Social Beef: Fear thy neighbour

It’s the slamming of the doors and endless nattering in the hallway of my apartment block, from my neighbours,  that sends shivers down my spine.

Not because of the noise but knowing they are “out there” makes me retreat and delay any plans to avoid a bumbling confrontation. It all seems a bit suspicious – my behaviour – on the surface and indeed a little green eyed.

But when one gets burned by a neighbour’s aloofness, it’s easy to see why people retract into their shell like a Horseshoe crab. Living in our culturally diverse country makes for some awkward hallway encounters from a mix of characters bred from contrary backgrounds — myself included.

For me to think and behave in this fashion stemmed back to one early morning around the ripe old time of three o’clock. The phone rang. My instant reaction: it was a drunken friend calling to quote a line from an epic film. Or worse, sing Van Halen. But instead, this dialogue took place.

“Hey man, it’s me from next door, can you let me in? I’m from apartment four,” said the man.


It was obvious from the tone of the man’s husky voice he’d spent the night drowning himself in turps. I was stunned and barely awake and torn between doing a good deed and not letting  a complete stranger into my apartment building. I mean, how could I be certain it was in fact my neighbour? I couldn’t. So therefore, I made the stand to not let a would-be drifter (for all I know?) in.

Here’s my beef:  If in fact it was the man from apartment four, I had barely said two words to the man. Not by choice. Before this night I had passed him in the hallway a handful of times. I would initiate conversation with a friendly “Hi, how’s things?” On a good day I’d get a muffled “good.” On a bad day I’d simply get nothing. No eye contact. Nothing. So when this early morning request arose and he claimed it was him, I wasn’t exactly jumping out of bed to let him in like a good neighbour. No. To gain that sort of trust, it requires a rapport and one did not exist with us.

I ended that night with the line: “Sorry. Not sure who you are.”

There have been other neighbourly experiences that have lead to my fear of passing them in the hall like ships in the night, or rather like ghosts.

In one building that I lived in the chances of bumping into strangers were at a premium. It was a 14-floor building with at least 10 apartments each level. It was predominately a young professionals residence. Next door lived a student from Japan. His routine was odd and hard to follow. It included video game nights with friends and lewd partying followed by long periods of silence – five days without as much as a plate moving in the kitchen sink. It begged the question: does he even live there? We never spoke. Actually I don’t think we ever spoke. I’d see him in the hallway, look him in the eye and say “hello”, but that was met with the lowering of the eyes and no comment. After a while I stopped greeting him altogether and replaced it with a vague looking smile and half wave. There were also times in the elevator where we’d share the seven-floor journey together in silence. I’d pretend to look inside my bag for keys and fumble about for a few minutes until we reached our floor and it was time to walk down the hall in silence as neighbours. Silly, wasn’t it?

But how do we break the barrier?  The opportunity for awkward encounters has the greatest potential to exist among renters than home-owners. Renters share front door entrances; they share elevators, and they share landlords. Home-owners share local councils and perhaps a driveway, or parking. But they aren’t tied to the same infrastructure. Even going down stairs to take out garbage  has become a stealthily planned mission with one objective: to avoid people. Why? It’s the forced chitter chatter, the forgetting of names, job titles, people’s situations and information about a sick aunt. It’s avoiding all the things you don’t want to talk about with someone you barely know and in reality are forced to know by your living location. It’s the false offerings of  “Oh, we should have you over sometime for a drink”, something that will never happen, but we feel obliged to say it. For three years one neighbour said he’d have me over for drinks and Mexican food. She says it every time we see each other. I’m still have yet to see how she makes Mexican food.

Neighbours are sheer poison. Some are friendly on certain days, others are ill at ease with the whole communication thing. If a neighbour takes the time to chat, I’ll be all for it.

But until then, I’ll continue to wait until the hallway coast is clear to take out the trash. 


Justin Robertson is a freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter: @justinjourno

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