Want Good Neighbors? The Change Starts with You

Some years back, eight families on Everitt Road were involved in a long-running feud over limited car park lots. The ugly and vulgar drama was played out in public for all to see. It eventually ended when one of the families, believed to be the quarrelsome one who started it all, moved away, much to everyone’s relief.

The Everitt Road saga is unlikely to be the last of neighborly disputes, what with the population of Singapore – one of the most densely populated countries in the world – getting bigger and bigger by the day.

It is not uncommon to hear people getting apoplectic and complaining about noisy pets, quarreling couples, even crying babies or loud cheers from World Cup aficionados in the unholy hours of the night. In this stress-filled world, our threshold for tolerance seems to be decreasing, instead of increasing. Have you noticed how when we are on the road, we tend to spit vitriol at just about every other motorist and road user, as if we ourselves are perfect?

That can change.

And it begins with you.

My dad turned 83 last month and my mother-in-law is a year older. Both are healthy but they are my two oldest living relatives. Plus I have two sons who are away serving national service in the army. And my daughter travels three weeks out of a month on company business. My son-in-law’s work also takes him overseas. Because of my circumstances, for me, staying connected is critical. So I leave my smartphone switched on all the time. But our family makes it a point to be cognizant of different time zones and I try not to WhatsApp my daughter at 10am in Singapore because that would mean it’s 4am in Cologne. We take small little steps such as this just to be sensitive.  As a matter of fact, I try not to text or email anyone during certain hours. Now that emails are pushed into smartphones it can be annoying to be on the receiving end of all kinds of trivia round the clock. However, I often feel as if my family is the only one trying to be conscious of people’s need for privacy and personal time. My wife gets inane, time-wasting messages from people sharing jokes, videos and other rubbishy contents sent to her phone at all hours of the day including way past midnight or very early in the morning like 6.30am. Ironically some of these messages emanate from a “care group” from church. Is this how you show care? By annoying people at 3am in the morning with frivolous WhatsApp and text messages about how Jesus loves you?

What happened to good old-fashioned courtesy? In the olden days you only phone people late at night or very early in the morning when there is a death in the family.

No wonder the concept of neighborliness is in peril.

One other reason for the demise of neighborliness would be that many of us make the mistake of keeping to ourselves until a neighbor starts to annoy us. Meeting a neighbor for the first time under such circumstances will only ratchet up everyone’s “jerkitude.”

So is there something we can do about this?

Yes indeed!

Prevention is better than cure.

Be proactive!

Make the first move to get to know your neighbors.

And if you are a member of the resident’s committee, that’s even better. (By the way, if you wish to be an influencer, always try to serve in such a committee.) If you are a member of the resident’s committee, make an effort to introduce yourself to each new family that has moved in and let the family members know that you serve in the committee and if they encounter problems (such as dogs that bark unceasingly or residents who dump cigarette butts all over the place) to let you know. This also sets the tone for the sort of behavior that is not to be tolerated. Offer to explain the contents of the resident’s handbook; again, this provides a great opportunity to elaborate on what behavior is deemed acceptable and unacceptable. (It also helps if you can have a more forgiving mindset to start with – what babies don’t cry? Telling a mother with a sick child to stop her lullabies isn’t very reasonable or compassionate. So hey, don’t sweat the small stuff k?)

In Mending Wall, Robert Frost writes a contemplative poem based on the activity of going out with his neighbor each spring to mend the stone wall that divides their property.  Frost himself doesn’t really like the wall – he feels it is unnecessary, unfriendly, outdated, and a bit rude to have.  However, his neighbor, who seems to be steeped in tradition, says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” This is an old belief that seems to imply that you can be better neighbors if there are boundaries. This is certainly true for societies that are yet to be considered mature and self-regulating. I remember how when I visited Zurich I was astonished by the fact that if I had boarded the tram without first purchasing a ticket, I would have gone undetected because no one checked. Such a system can never work in a country where laws have to be enforced to ensure that people behave with a modicum of civic-consciousness.

So while you go about establishing some boundaries with neighbors, I have a suggestion to make.

And that is: When you go and greet your new neighbors, whenever possible, bring along a cake or a dish you’ve cooked; even a plate of cookies will do. (Just so you know, I especially have a weakness for Danish butter cookies or anything from Mrs Fields or Famous Amos.) While pure altruism is a bit too much to expect, “reciprocal altruism” still works. Your act of kindness is akin to your making a deposit into your neighbor’s emotional account. Hare Krishna devotees at airports inevitably receive donations when they give away flowers and fund-raising letters tend to get responses when little gifts are enclosed, if you get my drift.

Moreover, being nice to people can give you a “helper’s high” and makes you more satisfied with your own life. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, who studies generosity, says that those who are kind to others end up increasing their own happiness.

You’ll be amazed how much mileage there is in that cake or dish or in that plate of cookies. (In case you risk being thought of as being insensitive to the religious faith of your new neighbor, fruits are safest – no need to worry if what you bring will be kosher or halal. Stay away from durians as not everyone likes them but who can resist a punnet or two of lush strawberries, or a small basket of sweet, succulently fat and juicy lychees or half a dozen fragrant mangoes?) If anything your gesture will inoculate you against a neighbor suddenly going postal on you or harboring a life-long grudge against you just because you were too slow to catch your front door, resulting in a loud, deafening slam.

You see, like the rest of us, you won’t be the perfect neighbor all the time too. During those times when you slipped up, you would want to be treated with kindness, understanding and forgiveness as well.