Respect is the key to being a first-class neighbor

One of the highlights of my weekly routine is the quiet morning where I get to sit down with a cup of coffee and confront my glowing—yet still blank—computer screen. As it stares back at me, I know what it wants: It’s waiting for the first words of next week’s column for The Wave. But this morning I’m distracted, because I’m looking forward to getting together tonight with my next-door neighbors. I smile as I think of how much fun it will be. In spite of all my commentary about boundaries, privacy and the like, there’s always something special about spending time with people who not only live close to your ‘personal space,’ but who have also become trusted friends.

Columnist Liz Leibold McClosky writes: ‘Whether one has children or not, there is no debating that it is good to have nice neighbors who will smile, help you out, or respectfully leave you alone.’ Note that ‘respectfully leaving you alone’ is right up there with ‘smiling’ and ‘helping you out.’

A few weeks ago I wrote about boundaries and personal space. Respect for one’s personal space is as essential to a neighborly friendship as any other expression of kindness or thoughtfulness. It is as gratifying to wave at my neighbor as she drives by my house as it is to NOT feel obligated to repeatedly acknowledge her as we work in our yards. McClosky is right: Respect is as important an expression of friendship as all the smiling or waving you can do. The old saying, ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’ should probably be rewritten to say, ‘Familiarity without respect for boundaries breeds contempt.’

To that end (and because our backyards are adjacent to one another), my neighbors and I have devised some simple understandings to short-circuit any possibility of discomfort. For example, one evening, while sharing a smooth California white, we decided that there would be no obligation to invite one another over just because we both happened to be in our back yards at the same time. Each of us can enjoy our deck and our grill; exchange small talk—all without the slightest bit of unease. And most importantly, when an invitation IS extended in one direction or the other, we know that it’s sincere, convenient, and not because of some perceived duty or obligation. Let’s face it: The close proximity of balconies, porches and back yards here at the beach can sometimes make things just a little too ‘up close and personal.’ A preemptive strike against these potentially awkward circumstances can turn a would-be uncomfortable situation into a delightful afternoon in the company of friends.

Of course, not all neighborly relationships work out this way. I would venture a guess that every person reading this can tell a story about unhappy encounters with neighbors—neighbors whose particular ‘rights’ and ‘boundaries’ (or, even more importantly, the lack thereof) were more significant to them than the respect that could have laid the foundation for a new friendship. I lived for almost nineteen years in a neighborhood where each resident went about his or her business as if theirs was the only house on the block. No hostility, mind you, but no acknowledgement whatsoever. I only knew one person by name in the entire neighborhood, and then only to say a polite hello. Admittedly, I didn’t make any real attempts to connect with anybody either, and, truth be told, I never really noticed the lack of contact until I moved here to the beach. Shortly thereafter, I knew everybody’s name within a three or four house radius. Some became acquaintances with whom I would exchange an occasional smile and a wave, and others ended up being counted among my friends.

At what point does the chance co-location of two houses (and all the rights, property lines and restrictions that go with it) develop into a warm fuzzy friendship? Maybe it’s the ceremonial exchange of the house keys and alarm codes. Or perhaps it’s the first time you REALLY need something, and your neighbor goes out of his or her way to help. For me, I think it was when the people next door showed up on my doorstep one chilly evening after the moving van had finally gone. With a ceremonial flourish, they presented me with a small basket containing a fresh loaf of bread, a box of salt, and a bottle of wine. They then proceeded to make a proclamation that I will never forget: ‘Michael, for your new home: Bread, that this house may never know hunger. Salt, that life may always have flavor. Wine, that joy and prosperity may reign forever. Welcome!’

So you can see why I’m distracted with anticipation over this evening’s get-together. But first, I’ve got to get down to business and write this column.