Hell-Oh Neighbor

Good fences don't always make good neighbors. But a little strategizing, with an eye to human nature, can squelch the jerkishness next door—and in the world at large.

By Amy Alkon, published on May 6, 2014 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

 Devil shredding guitar and scaring the iced tea out of his neighbor

One day, I came home to find bags and boxes brimming with garbage dumped on the grassy strip lining my cute Venice, California street. Amidst food cartons and wrappers from just-purchased socks and underwear were a UPS invoice and a boarding pass. I paid a visit to Uncle Google and quickly tracked the names on them to a top foreign surgeon and his wife.

I messaged each on Facebook to come pick up their trash. No response. Grrr. Well, I thought, surely their trash had to miss them. I boxed up a sampling of it with a photo of their dumping and a scoldy demand that they clean it up. And then, for a very well-spent $3.69, I mailed it to a ritzy address in the Pacific Palisades (from the UPS invoice), where they were apparently visiting American friends.

I never heard a word of denial or apology from them, but the experience underscored something: One of the best ways to stop feeling victimized is to refuse to roll over and take it like a good little victim. And I have to say, it's hard to keep feeling victimized while snickering about somebody's tony friends calling them up to ask whether they maybe littered in Venice.

You've probably experienced similarly piggy behavior in your neighborhood. Sure, there are laws against some violations, like 4 A.M. stereo blasting and persistently yapping dogs, but just try getting them enforced. This isn't to say it should be the job of the police to intervene, and it doesn't have to be if we just understand and accept an essential fact about human nature: We're all jerks. Or, as the late psychologist Albert Ellis put it, to be human is to be "fallible, f*cked up, and full of frailty." And that's on a good day. We want what we want, when we want it, and we'd like other people to shut up and scurry out of our way so we can get it already. As depressing as it may seem to see ourselves like this, being honest about our jerkitude is the best way to personally dispense less of it and to decrease others' emissions—and maybe even prevent them. Frankly, if you get off on the wrong foot with one of your neighbors, a good fence will need to be patterned on the Great Wall of China.

Many of us make the mistake of keeping to ourselves until a neighbor does something annoying. Bad idea. If your first contact with the guy next door is letting him know how rude he is, you encourage him to achieve his natural potential for jerkishness. Better neighbor relations instead start with canny strategizing and proactive neighborliness.

 Neighbors watering gardens, one is a red skinned devil

Machiavellian Altruism

Sixteenth-century political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli may have been mislabeled a bad guy for writing The Prince, a self-help book on how to be a royal scheming user. The truth is, scheming doesn't have to require anyone getting screwed over. In fact, you can manipulate your neighbors for the greater good while manipulating them for your own good.

Rutgers University anthropologist Robert Trivers came up with the term "reciprocal altruism" to describe showing generosity to others at a cost to yourself, in hopes that they'll repay you in kind in the future. Absolute altruism is giving with no expectation of getting anything in return. But as Trivers points out, there's likely no such thing as pure altruism. If you're sacrificing for somebody related to you, it benefits your genetic line, and if you're sacrificing for somebody unrelated, you get a bump in reputation if others see what you're doing, and probably a bump in self-respect if they don't.

A little calculated generosity can also help you deter all sorts of ugliness from those living around you. When new neighbors move in, bring them a plate of cookies. And don't forget to look out for those who've been living around you for a while. Text them when they've forgotten to move their car on street-cleaning day. When their package gets chucked in your bushes, bring it to their door. Replace their porch lightbulb when it goes out while they're out of town (and leave a note telling them so).

It's not only nice to be nice, it's in your self-interest. There's a growing body of research suggesting that doing kind acts for others gives you a helper's high and makes you feel happier and more satisfied with your own life. Plus, in the time spent baking cookies for a new neighbor, you're putting positivity into the world: making them feel welcome, creating community, and generating or reinforcing a social norm for neighborliness. At the same time, you're also inoculating yourself against that person suddenly going all lifelong blood-feud on you because your sprinklers killed their nap.

How the Nice-Neighbor Sausages Are Made

A little preemptive gift-giving can have such a transformative effect, thanks to our powerful drive to reciprocate. A couple of million years ago, in the harsh environment in which we evolved, being seen as a mooch could mean getting booted from one's band—a likely death sentence. Being an easy mark posed other survival and mating issues. To keep our giving and taking in balance, humans developed a built-in social bookkeeping department. There's some little old lady in a green eyeshade inside each of us who pokes us—"Wake up, idiot!"—when somebody's mooching off of us so we'll get mad and try to even the score. When somebody does something nice for us, our inner accountant cranks up feelings of obligation, and we get itchy to repay that person.

For example, in a study by Cornell psychologist Dennis Regan, subjects were told they were participating in research on art appreciation. The actual study—on the effects of doing a favor—took place during the breaks between a series of questions about art. Regan's research assistant, posing as a study participant, would leave the room and either come back with two Cokes—one for himself and one for the other participant—or he'd come back empty-handed.

After the art questions were completed, the research assistant asked the participant a favor, explaining that he was selling raffle tickets and that he'd win a prize if he sold the most. He added that anything "would help, but the more, the better." The subjects who received the Coke ended up buying twice as many tickets as those who'd received nothing.

Regan's results have been replicated many times in the lab and out—by Hare Krishnas, who see a marked increase in donations when they give out a flower before asking for cash; and by organizations whose fundraising letters pull in far more money when they include a small gift such as personalized address labels.

A TV soap actress moved in next door to me and started throwing all-night backyard parties, complete with campfire-style guitar sing-alongs. Asking her to be more considerate was useless. The way she saw it, why should her neighbors' silly sleeping hobby take precedence over her drunken friends' need to belt out "This Land is Your Land" at 3 A.M.?

 Man gifting his devil neighbor with a 666 cake

What finally changed this was an email I sent to my more neighborly neighbors, warning them about a spate of break-ins. I didn't have Soap Snot's email address, so I printed the email and slipped it under her gate with a note scrawled at the bottom: "You aren't very considerate of those who live around you, but I don't think you should be robbed because of it, so FYI." I added that I would keep an eye on her house during the day, when she's away.

Amazingly, from that day on, there were no more wee-hours guitar-apaloozas. A few weeks after leaving her the note, I ran into her and she said, "Hey, just wanted to let you know I'm having some friends over tonight, but only for a dinner party, and we'll go inside at 10." As soon as I could rehinge my jaw, what was there to say but, "Uh...thanks"?

A Neighborhood Watch That Doesn't Require Watching

Sitting in a lawn chair by your mailbox with your twin Rottweilers and a shotgun is a highly effective way to keep passing dog walkers from letting their pooch violate your lawn. Should you find this impractical, you might take advantage of our evolved concern for preserving our reputation and post a photo of human eyes on your mailbox, tricking passersby into feeling they're being watched and possibly improving their behavior accordingly.

It seems even a drawing of eyes triggers this sensation, according to research by UCLA anthropologist Daniel M.T. Fessler and then-grad student Kevin J. Haley. In a computer game they designed to measure generosity, when a stylized picture of eyes was displayed on the computer's desktop, participants gave over 55 percent more money to other players than when no eyes were displayed. These findings were repeated in a study by Newcastle University ethologist Melissa Bateson and psychologist Daniel Nettle, in which people put nearly three times more money into a coffee room "honesty box" during the weeks when a photograph of eyes was posted above it. So, in neighborhood terms, poop happens, but tape a picture of eyes to your mailbox, and that Great Dane's dung mountain just might get lugged home instead of being left in a steaming pile for you.

 Neighbors watching high flaming grill

How to Defuse the Problem Next Door

Confronting a neighbor can be tricky. A self-important Hollywood bigwhoop started walking his dog down my street at 5 A.M.—while shouting showbiz lingo into his phone at colleagues in different time zones. He stopped after I typed a note in big letters, printed it on hot pink paper, and posted it on my fence: "Hey, guy on cell phone at 5 A.M.: The houses on this block are actually not a Hollywood set, but real homes with real people trying to sleep in the bedrooms. Thank you."

Empathy, the Great Panty-Unwadder: In many conflicts, like when the guy next door leaves his trash cans in front of your property, the injury we feel is largely symbolic. Deep down, we're all large, easily wounded children. More than anything, we want to be treated like we matter. Take the case of Christine. From time to time, her children's balls would fly over the fence into her neighbor's yard. The first time, she and the kids knocked on the neighbor's door. The lady seemed friendly, and she let them into the backyard to get the balls. But, the next few times, the balls were tossed back over the fence, slashed. Creepy. And really mean.

But in trying to resolve conflict—even when people act horror-movie ugly to your children—it helps to try to consider where they're coming from. For example, do the balls maybe bounce against the windows, startling the lady? Is she infirm, making it hard for her to get to the backyard and throw the balls back over? It's possible she's just an awful person, but by trying to call up empathy you'll deflate some of your anger—improving your ability to approach the offending party in a calm, solution-oriented way.

A Handwritten Note: The pen tends to be far less inflammatory than face-to-face conversation. A handwritten note about an issue puts time and distance between you, your criticism, and the criticized person, giving them the chance to cool down and respond in a more reasoned way. And yes, it's best to handwrite your message rather than email it, which makes it too easy for you to dash off something rash and for your neighbor to dash back an angry reply. I suggested that Christine write a card with an apology, expressing empathy for the neighbor and saying the kids were trying to do better. She might even include a $10 Starbucks card. Beyond gift-giving's power to ramp up goodwill, research suggests that a costly apology is a more meaningful apology—more likely to dissolve anger and lead to forgiveness.

Honesty, the Worst Policy: Calling a person on her bad behavior in anything but a roundabout way tends to provoke denials, which are basically angry attempts to save face. A less provoking approach is to present an issue by appearing to give your neighbor the benefit of the doubt—even when you both know she doesn't deserve it. Say, for example, the lady next door has been letting her unleashed dog run over and poop on your lawn. (This is not a secret to her because she's on her porch shouting, "Muffin, go poop in the neighbor's bushes!") You still need to pretend otherwise, writing her a note: "You probably don't know this..." This approach allows the two of you to maintain a polite fiction in which you both pretend that you don't find her about as genteel as an ass boil, which is the best way to keep your lawn from continuing to be her dog's free-range litter box.

The Tragedy of the A**hole in the Commons: There are homeowners who'd start the second Hundred Years' War to defend the sanctity of their property, but half a block from their property line, anything goes. The "Ain't my land!" excuse for allowing the trashing of public spaces illustrates what ecologist Garrett Hardin referred to as "The Tragedy of the Commons" in his 1968 essay on overpopulation. In a space owned by nobody and shared by many, the piggy can take advantage by grabbing more than a fair share of resources or by slopping up the space, ruining it for everyone. What stops this piggery is acting like we have shared ownership of public spaces, and getting as indignant about people polluting them as we would if they were redirecting traffic across our front lawn.

When You're the Problem: Selfish, self-absorbed little beasties that we are, listening doesn't come naturally to us. And because we tend to fly off the handle when criticized, listening calmly when we're in the hot seat takes preplanning: being mindful of our bratty tendencies and resolving that we'll take some deep breaths and hear a critic out.

Considering things from a complaining neighbor's point of view may require a field trip. Michael's neighbors complained about the thumping bass line from the music he plays. I suggested that Michael say something like, "I want to solve this; I don't want to torture you," and ask to come over and listen from their place so he can hear what they hear. (Just letting your neighbors know you're willing to investigate means a lot.)

The Power of I'm Sorry: The deep need we feel for an apology after we're wronged emerged out of the evolution of human cooperation, which makes it possible for us to live together in groups. We have an evolutionary adaptation that helps guard against being chumped, making sure that we aren't all-give to people who are all-take. When our sense of fairness is violated, we need a sign from the violator that we aren't idiots to trust them in the future. An apology can't undo a wrong that's been done, but it's an offering suggesting that one's future actions will be more partnerlike than selfish jerk-like.

Don't Be Geographically Snobby: Being around strangers all the time, as we often are in our society, can be cold and alienating unless we regularly take steps to remedy this state with some generosity of spirit. The way I see it, a neighbor is anybody you treat like a neighbor.

Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky of UC Riverside has studied generosity toward others, finding that it's one of the main ways (along with expressing gratitude) that we can increase our happiness. Showing another person a little generosity is also likely to put them in the spirit of "paying it forward." A bare minimum of one kind act a day should be our self-imposed cover charge for living in this world. We get the society we create—or the society we let happen to us.


Adapted from:

Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck by Amy Alkon. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin.