Getting to know your neighbours
While everyone’s image of their dream home looks a little different, most people will agree their ideal neighbourhood is filled with friendly faces and neighbours they can rely on in a time of need, whether it’s watering the garden when you’re away or keeping an eye out for a package while you’re at work. However, as is the case with all friendships, getting to know your neighbours takes time and effort – though potentially less than you might expect.
In a 2020 report from Settlement Services International, researchers spoke to 334 refugees with permanent residency in Australia. Most reported high levels of trust in their neighbours, despite language barriers. Instead of lengthy chats over the back fence, this trust was built from simple everyday encounters, proving the power of a smile or quick hello in passing.
There are tangible benefits to getting to know your neighbours. A longitudinal study from researchers at the Australian National University, published earlier this year, found that people with positive social perceptions of their neighbourhoods were less likely to experience depression, anxiety and loneliness over the course of the pandemic.
Nick Tebbey, national executive officer of Relationships Australia, the not-for-profit organisation behind Neighbour Day, says spring is the perfect season to start getting to know your neighbours, even if it’s just with a wave at first. “When the weather starts warming up we’re all spending more time outdoors . . . You’re out in the garden or going for an evening walk.”
The best way to get to know a neighbour is first make sure they actually know you’re neighbours. And the easiest way to do that is with short, repeated interactions. “There are always opportunities to make a connection and they can be a nod, a wave or a friendly g’day when you’re putting the bins out,” he says. And he also suggests timing your outings “when other people are out and about as well”.
When it comes to introducing yourself to your neighbours, Tebbey notes it’s important to do what feels comfortable, whether that’s leaving a note on a building noticeboard, posting in a community Facebook group or chatting to someone while you wait for the lift. The less anxiety you feel about these early introductions, the more likely you are to commit to them.
Once you’ve introduced yourself to a neighbour and the conversation starts to flow, ask followup questions and — most importantly — remember people’s answers.
“Ask questions about what people are up to,” Tebbey says. “If they’re gardening, ask what they’re planting – be interested in what people share.” And once someone tells you their dog’s name or where they’re about to go on holiday, try your best to remember — even if it means writing it down once you’re home — so you can continue the conversation next time you cross paths.
“It’s not about grand gestures or sharing everything about yourself with your neighbours. In fact, it’s almost the opposite,” Tebbey says. “It’s small but meaningful interactions and taking interest in each other’s lives, but without any sense of expectation. If you focus on your own interests it’s amazing how suddenly you’ll connect with people who share those. You immediately have a bond.”
Holly Scott, 32, was living near the Bourke Street Community Garden in Woolloomooloo, Sydney, for almost a year before she visited. “I initially joined the garden because I wanted somewhere to dispose of my kitchen waste other than the red bin where it ends up in landfill,” says Scott, who’s since moved even closer to the garden. “But once I started going, I loved the other aspects of the garden so much that I became involved in things — although I still find the composting very satisfying.”
Scott is now the garden’s treasurer and on the planning committee. The garden has introduced her to many people in her neighbourhood. “It’s pretty much impossible for me to go to markets on a Saturday morning or take my dog Basil for a walk without running into someone from the garden.”
When Daniel and Luke Mancuso’s mother was murdered by their father in 2013, it was their neighbour who first raised the alarm, contacting their aunt, who lived nearby. The neighbour, who they affectionately refer to as Yiayia (Greek for grandmother), became a source of comfort during a time of tragedy, passing meals over the fence.
Since publishing their book Yiayia Next Door, the brothers have worked to spread the importance of looking after your neighbours — even in the smallest ways.
“It doesn’t have to require a lot of effort. It can be as simple as bringing your neighbour’s bins closer to their house [or] trading bottles of wine,” Daniel says. “If it wasn’t for our sweet angel next door, and her generosity in a time where we didn’t see the world as kind, we wouldn’t have had any closure or hope.”
With a little intention and care, it’s possible to build meaningful connections with the people around you. And as the weather warms and the days get a little longer, there’s no better time to start — especially post-lockdowns.
TOP Holly Scott and her dog Basil, in the community garden in Sydney where she got to know her neighbours
BOTTOM Daniel and Luke Mancuso with their neighbour, who they call Yiayia