“It is easy to believe we are each waves and forget we are also the ocean.” – Jon J. Muth
Do you know your neighbours? Do you know their names, their kids’ names, what pets they have? Do you know where they work? Their phone number? Would you recognise them if they appeared at your door?
According to the stats, for the majority of us, the answer to all of the above is “Not really, no”. Apparently we are most likely to refer to our neighbours as “freaks” and the closer together you live, the less likely you are to know or talk to your neighbours. Indeed, a 2010 survey of the situation in Australia revealed that:
- 60% of Australian’s don’t speak to their neighbours
- 38% don’t know their neighbours at all
- 73% would like to know their neighbours better
That last one gives me a little hope, but I am concerned about this. I wonder, if I were ever in any real trouble, who would I, indeed could I, call on for help? Most likely it would be those who would care most, but are too far away to be of any real assistance.
This is a new problem for a modern age; most of the people we “live with” would call us strangers.
It would be easy to fool ourselves into thinking that this doesn’t matter much. Thanks to our vast choice of communications technology, we have the indisputably miraculous ability to stay close with the people in our lives who are the furthest away.
We have become extremely adept at building online communities – old friends, overseas family, a bunch of people whom you have never met, but are just as nuts about vintage hat pins as you are… who could doubt the good that the Internet has done for our social lives.
My only quibble is that this ability to remotely “connect” with our not-so-nearest and dearest, seems to have made us lazy at getting to know the people standing (quite literally) next to us… you know, in the real world.
While our phone batteries are charged up and our Internet connections are active, we have a false sense of being surrounded by friends. But in real terms, we couldn’t be more alone. Sever from those virtual moorings and suddenly you are once again that proverbial island – part of the archipelago that is suburbia.
But perhaps this is not just laziness. I think in some ways the meaning of being a good neighbour has changed completely.
A neighbour used to mean someone who you could ask to feed your pets or water your garden when you went away. You would have been happy to have them watch your kids, borrow your lawn mower or use your pool on hot days without asking. There was a sense of, dare I say it, community.
Now it seems that the fences between us are barricades – preferably 10 feet high! The new definition for a good neighbour could be one that minds their own business, doesn’t make too much noise and, if at all possible, doesn’t appear to exist.
If you extend the definition beyond real estate terms and take “neighbour” to simply mean somebody near you – at the shops, on a train, waiting in a queue – you still get a general sense that any form of direct communication wouldn’t really be welcomed. Earphones act as fences, body language creates an invisible shield, a friendly hello is met with a nervous fake smile that should come with a subtitle of “OMG, please don’t TALK to me!!!”
So what is going on?
Is this a symptom of our current obsessive need to control every aspect of our lives? Is this the rise of Individualism? Have we lost the art of making polite conversation with strangers? Is it because we work long hours at stressful jobs and feel like we have no time for this sort of thing?
I don’t know… but I don’t think it would be too much to ask for us to make a bit more of an effort.
Perhaps we should consider what we can do to let more people “in” and widen our social circle to include those physically closest to us: strike up a conversation with that lady at the bus stop that you see every day but have never spoken to, use the looming holiday season to throw a street party, make a conscious effort to say more than just “hi” to the guy next door when you take the bins out for collection…
Who knows, they may not be such “freaks” after all!