Reason #1 to Talk to Neighbors – It’s an Investment

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam gives many good, rational reasons why engaging with neighbors can enhance your life.

Many families these days have decided to essentially “blow off” their neighbors. Their members walk out of their houses only to get into their cars, and later they drive their cars home and walk inside their houses. They give zero to their neighborhood and ask for zero in return.

I’m sure you know families like this. Perhaps yours is one of these. Before saying, “No, not us!” ask yourself how many times in the last month you have had a real conversation with a neighbor. Merely waving or saying “hello” doesn’t count.

So, why should you take the time to get to know your neighbors? After all, most, if not all of us despair that we don’t have enough time to do the things we know we enjoy – get together with our friends, play sports we love, read books that interest us, go to events that interest us, etc.I have two different approaches to answering the question, “why talk to your neighbors?” I’ll discuss the first, the investment rationale, in this article. I’ll discuss the other, the mindfulness rationale, in another article.

So how is neighbor relations a rational investment of time? Simply put, close neighbor relations can make your life better, so time you spend on it today should pay off well in the future.

Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is full of examples of how high “social capital” in local communities creates safer communities and extends the lives of inhabitants.

So, there is ample evidence that your kids will be safer and you will live longer if your community has high “social capital” – i.e. a sense of social trust and mutual interconnectedness, which is enhanced over time though positive interaction and collaboration in shared interests.

In addition, while I know of no specific scientific evidence to this effect, I’m absolutely sure that kids who with other neighborhood kids are happier, better socially adjusted, etc.

So, since we are all rational people who want our kids to be safe, happy, and socially adjusted, and since we all want to live longer, we should all be active members of our neighborhoods, right? Well, the fact is that we aren’t. In fact, fewer and fewer people have any real substantive neighborhood relationships.

The problem is that the social capital of an active neighborhood is a “public good” because a neighbor can enjoy the benefits of it without “paying” the costs of organizing the neighborhood. In other words, he or she can be a “free rider.” Economics tells us that there may be a tendency for societies to provide too few public goods (too few from the point of view of overall social welfare).

Years ago, parents and children spent a lot less time cooped up inside their homes than they do today, so having relationships with neighbors was easy. In a previous entry I show a video of my interview with my father, in which he talks about growing up in a day before television, computers, or air conditioning.

These days, for most great neighborhoods, it takes the heroic, selfless hard work of one or a few neighbors to organize their neighborhood into a real community. These neighbors organize block parties, neighborhood watch groups, or frequent playdates between local children (however, when playdates are between just two children, the neighborhood at large hardly benefits).

So, if you’re not one of these “neighborhood organizer” types and you live in a neighborhood where neighbors don’t know each other, what can you use for motivation to get out there and meet your neighbors? Isn’t the rational investment approach – i.e. kids will be happier/safer/more social, and you’ll live longer – enough for you? In the next article, I’ll describe another way to justify getting involved in your neighborhood, the “mindfulness rationale.”

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4 Responses to Reason #1 to Talk to Neighbors – It’s an Investment

  1. Edgymama says:

    Jane Jacobs, in Life and Death of Great American Cities decried suburban development occurring in the 1950s (the book was published in 1958).

    She said that in neighbourhoods where there is no mixed use (commercial, residential, and even industrial) people have neither the casual relationships built over many years of seeing each other on the street and in local stores, nor the commonality of neutral locations like the laundromat, drug store, coffee shop, bakery, etc that they all claim as their own to bind them. In these kinds of neighbourhoods, people know who’s who and a bit of what they do, and maybe their children or other relatives, but they generally don’t know them intimately.

    Jacobs says that in the suburbs or areas where it’s predominantly residential, social interaction is “all or none”. Inviting social interaction becomes considered risky because it may entangle you in a relationship you’re not willing to be in.So people, as you say Mike, just check out., thinking it easier not to get involved at all – the “none” of Jacobs’ theory.

    As for children, in Jacobs’ ideal mixed used community, adults are working around them, doing their own thing, not hovering, but if a tussle arises amongst the children or anyone is hurt or being bullied, these casual acquaintance adults step in to settle the fray or take charge. She says this is the civility we need to foster if we are to live in cities which are essentially full of strangers. She also says that by children observing unrelated adults stepping in and speaking up in their defense they are learning a valuable lesson in civility and shared responsibility.

    It’s a great book – I’m sure many of you will enjoy it. Although it’s 50 years old it still rings true and makes many interesting observations about city planning and living civilly together. The last book she wrote before she died, Dark Age Ahead is also supposed to be good but I haven’t harnessed the courage yet to read it as I understand it is quite heavy.

  2. Anonymous says:

    If making a small effort is an investment, then the ROI is amazing! I live in a pretty amazing neighbourhood and I’m pretty dedicated to making our street a Playbourhood. But even I have difficulty finding the time to talk to neighbours. The reasons are many – and you point out a few – by for me, time is the biggest factor, not a lack of desire. One of our neighbours, a couple houses down arrive home almost every day at about the same time we do. Our kids jump out of the vans and run down the street (like a scene from a romance movie) to greet each other. And of course they want to play. Unfortunately, on many days I’ve arrived home alone with the kids and must start preparing dinner, running the bath and packing lunches for the next day at school. I can’t do all those chores and be outside with the kids at the same time. So I pry the kids apart and haul them into the house. And each time I feel awful. Finally, the guilt got the better of me and I decided to impose on our neighbour. I asked if she wouldn’t mind keeping an eye on the kids for 15 minutes while I rushed into the house to put dinner on the stove. When I returned to retrieve my kids, I was forced to work my way through a crown of neighbours kids all playing together. Just the fact that two or three or four kids were out front playing at the time of day when most people were arriving home was all the prompting that was required. A simple little thing, a few short minutes was all it took to create a Playbourhood moment. You can be sure that I’ll be more willing to seize the opportunity again. Next time, though I’m offering to watch the kids for 15 minutes. That way I can play a little too!

  3. Mike Lanza says:

    Edgymama – Thanks for the rec on the Jacobs book. I think I looked at it once and didn’t get that far. I’ll have to take a second look.

    Chris – That’s a great story. It really *is* quite easy once you get the ball rolling.

  4. Surfer Jay says:

    Great article. I have read Bowling Alone, a fascinating and revealing collection of information. We just moved into a new area of our city, and down the street someone is throwing a block party. We have been contemplating walking down there, mostly in hopes of finding some other people near our age with kids. Doing so can gain us new friends. Not doing so will gain us nothing, and perhaps even prevent us from gaining new friends. So we should go.

    The first neighbor of mine I got to meet by passing on her mail which was mistakabley put in our box. Now I have hung out with them multiple times in the past few weeks, and even had them house sit our cat. If I hadn’t accidently received her mail, I probably would not knoe them yet because I rarely see them outside. There’s gotta be easier ways to do this….