Handling Troublesome Neighbors

The best solution to neighbor-neighbor conflict may simply be moving.

Posted Mar 04, 2021

The list of ways that urban neighbors can get on each other's nerves is long. It might be misbehaving dogs, loud music, intrusive surveillance, tacky lawn ornaments, political signs, or bright lights at night.  Handling those conflicts is tricky.

A high level of conflict among neighbors is generally a lose-lose proposition and the relationship is likely to deteriorate over time as arguments and new sources of friction add fuel to the fire.

The Hunter-Gatherer Solution

The problem of troublesome neighbors is ancient. Even in small hunter-gatherer communities, social conflict was a recurrent problem. Many of these spats involved marital infidelity.

Hunter-gatherer societies were flexible, and individuals who were unhappy in one group could be accepted in another community. When bitter conflicts arose, hunter-gatherers resolved them by one person moving.

In settled societies, moving is a more complex matter because so many of our activities, from work to education to friendship, are tied to the place where we live. In the world of social media, this is certainly changing but few people are ready to swap a Zoom chat for a real-world interaction with real physical contact.

Avoidance

In settled communities, neighbors are often home at the same time, put out their garbage at the same time, mow their lawns and shovel their driveways.

Inconvenient as it may be, we sometimes choose to avoid disagreeable neighbors. In one of my homes, I stayed clear of a nasty neighbor by turning my back door into the front door and approaching the house from a rear lane. She may have noticed the pattern and established her position as a bad neighbor by turning me in for running a fictitious illegal daycare center. A bashful inspector from the Department of Child Services knocked on my door to check out the claim.

While this event is amusing, it has a darker side which is that people who have weak social networks often latch onto their neighbors as though they were family.

Conflict among neighbors often has a fairly trivial pretext but escalates if the irritant is not resolved.

Negotiation

In many cases, neighbors causing a nuisance are oblivious to the problem. Who wouldn't love their dog who nevertheless is a chronic barker and whines all day while the owner is away? If the owners deny that there is a problem, it cannot be remedied. Even if they did, they are unlikely to do anything about it.

Some problems are easily addressed. Most reasonable people will turn down their music if asked politely. They will understand that people who must rise early for their work need to sleep.

How they are asked is the key and the more indirect the approach the better. Instead of even mentioning the music, a person might say, “I have to get up for work at 6 in the morning, I like to be in bed by 9.”

Even this level of intervention is risky. The neighbor might take umbrage and declare that they can make as much noise as they want in their own backyard.

This attitude fuels escalation. The aggrieved person waits until 10 o'clock in the evening and calls the police. This is generally a mistake because an annoying neighbor has been turned into a bitter enemy who is not going away and is unlikely to reform.

Where there are serious problems of illegal conduct, such as drug dealing, there are various legal remedies, from police action to public nuisance lawsuits brought by a group of neighbors. Yet, such problems often persist. If the drug dealer owns the home, they are not going away. If the landlord evicts them, they can occupy another house on the same street. Establishing that drug dealing is occurring requires an undercover operation that is difficult, dangerous, and expensive. Often, the most that police do is to increase neighborhood surveillance.

The Litigious Neighbor

There are civil remedies for neighbor nuisances but these rarely produce positive results. Even with the law on their side, the aggrieved neighbor who brings a civil action is stepping into a minefield of unanticipated consequences.

The most obvious is that they unleash the litigious beast in their neighbor. The fallout extends from getting turned in if their sidewalk is not shoveled in winter to being cited for minor infringements in city building ordinances, or even having a home extension challenged for code violation.

When we are at loggerheads with our neighbors, we generally cannot simply pick up and move to a new community after the manner of hunter-gatherers.

Prevention is the best cure and every casual contact is an opportunity for building rapport that forestalls conflict. This sort of diplomacy is harder for apartment dwellers whose neighbors may be more temporary.

So, love thy neighbor! Otherwise, moving is the only good way of solving conflict, as our remote ancestors realized.