We all have a general understanding of what it means to be good neighbors. Good neighbors are friendly and courteous; they greet you hello whenever they see you. Good neighbors are helpful and kind. They help you carry heavy groceries, and they may lend you a book, a pot or any other item if you needed and asked for it. Too often, however, the idea of a good neighbor becomes distilled into proscriptive variants of rules of behavior. Good neighbors do not have loud parties. Good neighbors do not let their trees grow too big. From all the neighbor disputes that we have received at the APADRC, one rule, one statement reigns supreme when it comes to good neighborly behavior: Good neighbors don’t bother me.
This idea that neighbors can simply ignore one another is, of course, problematic as evidenced by the number of cases we receive about neighbors having issues with each other. For the most part, people can get by leaving one another alone. But in situations where they have to communicate—because of a tree branch extending into their property, or a noisy dog barking at night—neighbors can find the situation awkward and difficult. This often leads to all kinds of miscommunications, negative perceptions, and immobilizing or abusive arguments. A case that we had early this year, for example, centered on a tree dispute which had escalated to the point where one party was threatening to spray the trees to death. The communications between the parties were composed of nothing but a series of accusations (“Your parties are too loud! You spy on my house!”). The unfortunate trees had no say in the matter. Another case we had concerned an elderly Chinese lady who took issue about the way that her neighbor used the bingo room. She ended up getting into a highly aggressive argument with him eventually describing him to us as scary, cold, and mean. In many of these cases, the first argument marks the first time that the neighbors have actually communicated with one another aside from the usual distanced recognition of presence, if there was ever any. It certainly makes the task of mediating between them even more difficult, because there is no foundation of trust or respect to begin with.
The problems with lack of communication between neighbors can also manifest in underhanded and snide ways, especially in communities like senior housing complexes where common use areas can become ripe with behaviors like gossiping and bullying. We recently provided a communication and empowerment workshop to one such senior community experiencing these kinds of behaviors. According to their housing coordinator who called us in, there was gossip going around the complex about certain people and this was hurting not just the old tenants, but also all those who were coming in as new members. One tenant, and active workshop participant, put it this way:
I used to collect all the cans and bottles around the complex. I did this, because I wanted to help my neighbors and because the money was used to buy food for our monthly meetings. However, people started saying that I was pocketing some of the money from the recycling. It is not true! I never did that! I did that out of my heart. Now, I don’t do it anymore, because it hurt me.
When we asked the other neighbors what they thought about the gossiping and the intimidations, some said that they were just not familiar enough with each other to dismiss the gossip as lies. For all they knew, the stories they were hearing could very well be true. During the workshop, we encouraged the neighbors to talk about what they thought were good neighborly behaviors. Many pointed out that respect, friendliness, and trust were key to living in a closed environment like theirs, and they all acknowledged the importance of communicating directly with their neighbors to prevent the spread of unreliable information.
These cases serve to show that the practice of good communication between neighbors, even if minimal, is integral to retaining a relationship that is often times solely based on boundaries and disinterest. Furthermore, they highlight the need for community building particularly in closed environments like senior housing facilities. Communication workshops, group facilitations, and one-on-one mediations are some steps to take that may help address those issues between neighbors. These safe spaces allow the people involved to share their thoughts openly with one another, and this may create new relationships, strengthen the ones already developed or at the very least, raise awareness of their ties to one another as neighbors and community members.
As a community mediator, I believe in good faith efforts to improve relationships through open communication. As I have seen with our cases, many of the situations our clients find themselves in are consequences of miscommunication or due to the absence of positive dialogue between the parties. These situations make me feel that it’s unfortunate that some situations develop in that way, but I’m also hopeful that with appropriate help, often through mediation or facilitation, any party can move on from their dispute.
All in all, I encourage those facing communication problems or other kinds of disputes with another person or within a group to try mediation or facilitation. It’s a wonderful process that empowers you as an individual and as a community member to respond to your neighbor, friend, or dare I say it, enemy, in a positive and constructive way..