, who hosted an annual holiday open house, were a few doors down. The rest we knew by sight to smile at and wave.

Interactions like these in my 1960s childhood in suburban New York informed my behavior as an adult. I like to know my neighbors, even if just casually. But this type of relationship may be waning: According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, a majority of Americans surveyed (57 percent) reported that they knew some of their neighbors; only 26 percent say they knew most of them. And while about two-thirds of respondents who knew some of their neighbors felt comfortable leaving a set of house keys with them for emergencies, social get-togethers were pretty uncommon. Of those who said they knew at least some of their neighbors, a majority or 58 percent say they never socialize with them. Interestingly, rural residents were more likely than suburban or urban ones to know all or most of their neighbors, though they weren’t more likely to interact with them.

According to those who study human relationships, there are primarily two types of social ties — “weak” ones, like, say, your loose connection to a local barista, your kids’ teacher, etc. and strong ones, like your closest friends and family. Dr. Marissa King, professor of organizational behavior at Yale School of Management and author of Social Chemistry: Decoding the Patterns of Human Behavior, says neighbors represent a particularly interesting category spanning the two different types of ties. “Data from a General Social Survey indicates that 30 percent of respondents have a social relationship with their neighbors while close to 30 percent are virtual strangers,” she says. “Thus for 60 percent of those surveyed, the neighbor relationship is either very strong or absent altogether.”

And yet neighbor relationships represent an essential part of our social fabric and can have an enormous impact on how happy we are living somewhere, according to Dr. King. Positive relationships, she says, can increase mental health and feelings of wellbeing, while negative ones can decrease them.

Not surprisingly, after a year-plus at home in which many of us might have seen our neighbors more frequently than close pals, some people have indeed grown closer to them. “Generally, we tend to like people more the more we see them,” says Dr. King. “During the pandemic, we all turned more inward, relying on those closest to us socially and physically, and for some that included neighbors.” People come together with those in close proximity for a sense of community during periods of stress and to get through adversities, Dr. King continues. “COVID-19 is an adversity just like hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters.”

A more recent 2021 study —“Your Neighborhood Before and After COVID”— done by Buildworld in the United Kingdom, confirms Dr. King’s observations across the pond. Thirty-one percent of those surveyed said they had gotten to know their neighbors better since the pandemic began, with almost one in five saying that it made them feel better about those living near them. And more than one in three house dwellers (and 26 percent of those living in apartments) reported growing closer with their neighbors during this time.

Elise Biederman, who lives on a suburban New York cul de sac with about 10 other families, is one person who grew closer to her neighbors during the pandemic. And while they were friendly before, COVID-19 brought their relationships to a whole new level. “We bonded and are now connected more than ever,” she explains. “We went through uncharted territories together.” Everyone was outside a lot more with their kids and dogs and a neighborhood text chain sprang up to keep everyone connected, alerting members to grocery runs or inviting everyone outside for cocktails. Any minor annoyances over the years, Biederman says, have been far outweighed by the positives of living on such a close-knit street.

Lisa Ellis also lives in suburban New York and loves her neighbors. Her block — friendly before — also became even closer during the pandemic, via a text chain and socially distanced outdoor gatherings. One neighbor gave Ellis a key to their backyard fence saying, “Our pool is your pool.” Ellis says she feels blessed. “You don’t get to choose your neighbors.”

Good Housekeeping’s Parenting and Relationships Editor Marisa LaScala says that, in the first apartment building she moved into in Brooklyn, residents giving each other space was the norm, but a friendship found her anyway. She had never interacted much with the other residents until one of them emailed her and her now husband, who both freelanced writing movie reviews at the time. The neighbor, who enjoyed their reviews, recognized their names from their mailbox, emailed to say he thought they all should be friends. “It’s 14 years later and we still are,” LaScala says.

But not everyone has been so fortunate. Nina McCollum had great neighbors in her Cleveland area apartment complex for many years. That changed when new ones moved in upstairs. While McCollum gave them a warm welcome, things quickly deteriorated when they routinely flouted leash laws, didn’t pick up their dogs’ waste and cursed at McCollum after she approached them about it. Another neighbor threw lit cigarettes off her balcony and onto McCollum’s. When complaints to management didn’t work, McCollum moved out into a house. “We’ve had almost no dealings directly with any neighbors here,” she says, “which is fine by me.”

And when Sarah Ratliff moved into a new suburban California housing development, her next-door neighbor greeted her with several disparaging, racist remarks, not realizing Ratliff is Black. After a particularly tense interaction, Ratliff decided to keep her distance — but things didn’t get much better. The couple now lives more happily on an 18-acre farm in a remote community. “We decided that that was the last time we’d live next to people,” she explains. “We’ve never had problems with neighbors here since we have a ¼-mile distance between us. We know everybody and can call a neighbor a mile away for help.”

Jamie Beth Cohen has had great neighbors and awful ones. When she bought a townhouse in a community near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, she had a terrific next-door neighbor, especially important as their homes shared a front porch and lawn. But when the neighbor sold, a new neighbor who didn’t care for the Cohens from the get-go moved in; she complained to Cohen that her husband had scowled at her. Things really hit the wall over a snow removal issue, when the neighbor screamed at her husband in front of other neighbors, calling him lazy. But when Cohen asked her, “Can we talk this through?” her response was, “I don’t need to talk to you.”

Fortunately, that neighbor eventually moved and was replaced by a couple with whom the Cohens are more compatible. “During the pandemic, we were able to sit outside socially distanced and chat on our front porch,” Cohen says. “They’re not our best friends but the fact that we have no bad blood between us is huge. And we help each other out.” The experience really drove home for her how much of an impact the negative situation had had on her own mental health. “I didn’t realize how traumatized I was until she moved,” she explains. “I would feel a tightness in my chest every time I pulled into my garage.”

And sometimes a situation that initially looks like it could be problematic turns out to be unexpectedly positive. “A neighbor who I initially found somewhat off-putting turned out to be amazing,” says Christina Adams of Laguna Beach, CA. A chain-smoker who often carried around a can of beer lived in an apartment building next to Adams’ new house. A professional chef, he began dropping off beautifully presented gourmet dishes for Adams and her husband. From there, the two bonded over food and cooking, sharing meals and talks and developing a special friendship. “We would never have crossed paths socially and I never would have had this wonderful opportunity to get to know him if he didn’t live next door,” she says.

Developing a positive relationship with a neighbor is much easier than turning around a negative one, says Dr. King, so it pays to start off on the right foot. Understand that “small early investments, like smiling, waving or chatting, may make a big difference later on,” Dr. King says. But do try to gauge your neighborhood’s general “feel.” For some city neighbors, in particular, there may be an unwritten understanding that people living in such close proximity should respectfully leave each other alone.

But if your neighborhood feels like one in which interaction is welcome, consider “simple friendly actions — like walking over to introduce yourself and making eye contact. They can be quite powerful in making a good first impression,” adds Amber Trueblood, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist. Welcome new neighbors by dropping off something small like some cookies or a list of your favorite local service people. Include your contact info.

If you’re the new neighbor, consider putting notes in nearby mailboxes introducing yourself, your kids and pets; share your contact info.

Invite your neighbors over for coffee or drinks. Even if the plans don’t materialize, it sets things off on the right track. But understand that some people want more privacy than others and may wish to be left alone — so do respect their wishes.

Be the neighbor you’d like to have. A note to your immediate neighbors giving them a heads up about the date of a big party, noting when the music will stop, is a considerate way to address any concerns about noise or traffic. If it’s a more casual event, consider inviting them to stop by.

And remember that no one likes when a visitor pops in or shows up unannounced. A quick text or phone call (“Want to walk the dogs together?” or “Can I borrow some eggs?”) maintains everyone’s privacy.

Negative relationships tend to spiral from one negative interaction, says Dr. King. It may start with a barking dog — and pick up speed from there. So how can you stop the downward spiral?

Consider writing a note or asking if you can talk. “Someone has to have the humility and willingness to be the person to reach out in a difficult situation,” says Dr. King. “You don’t have to like each other, but you do have to be civil to one another.”

Neighbors are often taken for granted, Dr. King adds. It doesn’t take that much effort to turn around a problematic one but it requires being present. “Asking how someone is doing, offering help or listening to someone for two or three minutes when you bump into them may be all it takes.”

If someone seems rude or inconsiderate, it’s very unlikely the behavior is directed at you, observes Trueblood. “Remind yourself that you have no idea what is going on inside someone else’s home,” she says. “Take a breath, find some compassion and reach out with genuine care to see if you can resolve any misunderstandings or miscommunications.”

Try to focus on the positive. “Often, with difficult neighbors, we focus on the one or two things they do — or don’t do — that drive us crazy,” says Trueblood. “Try to focus on any way they are good neighbors.”

Do respect each other’s boundaries and set your own, suggests Dr. King. “The absence of boundaries can be quite draining, as with a neighbor who asks for help all the time just because you are right there.”

If the situation is very negative and it takes up a disproportionate amount of your time and emotional energy — and you’ve tried to repair it — sometimes it’s best to let it go and focus on more positive ones, says Dr. King.

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