They say “fences make good neighbours,” but if I’m to believe my TikTok feed, that’s a load of hoohockey: It’s all purple mountain majesties and property line disputes out there. It’s not just #fencetok, either. According to a 2016 study, a whopping 42 per cent of Americans report a conflict with their neighbour, and those generally fall into four categories: noise, pets, unkempt property, and property boundaries — and almost half of those complaints are noise-related. While the study hasn’t been updated, I suspect it would find conditions worse eight years on, after two very divisive elections and a pandemic that saw us emerge more dedicated to individualism than ever.
Neighbourhoods have changed since the white picket “ideal” of the ‘50s where everyone knew one another (neighbours might have known each other better, but red lining and classism were definitely part of the equation). Where neighbourhoods were once mostly owners in a “forever home,” our neighbourhoods are now a mix of owners who sell within five years, renters, and short-term rentals like Airbnb. The shorter the stay, the less likely neighbours are to form lasting relationships.
The structural parts of neighbourhoods that once kept us in contact — the singular neighbourhood market, the park, the school — have expanded to fit our population. There is no “one” market in most places, and many parks and school options. Houses are now inhabited not only by traditional families, but child-free families and single folks. Gentrification has also led to neighbourhoods having a mixed financial population, with communities being forced out of the areas they have historical precedence in, so older, smaller homes sit alongside larger, more expensive ones. This also means you’re more likely to sit next to neighbours who might not share the same socio political outlook as you.
Lastly, it can’t go without noting that we are bombarded with stories in 2023 of people shooting folks for ringing their doorbell or accidentally getting into the wrong car. It might be enough to convince you not to engage if you were otherwise inclined.
Added together, there are a slew of reasons people are talking with their neighbours less, whether it’s simply a lack of time, emotional availability, transiency, fear of reprisal, or perceived differences.
The benefit of neighbourhoods
When there is an emergency, the people nearest you are your first responders. Neighbours are a safety net we don’t often think about. If you’ve ever been through a house fire, you know — neighbours are first on the scene. But it’s more than that: Your financial future is shared with your neighbours through property values. Property values are determined by the way the neighbourhood governs and how people maintain their properties.
We are also living in a time where adults are struggling to make more friends and connections IRL, and an entire pool of possibilities exists just outside your front door. That means being in communication with neighbours has an intrinsic value, and they have more potential to you than just the “people you live next to.” Having open communication is also the most likely way to avoid future conflicts.
How to resolve neighbour disputes before they escalate
Proaction is better than reaction, so having a relationship with your neighbour is the best way to head off disputes before they happen by just taking the opportunity to introduce yourself when you or they move in.
“One often over-looked strategy is to get to know your neighbour, if you are not already on good terms. Even if a problem has occurred, try to get to know your neighbour before making the complaint. Introduce yourself. Talk about general issues of interest,” as the People’s Law Library of Maryland suggests.
If face-to-face interaction is anxiety-inducing, consider the traditional “welcome to the neighbourhood” basket, a plate of cookies, or even just a note or card introducing yourself, and offering your phone number. Your neighbour is likely to at least text back a thank you, which opens lines of communication for the future. In my neighbourhood, we have a sheet with drawings of our houses, our names and phone numbers on it, and we give it to everyone who moves in on the block, and introduce ourselves independently.
Elaine Swann, author of Let Crazy Be Crazy points out that you should always wait until you’re calm before assessing how big a deal the issue really is, and how you want to address it, if at all. Swann notes, “When we react, especially in the heat of the moment, we have a tendency to do the wrong thing and possibly even say the wrong thing too.”
Further, it’s worth getting curious about why you’re bothered, and at what cost. Living in communities means living around other human beings, and there are trade-offs. Construction noise may be annoying, but you will likely someday need it yourself. Barking dogs can be disruptive, but if they’re not interrupting your work or sleep, is it worth complaining over, versus finding another solution? What would be the desired outcome anyway? They get rid of the dog? Stop construction? How reasonable is the outcome?
And gossiping is a bad idea, according to Swann: “When we get others involved and get their opinions about the situation, they can get us really heated and fuel the fire,” she explains.
Finally, Swann advises that you focus on no more than three issues at a time, so you don’t overwhelm your neighbour.
How non-violent communication techniques can help aid neighbour disputes
No one is going to call me to the stand to testify as an expert in neighbour disputes, but for the last thirty years, I’ve been a neighbour in cities all over the country. I haven’t always been the perfect neighbour, and I haven’t loved all my neighbours but neither they, nor I, have ever had a TikTok worthy blow out. The reason, I’m convinced, is learning to practice non-violent communication to help you negotiate with neighbours, coworkers, and every other relationship in your life.
Non-violent communication focuses on listening, rather than talking, and on trying to dig into each other’s needs, which can place an emphasis on equity rather than equality. While our societal structures have sold us on the idea of compromise, in which “no one walks away happy,” it doesn’t address individual needs. The example I was taught with is the idea that if you have a group of thirty workers in a building, and twenty nine of them want to build the new bathroom on the second floor, and only one wants it on the first, you might say that majority rules, or they might compromise and put it off the stairwell between the floors. But once you learn that the thirtieth person uses a wheelchair and requires accessibility that the stairwell and second floor doesn’t offer, it puts into perspective how those needs trump the other twenty nine people. Needs take precedence over wants.
It’s easy to be angry at the neighbour who has a dog who barks all day, and sure, maybe they shouldn’t have adopted a dog no one is home to take care of, but if you learn that someone who was promised they could be remote has been called back to the office and is really struggling to figure it out, it might change your perspective, and create more empathy. Understanding needs also means you can work towards designing a solution. The solution is to find a way to keep the dog calmer during the day, so perhaps you can both work towards that together. Though the dog isn’t your responsibility, you may someday need the same generosity and empathy in return that you can offer now.
When it’s time to escalate your dispute
Geniality won’t solve every issue, and sometimes these offences rise above annoyance to real safety or property value issues. While escalating your dispute will likely not make any friends, it might resolve your issue by bringing in third parties who can see things objectively.
Noise, unkempt property, and pet issues should first be escalated to a home owners association or condo owners association, according to Lewis Farmer, a real estate attorney in Portland, Ore. He explains that if city codes exist, you can also consider going to your municipality.
When in any doubt, Lewis advised talking to a qualified attorney for guidance and advice.
The good news is that 82 per cent of neighbourhood disputes result in a satisfactory resolution. While the process may be painful, regardless of whether that’s through calm and patience resolving the dispute via communication or the eventual involvement of officials or the courts, there’s good reason to hope for a positive outcome. You’ll be stuck living next to your neighbours for a while, so figuring out how to coexist is the most ideal solution.
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