Good Neighbors

Most of us live among others in communities of various types, by choice or by necessity. We humans are naturally social creatures, but things can go wrong. And they do, and they have over the millennia, and disputes among neighbor are not a new concept. What is new, though, is an en-masse cultural shift away from neighborly behavior, timed most inconveniently with the turnabout in whose side is most likely to win – that of the good guy or the bad guy. Not that long ago, a person complaining about his neighbor's noise got results.

The system worked for someone who called the cops about the neighbor's barking dog or amplified music, after first trying to work face-to-face with the neighbors but with no acceptable results. The same went for other types of conflict close to home, from trash and pets to boundary disputes, from unsightly messes to threats and intimidation. Much has changed. There are now exponentially more things someone living in close proximity to others can do to annoy his neighbors, the laws that do exist are largely un-enforced, and the overall system designed to protect positive forces in the community – the good neighbors who used to prevail in such matters – is too taxed to deal with “petty neighbor squabbles,” as police officers, judges, landlords, homeowners' association reps and countless others consider today's disputes.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that it's increasingly difficult to determine who's really at fault in some neighbor disputes. Is it the upstairs neighbor who walks across her bare floor while wearing shoes, or the downstairs neighbor who bangs on his ceiling in response? The woman with a constantly barking dog in a suburban community filled with dogs, or the next-door neighbor who eggs her house as retaliation for his sleepless nights? Is it the guy who some people think is staring at kids in the community, or the angry mob of parents who show up at his home with torches? This is not your father's neighbor war. Welcome to the world of uphill, lonely battles that are more likely to send the good guy packing while the bad guy wins.

I've lived rurally, in the suburbs, and in the city, in areas rich, middle-class and poor. I've counseled thousands of people online, over the airwaves and in person in dealing with the anxiety-filled force that now stands to change us at our cores and worsen our lives all around. I've experienced for myself most of what I cover in this book, and the rest is based on the outcomes of my counsel. The forces stack against us. Good neighbors come and go while the bad ones never seem to move away or get swept up in a tsunami. Media messages over the last decade have bolstered bad neighbor behavior while marginalizing traditional “good neighbors” into what I call the Good Neighbor Underclass. Authorities, arbitrators, judges, and other good neighbors – all of whom could once be seen in our corner – now seem hasty in finding many of those who complain to be uptight, intolerant jerks who make their own problems and probably deserve the intense anxiety that their neighbors are causing.

I've quieted the loud, I've pushed back those who encroached against my boundaries, I've toppled the aggression of the Neighbors From Hell and all they employ in their childish, hateful campaigns. This fight is not for everyone, which is why I say: There is a cost beyond the cover price of this book. Neighbor conflict takes a heavy toll, especially among good people who possess the growingly-unreasonable expectation that those around them will be equally neighborly. Good neighbors aren't built for war. We're positive people who have positive pursuits, and the negativity of neighbor-versus-neighbor challenges who we are. We focus in our lives on productive work – Neighbors From Hell are destructive and have more time to make us miserable than we have to correct them. Today's neighbor wars pit good guys against each other – spouses fight, good neighbors wind up in conflict with authorities who we often see as siding with the bad neighbors (and we're often right), and we face an internal conflict at every stage, leading to what I call NFH Syndrome – where victims become aggressors, whether against their foils next door or against their families or themselves. Ask anyone who's been embroiled in neighbor turmoil for a year or two how he's sleeping, how she's handling her workload at the office, how their kids are doing in school with so little sleep because of overnight disturbances, how their bank account is fairing because they have to hire a lawyer to defend themselves against false claims, and how much they can enjoy a vacation while worrying what the Neighbors From Hell might do to their property while it's unprotected and the neighbors are unsupervised.

I've explored the multifaceted issues here, covering the major forms of neighbor disagreement, and I'll present my three-pronged approach of Prevention, Diplomacy and Correction toward returning your home and community life to normal – Prevention – It may seem too late for that, but ongoing preventive measures are useful where we live now, and if you choose to move to a new home they can help you to live where you belong, in as much harmony as possible. Diplomacy – This level is important because most of us don't approach a neighbor about a problem properly. We're too serious or too weak. We're angry and frustrated or we're frightened.

We make the mistake of writing notes that can be used against us later by our Neighbors From Hell in a harassment claim. Unfortunately, diplomatic efforts typically expose us to greater conflict – we're effectively telling a troublemaker how he or she can cause us even more trouble. Kind of like shedding blood into a shark tank. It's the failure of diplomacy that yields for us the knowledge we are dealing with a bona-fide Neighbor From Hell. But diplomatic efforts can also yield a quicker resolution and even spawn a friendlier environment among neighbors that could become at odds. Correction – Here is where I and thousands of others without proper preparation have found our greatest anxiety and frustration.

There was a non-preventable problem, diplomacy did not work but only worsened things, and now we must engage police, lawyers, landlords, mediators, condo and co-op boards, local legislators, zoning and health officers, animal control and other agencies to work for us rather than against us. We also have to properly prepare ourselves for ongoing conflict so that it doesn't destroy us, malign us among our better neighbors, ruin our households and impact the well-being of people we care about. Let me point out that once we reach the light at the end of the tunnel, we're not completely in the clear. Neighbors From Hell don't find God or any other salvation to become good neighbors once we prevail; friendships don't rise from the rubble left in the wake of our corrective efforts. Neighbor conflict seldom goes away without one of the parties moving away or getting hit by a transit bus.

So our process continues as a matter of ongoing conflict management after the conflict resolution. We are, after all, the adults here. Embrace your new role as manager. One of the major points that I press on, which offers a global support and information forum that anyone can join, is that beyond our individual issues with our own neighbors, I see from my research a cultural shift away from neighborly behavior and the erosion of community life as we know it. Where once proximity was likely to birth friendship, the term “neighbor” is for too many becoming a four-letter word. It's as though hate is being manufactured and sold to consumers on both sides – un-neighborly types hate us, and the Good Neighbor Underclass can do without the growing numbers of Neighbors From Hell.

But where can humanity go to avoid dealings with neighbors? There aren't enough islands to go around. I don't see people becoming more neighborly, so living NFH-free in today's society is more and more becoming a matter of careful choices, understanding of the issues of neighbor disputes, and knowing how to correct that which deserves our time and needs our attention. Empathizing with those around us takes energy and may even curtail the extent to which we can enjoy ourselves.

The way selfishness is eclipsing more neighborly attitudes is a sign we're losing touch with how to coexist in a community, which essentially predicts its eventual death. Life in the modern neighborhood is becoming a zero-sum game being won by the bad guys, sending nicer neighbors to flee for a peace that's now hard to find anywhere. Most discouraging is that the good guys' suffering forces us to become something we weren't – defensive and combative, increasingly suspicious toward those around us, and looking up the neighborhood social ladder to see how far we've fallen. 

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About the Author

Charlene Lin