Perhaps some of you still experience the phenomenon known as “the nosy neighbor”. Like a stock character from an old New Yorker cartoon or a 1930’s slapstick comedy, the nosy neighbor was always insatiably curious about what you were doing and why. They were such a recognizable component of the American experience that they showed up in all sorts of places, from Stephanie Crawford in “To Kill A Mockingbird”, to Mrs. Kravitz on the classic television series “Bewitched”.
These days however, with the oft-lamented decline in community life in this country, it is said that in many cases we no longer know our neighbors, and that this is a bad thing. Suburban houses are designed to be as inward-facing as possible, and in urban environments security concerns are such that one hardly ever sees residents of the same apartment complex associating with one another. Even on communally-shared rooftops here in the Washington area for example, groups of people from the same building tend to segregate themselves, rather than mix together.
Yet as Americans grow more divided with respect to the issues that define who we are, spending more time apart fromone other seems almost inevitable. The less we have in common, and the more we can find our own echo chambers through other outlets, such as in online communities, we have less of an incentive to try to get along with those with whom we disagree – including neighbors whom we are suspicious of.
Take for example a recent pair of my neighbors, since departed for suburbia a few years ago. I lived next door to them for years, and knew her first name but not his. They were an unmarried couple living together in the Biblical sense. Don’t ask how I know. She worked for some sort of ecological concern, and I have no idea what he did.
Thanks to the perennial laziness of our substitute mailman, I would from time to time get pieces of their mail pushed through my letterbox. And every so often, these would be dispatches from leftist organizations which I abhor. I fully expect that my neighbors received some mail of mine which they themselves probably winced at, as much as I did when accidentally receiving theirs.
Although we would always say hello to one another if we saw each other, and would occasionally carry on a very brief conversation, there was no effort on either side to get to know one another, even after living alongside each other for several years. In a way, I suppose receiving each others’ mail probably poisoned the well, convincing each household that it would be better to engage with the other as little as possible. Our surreptitious form of nosiness, made possible by the Federal government, convinced us that we did not want to know very much about each other; all we had to do was walk next door and push the mail through the correct letter box, and that was the end of it.
For many Americans, the decline of neighborliness and even the disappearance of the nosy neighbor may be lamentable. Yet at the same time we have to acknowledge the fact that we may be living next door to people whose views are absolutely antipathetic to our own. We may be deeply divided as a society, yet that does not mean that for the sake of neighborliness I have to buy Girl Scout cookies from my neighbor’s daughter for example, or sponsor someone’s run for the Susan Komen Foundation, knowing full well that these organizations have chosen to align themselves with Planned Parenthood. True, such occasions offer a brief chance for me to say why I cannot participate, and perhaps in time that will open the door to further conversation, although in my experience to date it usually leads to little more than future awkwardness when the parties run into each other at the Safeway.
Being polite and neighborly is a good thing, whether it is returning someone else’s mail, putting the lid back on their trash can in the morning after the garbage truck has come through for the pickup, bringing back a ball that has managed to fly into your back yard, etc. It is another to wish that one could go back to some more halcyon age, when neighbors generally agreed on a common set of beliefs and values, and spent time together because, frankly, they had no other choice. The combination of a growing societal celebration of selfishness, with the greater degree of personalization afforded us through a myriad of choices in technology, media, and consumerism, makes it unlikely that this trend will reverse itself in America any time soon.
“Girl Reading a Letter by Candlelight, With a Young Man Peering over Her Shoulder”
by Joseph Wright of Derby (c.1760-62)