Meeting My Neighbors

For the past three years, I have hosted a holiday cookie exchange for my building. Our building has 12 units (mostly 2 bedrooms), so I had hoped that we could get at least half of them to participate. However, in the last three years, we have had three, four, and three units participate, including ourselves. It hasn’t been increasing, and I have been wondering why.

Peanut Butter Cookies, Macaroons, German Chocolate Cake Cookies, and Very Fancy Christmas Cookies of unknown variety because they’re too beautiful to eat.

Here are a few reasons I came up with for why people don’t participate:

  1. They don’t like delicious cookies
  2. They don’t bake cookies
  3. The timing of the party isn’t good
  4. I seem really sketchy when I ring doorbells and hand out flyers
  5. They feel awkward attending for the first time
  6. They aren’t interested in meeting their neighbors

To be fair, I didn’t meet many of my neighbors for the first three or four years that I lived here. When I moved in, I met my left and right wall neighbors, but I didn’t explore much of the rest of the building. I had a guess for who else lived in my building since we often walked by each other, but I didn’t make a point of introducing myself.

I have talked to friends, and I know I’m not alone in this social uncertainty. This phenomena seems more common with younger people who move around between apartments more often. However, I have a friend who described her family as “hermits” who lived in a house for decades and never met their neighbors. Their closest interaction was when their neighbor stole fruit off of their tree that bordered their backyard fence. This only led to passive-aggressive, indirect exchanges.

And after a few years, it only gets harder to meet because it’s awkward to not have met sooner. Once, I was out on my patio when a neighbor walked by. She was friendly and struck up a conversation. At some point, she asked me how long I had been living in my unit, and in my shame of shyness, I lied and ambiguously said, “Oh, not so long, maybe a year or two.” This white lie could have gone over nicely except for the valiant effort of Julie to correct my poor memory. She quickly exclaimed, “What? You have been living here for at least four years!”

However, it has been awfully nice to get to know the neighbors who I have met.

First, they’re really helpful. When I needed someone to keep an eye on things while I was out of town, they can pick up my packages and make sure that nothing weird is going on in my unit. If I run out of flour, I can ask for a cup. If my power or water goes out, I can find out if it’s just me or if everyone is affected.

Second, it’s an obvious way to build relationships with people who are different from me.¬†Bowling Alone¬†made me think about how I am involved in local, cross-sectional communities. In my everyday life, I mostly interact with people like myself. My friends and coworkers are largely of similar age, background, status, and interests, so it reinforces my perception about the world. However, my neighbors are a much wider spectrum across those same characteristics, and I’m glad to broaden my perspective.

Finally, I get great gossip and local news. I used to think that local news was stuff happening in Mountain View. When I talk to my neighbors, though, we talk about what’s going on around the complex, the adjacent park, the Mexican grocery store down the street, and restaurants opening and closing. So although they might be different, simply living next to each other is already a great starting point for conversation. I can get the benefits of Nextdoor by actually going next door.

Today, especially in the Bay Area, we think about social networks and communities on a global scale and how we can connect to more people. We seek out online communities that share our hobbies. We follow online celebrities that seem so personal but are engaged with thousands of people. For average people, our social media status updates go out to hundreds of people spread across the world. The internet has transformed us into a global culture where we break free of geographical constraints to be a part of something massive.

And yet, it’s oddly comforting to have small communities that actually can’t scale. In this little building of 12 units, every person is really important, and it’s big news when someone moves out and someone new moves in. There’s something really meaningful in that, and you can’t get lost, disengaged, unconnected or missed amongst your neighbors.

So with the few neighbors that I know well, we say hi on the sidewalk and chat from time to time. Maybe two or three times a year, we will make the long trip to see each other and plan a dinner party. It’s tiny, it’s wonderful, and it all happened just because we randomly ended up living next to each other.

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