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day, I came home to find bags and boxes brimming with garbage dumped on
the grassy strip lining my cute Venice, California street.
cartons and wrappers from just-purchased socks and underwear were a UPS
invoice and a boarding pass. I paid a visit to Uncle Google and quickly
tracked the names on them to a top foreign surgeon and his wife.
I messaged each on Facebook
to come pick up their trash. No response. Grrr. Well, I thought, surely
their trash had to miss them.
I boxed up a sampling of it with a photo
of their dumping and a scoldy demand that they clean it up. And then,
for a very well-spent $3.69, I mailed it to a ritzy address in the
Pacific Palisades (from the UPS invoice), where they were apparently
visiting American friends.
I never heard a word of denial or apology from them, but the
experience underscored something: One of the best ways to stop feeling
victimized is to refuse to roll over and take it like a good little
victim. And I have to say, it's hard to keep feeling victimized while
snickering about somebody's tony friends calling them up to ask whether
they maybe littered in Venice.
You've probably experienced
similarly piggy behavior in your neighborhood. Sure, there are laws
against some violations, like 4 A.M. stereo blasting and persistently
yapping dogs, but just try getting them enforced.
This isn't to say it
should be the job of the police to intervene, and it doesn't have to be
if we just understand and accept an essential fact about human nature:
We're all jerks. Or, as the late psychologist Albert Ellis put it, to
be human is to be "fallible, f*cked up, and full of frailty." And that's
on a good day.
We want what we want, when we want it, and we'd like
other people to shut up and scurry out of our way so we can get it
already. As depressing as it may seem to see ourselves like this, being
honest about our jerkitude is the best way to personally dispense less
of it and to decrease others' emissions - and maybe even prevent them.
Frankly, if you get off on the wrong foot with one of your neighbors, a
good fence will need to be patterned on the Great Wall of China.
of us make the mistake of keeping to ourselves until a neighbor does
something annoying. Bad idea. If your first contact with the guy next
door is letting him know how rude he is, you encourage him to achieve
his natural potential for jerkishness. Better neighbor relations instead
start with canny strategizing and proactive neighborliness.
Sixteenth-century political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli may have been mislabeled a bad guy for writing The Prince, a self-help
book on how to be a royal scheming user. The truth is, scheming doesn't
have to require anyone getting screwed over. In fact, you can
manipulate your neighbors for the greater good while manipulating them
for your own good.
Rutgers University anthropologist Robert
Trivers came up with the term "reciprocal altruism" to describe showing
generosity to others at a cost to yourself, in hopes that they'll repay
you in kind in the future. Absolute altruism is giving with no
expectation of getting anything in return. But as Trivers points out,
there's likely no such thing as pure altruism.
If you're sacrificing for
somebody related to you, it benefits your genetic line, and if you're
sacrificing for somebody unrelated, you get a bump in reputation if
others see what you're doing, and probably a bump in self-respect if
A little calculated generosity can also help you deter
all sorts of ugliness from those living around you. When new neighbors
move in, bring them a plate of cookies. And don't forget to look out for
those who've been living around you for a while.
Text them when they've
forgotten to move their car on street-cleaning day. When their package
gets chucked in your bushes, bring it to their door. Replace their porch
lightbulb when it goes out while they're out of town (and leave a note
telling them so).
It's not only nice to be nice, it's in your
self-interest. There's a growing body of research suggesting that doing
kind acts for others gives you a helper's high and makes you feel
happier and more satisfied with your own life.
Plus, in the time spent
baking cookies for a new neighbor, you're putting positivity into the
world: making them feel welcome, creating community, and generating or
reinforcing a social norm for neighborliness. At the same time, you're
also inoculating yourself against that person suddenly going all
lifelong blood-feud on you because your sprinklers killed their nap.
How the Nice-Neighbor Sausages Are Made
little preemptive gift-giving can have such a transformative effect,
thanks to our powerful drive to reciprocate. A couple of million years
ago, in the harsh environment in which we evolved, being seen as a mooch
could mean getting booted from one's band - a likely death sentence.
Being an easy mark posed other survival and mating issues. To keep our
giving and taking in balance, humans developed a built-in social
There's some little old lady in a green eyeshade
inside each of us who pokes us - "Wake up, idiot!" - when somebody's
mooching off of us so we'll get mad and try to even the score. When
somebody does something nice for us, our inner accountant cranks up
feelings of obligation, and we get itchy to repay that person.
example, in a study by Cornell psychologist Dennis Regan, subjects were
told they were participating in research on art appreciation. The
actual study - on the effects of doing a favor - took place during the
breaks between a series of questions about art. Regan's research
assistant, posing as a study participant, would leave the room and
either come back with two Cokes - one for himself and one for the other
participant - or he'd come back empty-handed.
After the art
questions were completed, the research assistant asked the participant a
favor, explaining that he was selling raffle tickets and that he'd win a
prize if he sold the most. He added that anything "would help, but the
more, the better." The subjects who received the Coke ended up buying
twice as many tickets as those who'd received nothing.
results have been replicated many times in the lab and out - by Hare
Krishnas, who see a marked increase in donations when they give out a
flower before asking for cash; and by organizations whose fundraising
letters pull in far more money when they include a small gift such as
personalized address labels.
A TV soap actress moved in next door
to me and started throwing all-night backyard parties, complete with
campfire-style guitar sing-alongs. Asking her to be more considerate was
useless. The way she saw it, why should her neighbors' silly sleeping hobby take precedence over her drunken friends' need to belt out "This Land is Your Land" at 3am?
finally changed this was an email I sent to my more neighborly
neighbors, warning them about a spate of break-ins. I didn't have Soap
Snot's email address, so I printed the email and slipped it under her
gate with a note scrawled at the bottom: "You aren't very considerate of
those who live around you, but I don't think you should be robbed
because of it, so FYI." I added that I would keep an eye on her house
during the day, when she's away.
Amazingly, from that day on,
there were no more wee-hours guitar-apaloozas. A few weeks after leaving
her the note, I ran into her and she said, "Hey, just wanted to let you
know I'm having some friends over tonight, but only for a dinner party,
and we'll go inside at 10." As soon as I could rehinge my jaw, what was
there to say but, "Uh ... thanks"?
A Neighborhood Watch That Doesn't Require Watching
in a lawn chair by your mailbox with your twin Rottweilers and a
shotgun is a highly effective way to keep passing dog walkers from
letting their pooch violate your lawn. Should you find this impractical,
you might take advantage of our evolved concern for preserving our
reputation and post a photo of human eyes on your mailbox, tricking
passersby into feeling they're being watched and possibly improving
their behavior accordingly.
It seems even a drawing of eyes
triggers this sensation, according to research by UCLA anthropologist
Daniel M.T. Fessler and then-grad student Kevin J. Haley. In a computer
game they designed to measure generosity, when a stylized picture of
eyes was displayed on the computer's desktop, participants gave over 55
percent more money to other players than when no eyes were displayed.
These findings were repeated in a study by Newcastle University
ethologist Melissa Bateson and psychologist Daniel Nettle, in which
people put nearly three times more money into a coffee room "honesty
box" during the weeks when a photograph of eyes was posted above it.
in neighborhood terms, poop happens, but tape a picture of eyes to your
mailbox, and that Great Dane's dung mountain just might get lugged home
instead of being left in a steaming pile for you.
How to Defuse the Problem Next Door
a neighbor can be tricky. A self-important Hollywood bigwhoop started
walking his dog down my street at 5am - while shouting showbiz lingo
into his phone at colleagues in different time zones. He stopped after I
typed a note in big letters, printed it on hot pink paper, and posted
it on my fence: "Hey, guy on cell phone at 5am: The houses on this
block are actually not a Hollywood set, but real homes with real people
trying to sleep in the bedrooms. Thank you."
Empathy, the Great Panty-Unwadder:
In many conflicts, like when the guy next door leaves his trash cans in
front of your property, the injury we feel is largely symbolic. Deep
down, we're all large, easily wounded children. More than anything, we
want to be treated like we matter.
Take the case of Christine. From time
to time, her children's balls would fly over the fence into her
neighbor's yard. The first time, she and the kids knocked on the
neighbor's door. The lady seemed friendly, and she let them into the
backyard to get the balls. But, the next few times, the balls were
tossed back over the fence, slashed. Creepy. And really mean.
in trying to resolve conflict - even when people act horror-movie ugly to
your children - it helps to try to consider where they're coming from.
example, do the balls maybe bounce against the windows, startling the
lady? Is she infirm, making it hard for her to get to the backyard and
throw the balls back over? It's possible she's just an awful person, but
by trying to call up empathy you'll deflate some of your
anger - improving your ability to approach the offending party in a calm,
A Handwritten Note: The
pen tends to be far less inflammatory than face-to-face conversation. A
handwritten note about an issue puts time and distance between you, your
criticism, and the criticized person, giving them the chance to cool
down and respond in a more reasoned way.
And yes, it's best to handwrite
your message rather than email it, which makes it too easy for you to
dash off something rash and for your neighbor to dash back an angry
reply. I suggested that Christine write a card with an apology,
expressing empathy for the neighbor and saying the kids were trying to
She might even include a $10 Starbucks card. Beyond
gift-giving's power to ramp up goodwill, research suggests that a costly
apology is a more meaningful apology - more likely to dissolve anger and lead to forgiveness.
Honesty, the Worst Policy:
Calling a person on her bad behavior in anything but a roundabout way
tends to provoke denials, which are basically angry attempts to save
face. A less provoking approach is to present an issue by appearing to
give your neighbor the benefit of the doubt - even when you both know she
doesn't deserve it.
Say, for example, the lady next door has been
letting her unleashed dog run over and poop on your lawn (this is not a
secret to her because she's on her porch shouting, "Muffin, go poop in
the neighbor's bushes!").
You still need to pretend otherwise, writing
her a note: "You probably don't know this ..." This approach allows the
two of you to maintain a polite fiction in which you both pretend that
you don't find her about as genteel as an ass boil, which is the best
way to keep your lawn from continuing to be her dog's free-range litter
The Tragedy of the A**hole in the Commons:
There are homeowners who'd start the second Hundred Years' War to defend
the sanctity of their property, but half a block from their property
line, anything goes.
The "Ain't my land!" excuse for allowing the
trashing of public spaces illustrates what ecologist Garrett Hardin
referred to as "The Tragedy of the Commons" in his 1968 essay on
overpopulation. In a space owned by nobody and shared by many, the piggy
can take advantage by grabbing more than a fair share of resources or
by slopping up the space, ruining it for everyone.
What stops this
piggery is acting like we have shared ownership of public spaces, and
getting as indignant about people polluting them as we would if they
were redirecting traffic across our front lawn.
When You're the Problem:
Selfish, self-absorbed little beasties that we are, listening doesn't
come naturally to us. And because we tend to fly off the handle when
criticized, listening calmly when we're in the hot seat takes
preplanning: being mindful of our bratty tendencies and resolving that
we'll take some deep breaths and hear a critic out.
things from a complaining neighbor's point of view may require a field
trip. Michael's neighbors complained about the thumping bass line from
the music he plays. I suggested that Michael say something like, "I want
to solve this; I don't want to torture you," and ask to come over and
listen from their place so he can hear what they hear (just letting
your neighbors know you're willing to investigate means a lot).
The Power of I'm Sorry: The deep need we feel for an apology after we're wronged emerged out of the evolution of human cooperation,
which makes it possible for us to live together in groups. We have an
evolutionary adaptation that helps guard against being chumped, making
sure that we aren't all-give to people who are all-take.
When our sense
of fairness is violated, we need a sign from the violator that we aren't
idiots to trust them in the future. An apology can't undo a wrong
that's been done, but it's an offering suggesting that one's future
actions will be more partnerlike than selfish jerk-like.
Don't Be Geographically Snobby:
Being around strangers all the time, as we often are in our society,
can be cold and alienating unless we regularly take steps to remedy this
state with some generosity of spirit. The way I see it, a neighbor is
anybody you treat like a neighbor.
Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky
of UC Riverside has studied generosity toward others, finding that it's
one of the main ways (along with expressing gratitude) that we can increase our happiness.
Showing another person a little generosity is also likely to put them
in the spirit of "paying it forward." A bare minimum of one kind act a
day should be our self-imposed cover charge for living in this world. We
get the society we create - or the society we let happen to us.