Jennifer Hall, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, Certified CEO Effectiveness Executive Coach
This year’s Good Neighbor Day, and Bill’s post on the topic from a psychological perspective, come at a perfect time for me, as my family and I have recently moved into a new house, which is in a new town, which brings with it, of course—new neighbors. The timing is fortuitous because it helps me think about how I can approach my goal of being a good neighbor, both literally, in relationship to the people near whom I am now living, and figuratively, as a citizen of my community.
As I reflect on my various residences over the years, beginning with the house I grew up in, it’s very easy for me to think of neighbors that I would naturally put into two buckets: “good neighbors” and “bad neighbors.” My hunch is that I’m not alone in that thinking, because our brains are inherently lazy and seek easy categorizations. A neighbor working in his yard waves and greets me warmly when I pull into my driveway? Good neighbor. Someone else screams at me for replacing my chain link fence with a wooden fence? Bad neighbor. It takes more energy to wonder about the nuances in others’ behavior, to consider carefully all the dynamics at work in someone’s life that would influence how he or she behaves toward you. But it’s probably quite helpful. It also requires a high degree of self-awareness at the very least, and beyond that, probably a high degree of self-knowledge in order to improve a potentially negative situation.
I haven’t always responded to challenging neighbor situations in a manner that would make Bill proud. The fence example was not a product of my imagination. About ten years ago, my husband and I bought our first house together. It was a 1920’s home that had been expertly renovated—new electric, new plumbing, new walls, new bathrooms and new kitchen; the only things that were original were the beautiful wood floors and the arts and craft charm. And then there was the yard. Not new. Not beautiful. Not even green. My husband, Eric, spent many weekends that summer working on the yard. He put new sod down, purchased beautiful plants and planned the landscape design carefully. Neighbors walking by complimented us on the transformation. The final step was to replace the rusty old chain link fence with a new wooden fence. Our next door neighbors, both retired, spent every summer “up north,” in New England. As a courtesy, Eric called them on their cell phone to let them know we’d be putting in a new fence, as the old chain link fence bordered their property; it was on our property but bordered theirs. The first half of the couple my husband spoke with, a kind, elderly and partially disabled man—we’ll call him Fred—was appreciative of the call and thanked us for letting him know. But shortly after Eric actually started installing the new fence, he received a call from Fred who told us that his wife, a gruff woman who spent much more time tending their yard than he did, was upset to learn from another neighbor that the new fence was not—as he had believed it would be—a new chain link fence, but rather what she called “a stockade fence.” He apologized to us, but said that his wife—we’ll call her Martha—was very, very upset. Eric heard Martha yelling in the background, telling Fred what he should say to us about the “eyesore” that she believed the new fence would be. Finally Martha grabbed the phone and gave Eric an earful; the new fence, she said, would decrease the value of their property. She said she came from a family of contractors and knew how poorly wooden fences held up over time. I could hear her screams through the phone and saw Eric try, unsuccessfully, to break in and try to defend himself. I saw him getting redder and redder; he did not like being yelled at. I offered to get on the call and he gratefully handed me the phone. I listened to Martha and did my best to respond calmly to her accusations. But she apparently found my responses infuriating. After a few minutes of my attempts to de-escalate the situation, she said “I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to play your psychologist mind tricks on me!” In the end, we agreed to disagree. Eric installed the new fence even further into our property than the previous fence. This in turn made Martha even angrier because now there was a gap between our fence and the fence in their front yard, a gap through which their dog could escape. She even asked us to sign a hold harmless agreement in case their dog damaged our fence or, by digging under it, our yard. (Martha had told me when we first moved in that she was a Harvard-educated lawyer.)
So how do I now see my role in this unsatisfying set of interactions? I’m afraid that I was emotionally invested in seeing myself as the good guy in this little neighborhood drama, and Martha as the bad guy. And this says something about my relationship with myself, which—according to Bill—set the upper limit on the quality of the relationship I was able to create with Martha, or with anyone else for that matter. I was too defensive to see myself as an equal contributor to the conflict. I didn’t take the time to consider the very real stress that might be affecting Martha. As I think about it now, I realize she was probably feeling burdened by the apparently failing health of a much older husband, and by the responsibility of caring for their home—two homes, actually—with almost no help from him. I don’t think she was a happy person; when they were in town, we often heard her yelling at her husband, or—when she was visiting—her daughter. I wish I would have allowed myself to see her with greater compassion. I wish I recognized that when I was calmly responding to her loud accusations on that phone call, she may have experienced me as sanctimonious. My relative lack of self-knowledge at the time, my unwillingness to be vulnerable enough to recognize my own contributions to the situation, ensured that Martha and I would never come to a place of understanding and mutual respect. Ten years later, with the incredibly humbling experience of parenting given to me, I hope that I would react differently.