Neighbourliness is next to godliness

As the pandemic wears on, people are learning the value of good neighbours.

Many years ago, living in row of terraces in inner-suburban Sydney, my partner and I were troubled by noisy, nocturnal gatherings of a family renting next door.

For a while the parties were happening every fortnight, coinciding with the family’s welfare payments. Once we called the police, but that intervention did nothing to improve things. With our first child on the way we saw little hope of a change any time soon.

Late one night, with a good deal of trepidation, I decided to confront them. I knocked on the door and was met by the man of the house, a big, burly fellow named Albert. I stated my case, and was surprised when Albert readily agreed to get his rowdy companions to tone things down.

Over the next few weeks, seeing them from time to time in their tiny front garden, we gradually made the acquaintance of Albert and his wife, Joyce. They still had the odd noisy party, but that small amount of friendly chat somehow made things better. We didn’t call the police again.

That was one of my first lessons in neighbourliness. It’s a cumbersome word for something that in this pandemic year turns out to be a much bigger part of our lives than we might have imagined.

Neighbourhoods tend to be of a kind – affluent, poor, professional, trade and so on – but living next door to someone is no guarantee that you can easily connect with them. Social pleasantries and small-talk can seem burdensome, especially if you’re irritated by something your neighbour did or didn’t do.

Since 2003 Relationships Australia has sponsored “Neighbour Day”, on the last Sunday in March every year. This year it got lost in the noise around COVID-19 – ironically just when neighbours are pretty much the only people we get to see in the flesh.

Someone who tries hard to be a good neighbour is Lynda Cheshire, a sociology professor at the University of Queensland. One of her specialities is “un-neighbourliness”, when people don’t get on with their neighbours – or don’t even know who they are.

A strong economic factor is in play here. Cheshire’s research has shown that while more affluent people with neighbour problems tend to use third-party systems like police or council, people in disadvantaged communities, with a 30 per cent greater chance of getting into disputes over the fence, are much less inclined to seek outside help. That may explain why Albert responded better when police weren’t involved.

Research has shown that these days most Australians rarely if ever engage with neighbours, yet they are the people we are most likely to rely on for help when disaster strikes. Home confinement in these pandemic times is an opportunity to reflect and maybe to act on that.

Many are acting, now. An online support movement founded in the UK, #ViralKindness, is galvanising local residents to contact self-isolating households offering to pick up shopping or urgent supplies, post mail or just chat on the phone. Like the virus, kindness is contagious. The movement’s reach extends here.

We may feel we have little in common with our neighbours, but we share more than we might think. Our neighbourhood, the place we call home – its roads, buildings, animals, plants, landforms and weather, and the doings of its people – plays a pivotal role in shaping us.

When this is all over – starting now, in fact – governments would do well to acknowledge the central role of neighbourliness in a healthy society. Just as managers need to acknowledge the value of those in their workplace with a talent for engaging with colleagues and oiling social cogs.

Such people tend to be overlooked because kind words and good neighbours are not readily measured, don’t fit into bar graphs and don’t have a dollar value. But they can be the difference between a functional and a dysfunctional society, or between sickness and health, even life and death.

As jobs disappear and people feel the pain of rejection, stories from the Great Depression are beginning to resonate. The best of them are about friends and strangers coming together in a common cause. When times are tough and people are down, you help them, no questions asked.

No-one likes a nosey neighbour, which is the common pretext for the easy option of turning away and ignoring people. A good neighbour has grasped the fine art of keeping in touch without interfering, knowing all the while that it’s a two way street. We need each other.

There are many ways to be civilised, but none better than neighbourliness.

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