Good neighborliness

For a short time after we moved in, I did not have any immediate neighbors. Now I have the usual complement of “adjacent” neighbors – one on either side. I have never been to either neighbor’s house. With one, we chat every weekend, standing in our respective backyards. Often, we do this while holding (i) weeds; (ii) sprinklers or hosepipes, (iii) lawnmowers, (iv) shovels and so on. I have found that there is nothing like a shovel in your hand to stimulate conversation.

We rarely chat with the neighbors on the other side, because they never have any shovels in their hands. In fact, we never see them in their yard. We wave at each other when we are driving past, and we chat when they come out on their yard – about once in six months. Then there was the time when R looked out of the window and found the Wife’s car stuck in the snow in her driveway, so he rushed over to help.

We hadn’t seen the Husband in a long time. The only time I had seen him was before they moved in, when he complimented me on our landscape and wanted the name of the landscaper. I never saw him after that, the husband that is. I did see the landscaper, and was quite pleased to find him doing their landscaping. But they are a friendly sort, the wife and the two children, though they keep to themselves, and for that matter, so do we.

Then yesterday, we met the wife near the mailbox. After some small talk, she mentioned that, as we probably knew, her husband had passed away a year earlier. We hadn’t known.

I am still recovering from the shock. Apart from all the sadness I feel, I also feel rather guilty that I should have somehow helped her out as a neighbor. Of course, I had no idea about her husband’s passing, and I strongly suspect my other neighbor still has no idea about this.

I went on the internet and soon I had discovered that he had died of cancer last year, just before a long weekend (when we had been out of town). The family had since done some fund-raising for that type of cancer. We hadn’t received any flyers, so we had no idea about the fund-raising part either.

Back in India, the friendly neighborhood maid network tells you all you need to know (and much more) about your neighbors. I am sure there is also a lot of reverse traffic, but at least, you get to know important stuff like this. Here there is no such network, though if you have kids of the same age, I suspect there would be the playground gossip network.

In the old days, the rules for good neighborliness were very clear – you meddled in all your neighbors’ affairs, and they meddled in all of yours. You helped each other out, and gossiped behind each others’ backs. Very easy rules to follow.

What are the rules these days, when neighbors hardly know each other ? What makes a good neighbor ? if you had asked me before, I would have told you unhesitatingly that if someone seems friendly and returns your greeting, they are good neighbors. Then why do I feel guilty that I have somehow failed to be a good neighbor ?

Sigh. I wish I knew.


31 thoughts on “Good neighborliness

  1. You know, I think a good neighbour is friendly, not loud all the time and accepts packages delivered to me, when I’m not there. For the other things, I have my friends and family and they don’t need to be neighbours.
    So, I wouldn’t feel bad about not helping out your neighbour, when her husband died. [I’d even go as far as saying that maybe you did help her out by not shooting glances full of pity in her direction.] If she really needed you to help her, there would have been chances to contact you, I’m sure.

  2. @ Lekhni: As they say in Hindi: you need two hands to clap. Or, it takes two to tango. Same with neighbourliness.

    The woman, who lived in this house before me, was not friendly with the neighbours who have right of way over my front yard. So the neighbours gave me a wide berth when I moved in. Then come Christmas, I went and asked what the kids would like for presents and the barriers came down instantly. She explained why she was not very friendly and it was mainly because she feared I was also like the previous woman. Since then, the children (4 and 2 years) routinely knock at my door and tell me they want to play or to have my famous hot chocolate. If I am working – which is mostly the case – my neighbour can point to the light in my study and tell the kids to wait till later. Lunches etc are common as are cups of tea and loud chats over the fence (as soon as the kids hear me, they start calling for me).

    It seems to me that the rules are still the same. I helped with the neighbour’s church fund-raiser and moaned about its ‘homeliness’ on Tumblr. We know one another’s birthdays and bring presents for one another from our holidays.

    So I do not think you failed in any way. If you had asked you would have come across as nosy; but she has clearly not held it against you that you did not know.

    To drag you out of this sadness, I am going to tag you with a weird but creative meme today.

  3. Been three years and I donno the names of my neighbors forget talking to them…

    Desi neighbours are warmer, few get too close at times and that may lead to pyramid marketing!

  4. Ahh, close to hear this is. I think Shefaly hits the nail.
    The neighbours on one side (before they moved away) were one of the nicest couples I’ve met, and I used to meet them and talk to them regularly. The ones on the other side, not so much.
    But I know this is because of me too. The ones I used to talk to, were the ones that had our spare keys. Since they’ve moved away, there’s hardly been any contact. And not much more with the ones who’ve stayed.
    And this after I read a report somewhere that people are spending less time than ever in talking to neighbours.
    Sad state of affairs.

  5. kalafudra: Yes, that’s what I tell myself – she could have always reached out, and I am sure she knows we would have helped out in any way we could. I am not sure if she expects things to be any different, it’s just me and my confused sense of what I should be doing 😦 You are right on the looks of pity too, the last thing she needs from me is a sense that I pity her..

    Shefaly: That’s a great relationship you have with your neighbors! It’s amazing how quickly children will gravitate toward anyone who gives them attention and love.

    I may be guilty too, of not making the first move as you did – like introduce myself when they moved in, or invited them over. (I was shuttling between cities myself, but that’s another story.)

    She definitely does not hold it against me, she is the same friendly, bubbly person as always, which somehow makes it sadder.

    maxdavinci: I have done that too, lived in apartments with desi neighbors whom I have never spoken to, and only exchanged awkward smiles in the elevator. Is this Amway-desi phenomenon widespread? I have heard about it but somehow never come across an Amway peddler. Am I just lucky?

    ??!: You are right, part of it is me. That’s why I feel guilty, because I also know that I am not going to become less reserved any time soon. At least I talk to the neighbors beside me. The guys across the road, I have never spoken to them even once. I am sure they are friendly too, well, except their dog, which sometimes barks at me from fifty feet away when I open my front door!

    km: I can very well see this happening! πŸ˜› An application to help us chat with our neighbors over the Internet – a mashup of Google maps and IM, maybe?

  6. ??!: Incidentally I have my neighbours’ keys but they do not have mine. May be I should give them mine too. We do watch each other’s houses when the other one is on holiday.

    Lekhni: You are right about the kids. My neighbour says she trusts her kids’ instincts and apparently when the 2 year old wakes up, she wants to go to “Wolly’s house” (she cannot say my name, yet). πŸ™‚

    km: It is already a reality in more ways than one but not an app yet.

    See this:

    And more tech/ less human:

  7. maxdavinci:

    My neighbours are English. I have only ever had a desi neighbour twice – one, a Brit Asian, did not talk much, and the others were my landlords (Brit Asian married to desi desi lady) and very nice people. The Irish/ Scottish, Italian and Uni students (never mind their Englishness) have been better neighbours, once the ice is broken.

    I lived in Boston and DC for a while and never even saw my neighbours. I guess there is some difference between living in a flat and in a house. Houses make it easier to know neighbours…

  8. Shefaly: Those are interesting links! What does it say about us that we need the internet to meet people who live in our own neighborhood 😦
    It’s true, as you say, warmth is not correlated with desi-ness. The neighbors we chat with more often are second generation Chinese-American, and the other couple is probably 4th or 5th generation American – the husband’s last name suggests a Germanic origin, the wife’s first name suggests Eastern European origins, perhaps.
    On the other hand, there are a few desi couples in the neighborhood, I think one couple lives in the next street, we meet them when we go out walking on summer evenings, but we never get beyond the smile and the recognition of desi-ness.

  9. Oh, I thought it’s only us Indian students who don’t really care about neighbors etc, in this country as we are some kind of a floating population in an apartment complex. Didn’t know this is the way things work here normally too.

  10. Did you know that homeowners tend to be better neighbors than renters? This is true only in America though. We hardly know or have even talked to our neighbors although we live much closer than homeowners and definitely have more neighbors – back, top, side, diagonal, etc.

  11. Where I live, neighbors tend to keep to themselves, except for general hellos and small chitchat when we run into each other at the supermarket or in the yard. Otherwise, the first time I ever heard the voice of our most reclusive next-door gentleman (whom I was beginning to think resembled a Boo Radley of sorts in temperament) was a courteous phone call to inform us that a large branch had fallen across his drivewasy from a tree on our property and would we do the needful. This, after 13 years of living next door to him. His mother was a sweet lady though, who insisted on having Halloween decorations and candy out while she was alive. All that has gone since she passed away 3 years ago.

  12. Well living in the Bay Area, I have the luxury of having Desis as neighbors and we have a very good relationship – some of it has transformed to good friendship and regular meet-ups from the odd hello / hi and I am glad for that. I can easily ask them to water my plants or watch over the house when I am on an extended vacation without thinking – makes life a little easier, I suppose.

  13. Adithya: Well, students may not have much time for interaction with neighbors, but I would think that families who rent would interact more with their neighbors..

    Patrix: Is that a fact? I have heard of desis who have friends all around the apartment complex. It’s true, though, that most of the friends tend to be other desi couples.

    Sujatha: The general chitchat sounds like my experience too. But your Boo Radley clone is a little strange! Is he that distant only with you or with everyone else in the neighborhood?

    A-kay: That is really nice – to have neighbors who are actually friends. Around here, I can’t think of any everyday occasion where I would need their help though. The automatic sprinklers will water the plants even while I am away and of course, I trust the security system to monitor the house (not that I have ever heard of crime here).

  14. Lekhni and others:

    I take it none of you gets to watch the Aussie soap ‘Neighbours’? πŸ™‚ Its jingle says something about neighbours being there for each other and becoming good friends. But they are too corny to be true. Yes, I know it is a soap.

    The soap launched the careers of Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Natalie Imbruglia and lately, Jesse Spencer (House, MD) and Alan Fletcher.

  15. Shefaly:
    Wait…wouldn’t it be the other way round? Surely living in an apartment block – with all the comparable lack of space, and the increased possibilities of bumping into each other – would make better neighbours. At least, I find it so. Back home, I found it impossible to keep away. Here, it’s just the opposite.

    I suspect that’s partly because of the hanging-in-the-background possibility of a renter being there only temporarily. Why go to all the effort of being good friends, if you’re going to move away in six months? That’s just a general attitude, though…I’m sure there are quite a few who would be friendly wherever they went.

    I don’t think ethnicity has much to do with it, except in terms of a you’re-so-alien-I-cant-relate-to-you scenario. There are enough grumps the world over, and the same amount of warm people.

  16. ??!

    Au contraire per my experience and observation…

    In apartment blocks, esp those with lifts, people either see people on their floor or meet in lifts but barely get a chance to get talking since the journeys are short and purposeful. I saw my neighbours in my apartment building in Edi, because the building was from 1700s, World Heritage site and in conservation area, ergo no lifts so we all walked up and down stairs πŸ™‚

    In the apartment blocks that I have seen recently in India, people only know the other family on their floor unless the buildings are in a gated community in which case the community centre serves as a place to socialise. Even so, incl in cosmopolitan cities, ‘ethnic’ sub-groups soon emerge. But that is a whole another kettle of fish.

    In houses, people are more likely get out and potter about in their front – and back – yards and gardens, weeding or watering plants, washing cars, having barbecues and lounging. So the sheer number of occasions on which we see the neighbours, the same neighbours are far more numerous in houses than in apartments. Not aware of any studies but should ask an Indian economist auntie (parent of a friend) who specialises in suburban development… πŸ™‚

  17. Not long ago I would have said good neighbor does not meddle in ur that I am friendless in a new place I don’t know!

  18. Loved your post.
    I don’t know about smaller towns but in big cities here neighbourliness is becoming rare. Whenever I have to stay alone in my house I always worry whom I’d call for immediate help in case of emergency at midnight. I do not know anyone whom I can call without hesitation and always fear they may not like the interruption. I only know their servants who take my help with the courier, gas delivery guy etc.

  19. A Cynic in Wonderland: I definitely will make a general offer of help, of course..

    Shefaly: No, I don’t get to watch “Neighbours”, but the jingle sounds interesting. Let me see if it’s available on youtube!

    ??!: I agree that ethnicity is not really the issue here.

    La vida Loca: I am sure you would love to have friendly neighbors, but how do you feel about friendly versus nosy right now? Would you be willing to ignore some nosiness since you are in a new place? Just curious.

    Usha: It’s really sad to see this happening in India too. Especially these days, when there are so many old people who live alone. I guess it’s one thing if people work long days and do not have time to socialize with neighbors, but then the old customs are also gone – no more greeting each other on festivals or exchanging sweets or inviting people over for Navratri 😦

  20. That is so sad to hear. Poor lady. I wonder if she expected you to ask her about this during the last year and was surprised that you didn’t.

  21. hawkeye: I wonder too, what she was thinking about us. At any rate, she seems to have concluded that we didn’t know.

    La vida Loca: We seem to be alike. I have a very low tolerance to nosiness too. I’d rather not talk to neighbors instead.

  22. This is often spoken of as one essential difference between western culture and eastern. What you say about “the maid media” is fine, but more often than not it goes beyond reasonable extents and very closely resembles the tabloid media. We Indians feel more committed to others (mostly neighbours and many strangers) rather than to oneself and family. Probably it’s a cultural aspect. We feel very upset if we haven’t been informed about something. We almost take it personally, while we ourselves are very discreet about whom to inform what.

  23. Shefaly: Great op-ed (and doesn’t seem to require a login now). I guess it clearly shows how people don’t even know who their neighbor is these days.

    I read a statement from someone the other day that said “a good neighbor is someone who maintains his lawn well”. So that is all a good neighbor is these days – someone who ensures that the market value of your house does not fall because the neighborhood looks unkempt 😦

    Pradeep: That is an interesting perspective. I agree with you on some points. I would say that it’s human nature everywhere to be inordinately curious about others’ private lives (look at how we are keen to get every last bit about celebrities). The difference, I would argue, is that people in the US are usually (though not always) too polite to ask probing questions. But I agree there is a cultural aspect – in India, respect for others’ privacy is not something people pay much heed to. It’s socially acceptable for anyone to ask you any question and expect a detailed answer. And then there is the hierarchy of seniority – “I am your uncle/aunt/demand respect because I am older than you and therefore I can ask you whatever I want” attitude.
    I am not sure if our curiosity translates into any commitment. We just want to know. That does not mean we will necessarily help anyone 😦 The crowd that gathers at accident sites is curious, not committed to helping.

  24. lekhni ..there is really no need to feel so bad about it…I know it might depress..but when the lady was obviously not interested in reaching out, you can’t really do anything abt it right. In india, as you said, you get to know about most things anyway. So it becomes your duty to go and show some sympathy..but in places like yours, where all you do is greet each other…you can’t expect much!

    but you must also know this right, here we can’t just like that greet other ppl!..heheh

  25. In the past I never took the time to meet my neighbors other than the first brief introduction and subsequent “Hellos” exchanged in passing. Like you I had a neighbor die and didn’t even know it. My excuse was that I tend to be shy, reserved and a workaholic. Then, my husband and I moved into a neighborhood with a predominantly retirement-age population that believes in being, well, neighborly! I can’t work in the yard without one coming over to chat! On our street there is also a lively, extroverted former school teacher who rallys all the neighbors for several events each year. I have really enjoyed the community, more than I ever expected. And, while I now build friendships online as well, I remind myself how both add a warmth to my life that I never want to take for granted.

  26. you know, my kids break the ice because everyone in our building keeps stopping to give them toffees. And the lady on the floor below me who is a teacher, and not internet savvy, comes to me once a trimester to help her write report cards online. the floor below that has a young girl who sells pottery and wants me to help her market it.

    i notice they all want something or the other. on the other hand we often receive plates of food from them, we send down cake when we have parties…

    its not as though we’re in and out of each other’s homes but i think it takes one side to break the ice… but then delhi is like this so i am not sure abt other places. ppl here are very hospitable and if we walk in to pay the rent cheque the landlord insists on feeding us dinner!

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