When you think about your neighborhood, what comes to mind? Safety? The school nearby? The distance to the grocery store? Many of us define our community by its features. Things like walking paths, community centers, and schools with good ratings are important when deciding where to settle down.
Why We’re Shy
Just five years ago, less than a third of us knew our neighbors’ names, according to a Pew survey. How come? Fear of conflict or drama may be the reason we don’t know one another these days—nobody wants to build a relationship that may be stessful—but apathy may play the biggest role.
Peter Lovenheim, author of In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time, writes about his own subtle fear of an elderly woman who walked in his neighborhood each day for exercise. In forty years, she never missed a day, and without a reason to extend himself, Lovenheim never reached out to talk with her as she passed by. When he finally struck up a conversation, he found that she was an accomplished pianist who loved to share her knowledge. “What a waste,” he thought, imagining all the piano lessons his kids missed out on. As for her, she would have loved young visitors to liven up her lonely home.
Why We Need Our Neighbors
Your neighbors don’t need to be musicians to have something to offer; there are a host of unexpected benefits to knowing your neighbors: Need to borrow a ladder or an egg for a recipe? Save time, fuel, and energy by walking next door instead of running to the supermarket. Don’t have four-wheel-drive in bad weather? Flagging down your neighbor when your car is stuck in snow or mud is a lot easier if you’re already friends.
Emergency preparedness is the best reason to introduce yourself. A friend or family member who’s five miles away may be too far when every second counts. And if you’re surprised to hear about a string of car burglaries or vandalism a week after the fact, you can stay updated in real time through group texts or neighborhood apps like Nextdoor as the incident happens.
How to Be a Friend
Not sure where to begin? You’re not alone. Most people today aren’t the best at connecting with neighbors, according to Lovenheim. Thankfully, it’s an easy thing to learn. Here are some easy ideas to get you and your kids started:
- Bake cookies together and package them in beautiful homemade wrapping to deliver on a holiday other than Christmas.
- Make a point to ask to borrow something from each neighbor within a three-house radius—all within a year.
- Begin with names. Stop your neighbors as you see them outdoors, just to ask their names, and wish them a good day. Now, you can wave and holler out each time you see them, “Hi Jen!” instead of avoiding eye contact because you’re not yet friends.
Once you’ve met your neighbors, it’s time to build that community. Learning names is a start, but getting to know them takes more time (and effort) than those one-time encounters. After all, you can’t know your neighbor has grandkids in another state if you’ve only brought him cookies once.
For an activity that allows to you meet regularly, consider a community-building volunteer activity that reaches further than names and faces. Start a community garden, wherein everyone can contribute to a common harvest in the same spot all season. Get your kids involved, too; you might even put together a weekly philanthropic lemonade stand and have other parents help. People are more likely to go out of their way for a refreshment if they know the families involved.
Of course there’s always time to make your space look a little nicer. Coordinate a regular neighborhood cleanup day, and invite all families in the neighborhood. By the end of the day, many friendships will have formed.
Healthy internal boundaries are paramount to building a vibrant community. But once you’re comfortable in your own home, it’s time to make your neighborhood a comfortable place too, and that means connecting with others. How do you get to know your neighbors? What would you recommend other readers do to reach out for the first time?
This article was brought to you by Tom’s of Maine. The views and opinions expressed by the author do not reflect the position of Tom’s of Maine.