This week I had another chance to contribute once more to one of my favorite newsletters, Why is this Interesting? on one of my favorite topics: Being a good neighbor.
Give WITI a look, it’s a great daily perspective-shifter for me.
Nick Parish (NP) has been a long-standing friend of WITI since his days as the junior reporter on the NY Post’s sports desk. He’s since worked in editorial, strategy, product design and currently lives in Portland. We thought this was a profoundly important piece. Enjoy. -Colin (CJN)
Nick here. Kurt Vonnegut once gave a meandering description of the joy he experienced running a postal errand, proclaiming, “we’re here on Earth to fart around.” I also derive great pleasure from farting around—but, as Vonnegut’s story points out, farting around is even better experienced in the company of known and semi-known folks commonly referred to as neighbors.
A few Saturdays ago, I had a great neighbor day. I saw my next-door neighbor at the tool library where I went to borrow a thing I probably could have bought off Amazon. We talked about her project. I met a lady with a nice old truck in the parking lot, and we figured out we’re from the same part of Michigan. On the way home, I hollered at friends who were out walking and ended up chatting with them. I talked to someone at the hardware store when my project went awry. I bumped into one of my fly fishing students and met his new baby. And the next-door neighbor I saw earlier asked for help moving furniture back once her project was done. And so on, and so on. Or, as Kurt V. would say, so it goes.
At the end of the day, I counted all the real-life, non-internet, non-work interactions with people beyond my immediate family: 15. It felt like a lot.
And look: I’m not listing all these to brag or try to make you feel bad. It’s not like, here’s Nick, walking around town kissing hands and shaking babies. I have to admit, though, it felt pretty cool. Fifteen tiny little chats, smiles, kind words.
But then I read about the Society of Super Neighbors, recently formed in France, and was once again humbled at gallic humanist aspirations. Led by Patrick Bernard, the 1,200-Parisian-strong society sets an aspirational target of 50 for its members of neighborly interactions a day! 50! Sacrebleu! Kneecapped by good old fraternite.
Patrick’s Paris Super Neighbors are mostly retired and have an infrastructure of several dozen WhatsApp groups wherein to do their hyperlocal kibitzing. So they’ve got a big edge on what I can do. But that’s OK.
Why is this interesting?
You don’t need me to tell you that society can sometimes feel dark and weird. The internet, modern life, etc., is messing with our heads. Institutions are wavering, as is our trust in them. Whether or not you hit the Paris 50, any amount of good neighbortude is positive.
We’re getting more and more information on what’s happening right under our noses through Nextdoor or Ring—mediated, algorithmic interactions that are incentivized to label every loud noise a gunshot. As Kurt V. predicted in that same spiel, the computers will do us out of all that fun stuff.
To say nothing of how important neighborly bonds become when stuff goes sideways during pandemics and natural disasters and political upheaval.
The social fabric is made of low-level interactions with near- or perfect strangers. Being a regular at a restaurant. Small talk, familiar places. Being a neighbor is probably the lowest-stakes form of social interaction that exists. And there’s a payoff: Researchers say talking to strangers—building “relational diversity”—makes people happier.
From calling out macro problems to organizing around the micro, neighbors are neighboring. Join or Die, a recent documentary, dramatizes the decline of membership in America, the shriveling of local clubs and interest groups. Activists at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance help communities organize to fight creeping corporatism. And Talk a Mile, a new nonprofit near me, is seeking to rebuild community ties by pairing cops and young people of color for simple low-stakes walk-and-talks.
So this holiday season, give me this one gift, dear WITIots: Try on your Super Neighbor outfit. Everybody’s got one, because everyone’s got a neighbor. You don’t have to be friends. You don’t even have to know each other’s names!
Go ahead, give that walkin’ dude who does his laps every morning a wave and a salute, and count it. Could you hit five neighborly interactions a day? 15? 30? Join a club? Hell, start a club. Think about how it makes you feel, and all the little gifts you can give each day just by being open, curious, and there. (NP)