It’s 9 p.m. in Brooklyn, and my upstairs neighbor’s Lab retriever is running wall-to-wall sprints worthy of the NFL combine. Across the hall, a young couple is laughing hysterically and smoking something funky. And the Italian seniors next door are having sex and playing the Righteous Brothers so loud, I’ve definitely lost that loving feeling.
The good news is, the dog dash is always brief, the sky-high lovebirds let me borrow their drill, and the oldies fans tire easily—so, all in all, they’re good neighbors, which can be a rarity in New York City.
But I’ve definitely encountered some nightmare neighbors in the city—like the perpetually shoeless man who taught his three foul parrots to curse loudly for days at a time. I also spent two decades in suburbia, which was no commune, either. In third grade, a schizophrenic neighbor said God told her I was evil, and spread glass shards in our yard—a jarring experience at age 8, but in retrospect, a memorable lesson in the art of neighboring.
How to get over the fact you're living among strangers
Your home should be your sanctum, a safe space in an increasingly chaotic world. Yet when moving into a new home you’re likely to find yourself surrounded by strangers. In concept, it’s a pretty threatening juxtaposition. In practice, however, it’s actually something to be embraced.
We all feel this way about home, and when approached correctly, you and your neighbor can unite your protective instincts, form a sense of community, and even help each other out when needed. You don’t need to have much in common, and save for the occasional “How’s it going?” or “What’s up!” you don’t have to interact that much. You do, however, have to respect each other’s space and peace. Do this and neighboring becomes like raising a garden: Seed thoroughly at season’s start, remember to water it, and if needed, carefully address pests before they choke out your tomatoes.
"Assume that your neighbor isn't necessarily an evil, malicious person who's out to get you, even though it may feel that way."
How to become friendly with your neighbor
The art of neighboring begins with a brief introduction to establish trust and initiate a civil relationship. This intro doesn’t have to be immediate, so don’t force it. If your neighbor has an armful of groceries outside your apartment building, it might not be the best time for getting-to-know-you (though it is the perfect time to hold the door open). Remember, a great first impression goes a long way toward preventing future drama, so when the right time does present itself, put on your happy pants. Kathy Neily, a New York–based therapist who specializes in conflict resolution, recommends a classic customer service smile and solid eye contact. “If this is an Oscar-winning performance, so be it,” she says. “You don’t have to feel this generous of spirit, you just have to act like it."
From there on out, measured tolerance becomes the key to smooth neighboring. Easier said than done, though ultimately it does get easier, as learning to dissolve anger weakens negative reflexes to annoyances. This isn’t to say let yourself get walked on—if an annoyance threatens to affect your life, it’s time for a talk. And whether it’s your neighbor’s dog defiling your driveway or the apartment next door blasting Beyoncé at day-break, resist the urge to simply bang on your neighbor’s front door. “Stop and ask yourself: ‘How important is this?’” says Neily. “You have a right to your feelings, so voice the unedited version to yourself, then to someone who can listen without interrupting to give advice.” Once the anger subsides, should a discussion still feel necessary, plan your interaction logically.
The best way to handle a problem with your neighbor
Though nailing a note to the offender’s door may feel satisfying, the best way to handle an issue is in person. Neily says to remember, “I’m OK. You’re OK” is the message. It’s safe to assume that your neighbor isn’t necessarily an evil, malicious person who’s out to get you, even though it may feel that way. “Most people have no idea that what they are doing might be driving you crazy,” says Neily. Approach the neighbor on neutral ground so as to not activate territorial instinct—stay near your property line, or in your building’s hallway. Aim for the weekend when you’re both relaxed and simply explain the dilemma using the first person. “Keep it on the ‘I’, as in ‘I’m having a hard time sleeping with the volume of your music,’ ” Neily says. “Starting sentences with ‘you’ feels like lecturing and puts people on the defensive.” She says it may sound backward, but to get your point across, don’t talk too much. “After you give your ‘I’ statement, stop, listen to what they have to say. The more you respectfully listen, the better chance you have of communicating your version of the scenario.” And even if you have to bite your lip, try to end the discussion cordially.
How to coexist happily ever after with neighbors
Given mankind’s track record, peaceful coexistence on a mass scale may be a pipe dream, but basic neighborly living certainly isn’t. Just plant your garden, nourish the roots, and reap the rewards. And should complications arise, remember the art of neighboring: Settle your mind and evaluate the problem. If necessary, engage the neighbor at an appropriate place and time, using a first-person, non-accusatory tone. Treat the issue as a misunderstanding, not an act of war. Listen to their response, don’t interrupt, and conclude on a positive note. That is, unless you live next to an unstable shut-in convinced she’s doing the Lord’s work by scattering broken glass in your children’s sandbox. At that point you might want to tell the kids Finding Nemo is on, lock the doors, and give the cops a call.