Do Americans Hate Their Neighbors?

Once upon a time two neighbors might idle away most of the afternoon smoking pipes and chatting across the fence that separated their two properties.  They knew each other’s families and celebrated holidays and birthdays days together.  They supported each other during emergencies.

They were part of a common neighborhood and shared a special bond.  They probably knew everyone on their block

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No longer.  According to a study of 2,000 adults in the UK, most people aren’t especially friendly with their neighbors anymore.  Three quarters said they considered their neighbors mere “acquaintances” at best.  The average survey respondent knew the names of just 5 people in their entire neighborhood.

And most people didn’t seem to care about the state of their community.   In fact, 56% said they had no interest in getting to know their neighbors any better than they did already.

For most respondents, even doing the occasional favor — watering plants, grocery shopping or taking care of a pet  – was too much to ask.  Less than 20% and in some cases as low as 10% reported having performed such tasks for a neighbor.

The highest percentage of respondents, nearly 4 in 10  (39%) said they had taken out a neighbor’s trash  — not surprising, perhaps, since stacked up trash outside a single home could affect every house on the block, including their own.

The most commonly stated reasons for this lack of neighborliness — especially being the first to reach out — was a fear of how it might be perceived — as “creepy” or “invasive,” and as a gesture requiring reciprocity.  Most people think it’s safer and easier just to ignore their neighbors completely — unless there’s an emergency perhaps.

There’s an irony in this loss of intimacy among people living so closely together.  These same people are becoming much better known to faceless institutions like corporations, marketing companies and political parties that target them incessantly with highly intrusive communications, often gathering sensitive personal data surreptitiously in the process.  In addition, people in these homes are increasingly connecting to faraway people through social media and participating in online communities that have become more vibrant and meaningful than simply having a chat with the family next door.

Everyone’s living in their own little cyber-silo and though living just a few feet away from each other, rarely speak o interact.  In many cases, they might as well be living in separate cities or countries

Some might argue that this is the new Ameican comfort zone — free of all encumbrances. After all, if many people could afford it, they’d probably like to live on a huge property with no neighbors even insight, as many people in rural areas do.  Yet many rural dwellers have far closer contacts and mutually supportive ties than suburbanites do.

One could argue that the biggest loss that occurs in this setting is the heart and soul of a democracy which depends on a spirit of close cooperation and collective participation.  In addition, one can easily see how the loss of civility that so many bemoan in our private and public lives today is somehow related to not knowing anything about the faceless and nameless people right next door.  Overcoming the strangeness of others and bringing them into your own life is what allows us to build strong networks of faith and tolerance and ultimately love in the broadest sense of the world.

So, take a minute this New Year, and walk next door and introduce yourself to your neighbors.  Give them your telephone number and tell them to call you if they need something they can’t do for themselves.  Don’t give them your email or Facebook page.  Save those for people outside your immediate circle.  Let your neighbor see that you know they exist,  that they are immediately recognizable to you, and that for reasons of their sheer proximity alone perhaps, they are part and parcel of your own world.  They might not need you, but if they do,  you’re there for them.  Because that’s what neighbors are for.

Happy New Year!

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