Social Etiquette: Neighbours – why are we afraid?

It’s the slamming of the doors and endless nattering in the hallway of the apartment block, from my neighbours,  that sends shivers down my spine. Not because of the noise but knowing they are “out there” makes me retreat and delay any plans to avoid a bumbling confrontation. It all seems a bit suspicious – my behaviour – on the surface and indeed a little green eyed.

But when one gets burned by a neighbours aloofness it’s easy to see why people retract into their shell like a Horseshoe crab.

Living in the culturally diverse Bathurst-StClair district in Toronto for four years it made for some awkward hallway encounters from a mix of characters – Jamaican construction workers, Jewish university grads etc. And often.

Early one morning around the ripe old time of three o’clock, the phone rang. My instant reaction was a drunken friend was calling to quote a line from his or her favourite song.It was anything but.

“Hey man, it’s me from next door, can you let me in? I’m from apartment four,” said the man. It was obvious from the tone of his husky voice he’d spent the night drowning himself in turps. I was stunned and barely awake and torn between doing a good deed and not letting in a complete stranger. I mean, how could I be certain it was him? You see, I had barely said two words to the fella next door. I would always hear him and his mob yelling and screaming at night, playing some sort of video game – hockey, I gather – and all the offerings that is entailed in pre-drinking. So when he picked me for his early morning request I was taken aback. “Sorry,” I said. “Not sure who you are.” I then hung up the phone. Two seconds later, the phone rings again. “C’mon man! I just need to get in.I live next door.” This time I hung up straight away.

Before this night I had passed the man from unit four in the hallway a handful of times. I would initiate conversation with a friendly “Hi mate, how’s things.” On a good day I’d get “Good.” On a bad day I’d simply get nothing. No eye contact, nothing. The events leading up to that early morning call gave me no reason to let unit four in – if in fact it was him – and made me out to be a cold-hearted neighbour.The fact is, had he said the odd “hello” and had we developed a bit of a rapport, perhaps I would have let him in like neighbours should.

There have been other “neighbourly” experiences that have lead to my fear of passing them in the hall, like ghosts.

Heath St., Toronto presented one peculiar neighbour. It was a bigger building – 16 floors – and there were more apartments on one floor than the Bathurst building.The chances of bumping into strangers were premium.

Next door, lived a Japanese student. His routine was odd and hard to follow. It included promiscuous video game nights with friends and lewd partying followed by long periods of silence and I often questioned: Does he still live there? We never spoke much at all. I’d see him in the hallway, look him in the eye and say “hello”, but that was met with the lowering of the eyes and no comment. After a while I stopped greeting him altogether and replaced it with a vague looking smile. There were also times in the elevator where we’d share the seven-floor journey together and share it in silence. I’d pretend to look inside my bag for keys and fumble about for a few minutes till we reached our floor.

Even now, living in a block of only five units, the awkwardness still exists. Going down stairs to take out garbage has become a stealthy planned mission with one objective: to avoid people. And why? It’s the forced chitter chatter. The forgetting of names, job titles, people’s situations and information about a sick aunt or relative. It’s avoiding all the things you don’t want to talk about with someone you barely know and in reality are forced to know by your living location. It’s the false offerings of “Oh, we should have you over sometime for a drink”, something that will never happen, but we feel obliged to say it. We put up with neighbours and their noise and perhaps that too leads to nil conversation from both parties.One feels guilt, the other is irked.

Neighbours are sheer poison. Some are friendly on certain days, others are ill at ease with the whole communication game. If a neighbour takes the time to chat, I’ll be all for it. But until then, I’ll continue to wait until the hallway coast is clear to take out the trash.

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One response to “Social Etiquette: Neighbours – why are we afraid?

  1. You have my sympathy. Neighbours can indeed ruin an otherwise perfectly homely situation. you may enjoy this:

    http://caughtinthemiddleman.wordpress.com/2007/08/13/my-neighbours-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly-part-1-2/

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