It seems like a fundamental relationship inherent to human civilization. Millennia ago, when our ancestors transitioned from surviving as nomadic hunter-gatherers into crop-cultivating farmers, they settled in spaces, and they did so amongst and around other humans. As the Neolithic bearers of agriculture adapted to this lifestyle, they crafted their shelters out of whatever quarried clay or muddy materials they could extract from the surrounding earth, thus building the neighborhood.
Over the centuries, as the religions formed within human societies, ethical standards manifested, and these moral concepts got codified. Across the board, written scriptures instructed followers on how to behave towards their neighbors, in that they were to love them and do good to them, but refrain from injuring them or coveting their property.
However, as of these past few years, it looks like knowing our neighbors has gone out of style. The Chicago Tribune indicated in 2012 that there’s been a decline in American neighborly relations since the 1950s.
Statistics suggest some specifics that give credit to such a broad-sounding statement. Joe Cortright recently wrote for City Observatory that in the 1970s, “nearly 30 percent of Americans frequently spent time with neighbors, and only 20 percent had no interactions with them,” whereas in 2015, “those proportions are reversed.” Societal changes like more time spent watching television, an increase of gated community living, a decrease in carpooling, wider economic segregation, and a higher rate of people building private recreational facilities (like pools) rather than frequenting community spaces for such resources all contribute to the trend.
Additionally, the Pew Research Center found that as of 2010, fewer than half of the American adult population knows most or all of their neighbors. The center’s survey determined that only 19 percent of the adults knew all their neighbors, while only another 24 percent responded that they knew most. As for the widespread ignorance of neighbors’ names, it was found that 29 percent of American adults know some names of those who reside in their domains’ vicinity–whereas 28 percent know none.
A separate 2011 survey by State Farm concluded that only about half of Americans know a fair amount of their neighbors’ names. Older Americans, aged 65 and older, were listed as much more likely to be aware of this information, as opposed to Americans in the 18-34 bracket.
Come to think of it, I’m in that latter age demographic, and on the floor of my apartment, I only actually know one of my neighbor’s names. The rest of the building or block, well, that’s all a mystery. The time I spend interacting with my neighbors usually involves holding doors or engaging in elevator chit-chat–although I’ll admit, I do sometimes opt out of an awkward encounter by diverting my attention into the consoling glow of my cell phone’s screen.
I suppose this measure of personal interaction (or lack thereof) is not too strange when put in said statistical perspective. Truthfully, to me, the thought of receiving traditional house-warming welcome pies at the moment of move-in–or baking pies myself to gift to incoming tenants–feels rather archaic and even alien.
Is technology to blame? Are today’s urbanites now living in a post-neighbor, Airbnb-influenced dystopia? Are social media users too preoccupied with following distant acquaintances or posting personal pictures that embellish the aesthetics of their lifestyles to possibly care about face-to-face interactions with those who live right next door?
Not necessarily. Nextdoor, a social network where local members of communities can communicate with each other, has gotten some good reviews, such as Scott Allison’s write-up for Forbes. Community members use Nextdoor for services like organizing community events, finding babysitters, pooling resources, and even the chance to “finally call that nice man down the street by his first name.”
In addition, the aforementioned Pew Research survey calculated that those who weren’t aware of their neighbors’ names were “just as likely to keep up with community events by reading community blogs,” or find online social networks to join community-focused groups. For members of society who can’t come up with proper ways to address new neighbors naturally, Wikihow posts an online guide of several wholesome-sounding ways to greet them, i.e. offering to host welcome barbecues or commenting on hobby equipment to spark conversation.
Virtual avenues aside, are all of these non-neighborly trends really so horrible in the end? Over in Europe, data suggests otherwise.
According to a 2014 pan-European survey by the UK’s Office for National Statistics, when they were trying to determine which factors best played into greater life satisfaction, strong connections with community members did not rank too high. The UK and Germany were where the highest rankings of life satisfaction turned up, but these nations also had the weakest community connections.
Whether the data-crunching determinations translate into the American lifestyle is hard to say. True, humans are social animals and most of us will probably agree that knowing names is important and that community is a positive thing, but just because neighbors know each other personally does not mean they will get along or find any benefit from their relationship.
Feature photo courtesy of Johnny Ainsworth.