Don’t Live in a Strangerhood

How to live in harmony with the neighbors from hell

Oh if I'd only had access to Advice Goddess Amy Alkon when my 8-year-old neighbor decided to become a ninja. He was about the size of a garden gnome, yet he somehow managed—without the assistance of a ladder—to get on my roof and attempt to enter my house via the chimney. He built secret training forts in people's crawlspaces and once strapped himself to the undercarriage of a neighbor's SUV. Eventually, the law was summoned and the pint-sized rebel was subdued, but ill will lingered in the neighborhood. Manners expert Alkon, who bases her advice on scientific research, says we need to re-think our approach to situations like this. Author of the hilarious and instructive Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck, Alkon spoke to Life Reimagined about living in harmony with the neighbors from hell.

Is it better to try and be Zen about a neighbor's rude behavior or go all WWF Smackdown on them?

You want to be solution-oriented. Criticizing somebody or blaming them doesn't make them want to change; it makes them want to clobber you. So present things in matter-of-fact terms—blandly laying out the facts without getting accusatory—and talk about your feelings rather than what a jerk they are. You want to communicate a message, not make them feel like you're trying to control them. This is important, because people who feel controlled get defensive and act out. Worse than they were before.

You've said that one of the best ways to tolerate a neighbor's jerkitude is to admit we're jerks ourselves. Can you elaborate?

There's something we do called "attribution bias," in which we give ourselves much more leeway than we give others. For example, we see someone driving and do something jerky or dangerous and think they intended to do it. But if we do the jerky move, we say we were confused, we were lost. Being honest about our own jerkitude also helps us dispense less of it; it helps us be considerate of our neighbors. You get in the habit of thinking about other people, and how your behavior affects them. At the root of manners is empathy. That's really important to remember as a guide to any behavioral question you have: How will what you're about to do affect another human being?

You say that better neighbor relationships begin with "canny strategizing and proactive neighborliness." Explain.

You can deter all sorts of ugliness from people who live around you through proactive gift giving. When someone moves in near you, go over there with a plate of cookies or a bottle of wine—just put a bow on it, write a note introducing yourself and welcoming them, and include your contact information. It will make a huge impression.

We are not used to strangers doing stuff for us. Anthropology research led me to my theory that we are rude because we live in societies that are too big for our brains. We evolved in small, consistent bands where everyone knew everyone, and reputation was of huge importance. Today, being around strangers or near strangers, reputation isn't the constraint it was. But we can change that. For example, when you treat a stranger like a neighbor, that pretty much converts them to a neighbor right away. It also takes advantage of our evolved sense of reciprocity, meaning that when someone does something for us, we are compelled to do something for them.

When someone you've proactively gifted is about to be a jerk to you, they're very likely to think twice about it. You've transformed yourself from the person behind the curtains next door: you're the person who gave them a present! That's really helpful. Plus it's just nice, and it builds a sense of neighborliness. And while you're at it, don't forget about the people who've been living near you for awhile: bring their trash cans in when they're away, replace a light bulb on their porch if they're on vacation, bring a package to their door that got delivered to your house. Those things really make a difference in how somebody feels about you, so you're inoculating yourself against their future bad behavior.

Is there a way to get neighborly relations moving in the right direction if they've already rattled off the tracks?

Somebody needs to start being the nice one, and why not let it be you? If you start to act differently, this can help shift it. I wouldn't do it by talking to them because they're still in enemy combatant mode and could respond badly. You could leave them a note referring to something of interest to the neighborhood. Public safety is always good. A note to say "there have been robberies in our neighborhood, and since I'm home during the day, just so you know, I'll keep an eye on your house and the others on the block." That's a nice gesture, not an enemy combatant gesture; so you're setting things up differently. Maybe you invite them over when you're having a big backyard party, but before that there should be other steps. Consider whether there's something that seems natural to give them, like an extra bushel of apples when you go to the orchard. Maybe you smile and wave when they drive by your house. They may opt to keep things the way they were, but they might see an opening to change things. And that's a very good thing all around. It's very stressful to hate people and to be hated.

You're a big fan of taking back your power, but not of calling people on their bad behavior face-to-face. What's a better approach?

I will call people on their behavior face-to-face, but only strangers doing rude things in public. It's not like you can send them a note. Behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky did research on our brain, on our fast and slow systems. Our fast thinking system is our emotional, intuitive system, and our slow system is our rational system. Our fast thinking system is right out there responding. We are impulsive—we just jump right in often with an angry response, when our rational system is still getting out of bed. Our fight-or-flight system isn't that fine-tuned. It doesn't discern between a verbal attack and an attack by a hungry tiger, so we'll respond to a verbal attack as if it were a physical attack. This is why writing things is so much better. You can take that reasoned approach; put your fast-thinking system on the couch and tell it to watch Jeopardy while you use your slow system, your intellect, and put your best foot forward.

Many of us don't really think about our neighbors until they piss us off. How can we change that?

Don't keep to yourself until your neighbor does something annoying. It's really important to create community because then you all feel like you're in it together. You can create a neighborhood lending library or a neighborhood newsletter. You build a sense of belonging instead of feeling like you're in this vast strangerhood. We're now living in societies we didn't evolve to live in, and this again is the crux of why we're experiencing so much rudeness—because strangers can do anything to you. Think about it. If someone you know is driving past you and doing something jerky, you're not going to flip them the bird—if you happen to be a bird-flipper—because they know you. That would be embarrassing and maybe even dangerous afterward. But if you don't know them there's no cost; you'll never see them again. If you create community, you create bonds that keep people from acting like jerks to each other.

Being a good neighbor begins with being a good human outside the neighborhood. You learned that in France, and brought the lesson home to the US.

I started going to Paris because I wanted to try and learn the culture, and I observed something nice that I brought home. You'll be in the courtyard of a building and cross paths with some person you're never going to see again, and she'll say to you "Bonjour, Madame!" and you say it back to her. It's this little salute of each other's existence, and it's so much nicer than keeping your eyes down and pretending not to see someone. This really helps makes your strangerhood a neighborhood. I do this everywhere.

At a store, they greet the cashier; they say hello—instead of doing what too many of us do, treating the cashier as an extension of the cash register. I see this as just part of what we have to do to change our world for the better. I also call upon people to extend themselves—both for people they know and for strangers. The way I see it, a bare minimum of one kind act a day should be our self-imposed cover charge for living in this world. We get the society we create—or the society we let happen to us.

Tags: friendship