Betsy Denson

Betsy Denson

Why are we so bad at addressing issues with our neighbors face to face? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and most recently when I saw a message on one of the neighborhood sites about a bagpipe-playing teen and a noise complaint that his parents said someone made to the police.

I do not mean to throw the aggrieved neighbor under the bus. I don’t know what a bagpipe sounds like other than the movies and there may have been a reason they needed the peace and quiet that night.

I do know that I interviewed the teen player about his unique instrument choice and he said he mostly practices a more toned-down version of the bagpipe in his room because it is quieter. He is outside every other day playing for about 15 minutes.

But I do wonder why — if the music was bothering them — the neighbor or neighbors didn’t first address the musician and his parents in person?

There are so many other examples of this over the years I’ve lived here. I’m sure it’s not just our neighborhood either. People post a photo of someone’s house, or their yard, and air some grievance on a neighborhood social message page.

If you know their house, then you know their address and they have a door, or a doorbell. If they don’t answer fine, but you can try leaving them a (cordial) note first.

My favorite response on a neighborhood Facebook thread was from a person who lived in a house with an American flag that someone thought was in disrepair. The person who lived in that house invited any commenter on the thread with issues to come see them directly. It was a long thread.

One of the last comments was from someone new to the conversation who said something to the effect of, “I’m lonely. Can I just come see you?” I almost died laughing.

We live in silos, and I think most would admit this. Online and in person we get to narrow our view to what we most want to see. On top of that we have fewer checkers at the grocery store because there are more self-checkout machines, online banking has replaced a lot of the work for tellers and library books aren’t swiped by a person anymore unless you are having trouble with the bar code (which I always am).

Our houses are bigger. Our yards are bigger. We love fences.

COVID, of course, threw a whole new wrench in the dynamic. And it has made us even more out of practice with dealing with each other. Until recently, my social interaction was largely confined to my immediate neighbors. The library workers put my pre-ordered books in the backseat. I saw my doctor virtually. Actually, I kind of liked that because I didn’t have to pay an outrageous parking fee.

Now that I’m out and about more, it’s like I’ve forgotten how to have a normal conversation. Saturday Night Live had a great skit about this where all anybody talked about was whether they got the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

We are all out of practice with common niceties, but even before the pandemic people were not afraid to call one another out online. Because it is only the work of a matter of seconds on your keyboard and you don’t have to look at the person’s face while you tell them their yard is an abomination or their kid is going to end up in juvie or you are holding their yard sign hostage until they get some sense.

Of course, if they live in your neighborhood you might have to see them eventually. And that is going to be so, so awkward.

I really think the biggest reason we don’t interact in person more is because we just don’t want to. I am certainly guilty of this.

That’s why I was so touched by the story of 4-year-old Beau Roessler, who wanted to put a free Hot Wheels garage outside his house for people to come by and swap cars. He is literally sitting in front of his window waiting for people to use it. While I often want to put a sign on my door that says, "Come back in 2025. Or never."

To Beau, everyone is a potential friend or purveyor of Hot Wheels. He isn’t already predisposed to like or dislike someone because of their T-shirt slogan or because of the meme they just shared. 

His window to the world isn’t social media. It’s literally his window.

Turning out rather than turning inward, or online, is the Herculean first step to living gracefully alongside other people. And once we master normal face to face then maybe we can graduate to more advanced conflict resolution.

If I knew how to do it, I’d certainly tell you. I’m a work in progress. But I’ll bet Beau knows.

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