Why won’t you be my neighbor?
In school, film, and literature we are taught the importance of strong relationships with our neighbors. Not very many Americans seem interested in knowing the people who live next to us. Center Director Jeffrey Cole explores the causes.
By Jeffrey Cole
Building good relationships with neighbors is one of our fundamental core values. Not only is it the right thing to do, it also builds safer neighborhoods, better community relationships, and raises property values.
Core values teach us to help and love our neighbors. One of the few public figures that everyone admires, Mr. Rogers (Fred Rogers), opened each of his 912 shows by asking his audience, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
Another hero, George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life, gives up his dream of traveling the world to stay in Bedford Falls and help build homes and create neighborhoods. Only at the end does he fully appreciate how important he has been to everyone in his community.
In film and culture, we place immense value on the importance of building deep and lasting relationships with neighbors.
There’s just one small problem: most of us do not know our neighbors very well and have little interest in getting to know them.
In our forthcoming COVID Reset Project, which examines how we will rethink everything coming out of the pandemic, we look at seven sectors in daily life ranging from health and well-being to work, learning, shopping, travel, and entertainment. In our initial data from one of those sectors, community, we see the depressing news that most of us do not walk the walk when it comes to relationships with our neighbors just a few doors down.
Question: Won’t you be my neighbor? Answer: no thanks.
Only 22% of us know our neighbors well or very well. Almost half (43%) do not know them well or at all. To understand relationships with our neighbors, we dug deeper than just asking how well we may or may not know them. What is the nature of our relationships with those who live closest to us, outside our households?
Forty-one percent have their neighbors’ phone numbers, email addresses, or social media details, but they only use them in an emergency. Only a third (34%) regularly inquire about their neighbors’ well-being when they run into them, the same percentage who keep an eye on their homes for intruders or problems.
When it comes to active relationships the numbers are even more depressing: despite the meteoric rise in theft of packages from front doors, only 22% accept deliveries for neighbors. At the bottom of the list of neighborly interactions, only seven percent always have at least one of their neighbors’ keys and another seven percent have them when their neighbors are away.
Despite the things we are taught in school, churches, and synagogues, and see in films about the importance of neighbors and community, most of us are just fine with the absence of anything but the most superficial relationships with the folks next door. We don’t see a problem with the above data.
Given the opportunity to build relationships with those who live closest to us, only 24% are interested in knowing their neighbors well or extremely well. We have the neighbor relationships we want: 22% know our neighbors well; 24% want to know them well.
When you ask people about the most important thing they value in their communities, safety comes out on top at 87%. Running a distant second (at 65%) is having a quiet neighborhood. As important as safety is, few of us seem to associate that with a strong relationship with neighbors. We support Neighborhood Watch with police officers sharing ways to protect our neighborhoods and how to discourage crime. But we don’t want the kind of close relationships that might improve our safety and our lives.
A bridge we cannot cross?
The lack of connection with people outside our families and close friends is not a consequence of the worse polarization in America since the Civil War, it is one of the causes. For at least 25 years, our investment in strong relationships with others in our communities has been declining. The pandemic has only made the problem worse.
Our social networks are shrinking and narrowing.
In 1995, Harvard Political Scientist Robert D. Putnam published an influential article on social relationships called “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” (He later expanded the argument into a book.) His powerful argument and clever title showed that, in the 1990s, just as many Americans were regular bowlers as in 1946. However, after the Second World War we bowled in leagues. These days, we bowl alone.
Despite the things we are taught in school, churches, and synagogues, and see in films about the importance of neighbors and community, most of us are just fine with the absence of anything but the most superficial relationships with the folks next door. Given the opportunity to build relationships with those who live closest to us, only 24% are interested in knowing their neighbors well or extremely well. We have the neighbor relationships we want: 22% know our neighbors well; 24% want to know them well.
We took a community activity and reduced it to an individual action: a powerful metaphor for what is happening in America.
Putnam distinguishes between two types of social capital: bonding capital (when you socialize with people like yourself who share your values) and bridging capital (when you interact with people who have different values and beliefs).
We build peaceful and thriving communities on people’s ability to successfully create bridging capital.
The inability to bridge our interests with others in society is what has been driving America apart—to the point that we see others as opponents who must be defeated and support conspiracy theories that justify thinking of them as enemies. As we see on the news, few of us have any interest in building relationships or even listening to anyone who is not in our tribe.
This explains not knowing our neighbors and not wanting to know them.
When email became common around 2000 and social networking emerged a few years later, many predicted a renaissance in social relationships. Distance would no longer be a barrier. We could easily and regularly communicate with our friends (and meet new ones) anywhere on the planet at any time. The costs of communication disappeared as an obstacle. We could build stronger local and international relationships.
This, we thought, would herald a new global community.
All these connections would make it easier to build communities, regardless of geography, with people who share our personal or professional interests. Those seeking help with problems (medical, mental, social) could reach out to build new connections. With some issues, the lack of face-to-face contact could be an asset in making some people comfortable sharing.
This was the hope. It all came crashing down.
Early on we found that use of social media made many users depressed because it seemed like everyone else was having a better life. Addiction to smartphones and online communities kept more of us at home in our own cocoons, rather than going out and being with other people.
Shortly before the pandemic, in December of 2019, I wrote about the epidemic of teenage loneliness and depression. Little has changed during COVID. Suicide has become the second leading cause of death for teenagers. They are dating less and report unprecedented levels of anxiety. While it is difficult and foolhardy to place a cause on all their distress, social media is one defining characteristic of this generation.
The way out of our social divide is to develop relationships with people in communities outside our close friend and family circles. Social media can play a part, particularly in finding new relationships, but it cannot substitute.
Twenty-five years later, Putnam is more on target than ever: we need to focus on bridging capital. It is a massive task that may take a generation or more.
Each of us can start by reaching out to our neighbors.
Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.
See all columns from the center.
June 16, 2021