Andrew Vine: Breaking wall of silence to meet the neighbours

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A FEW weeks ago, I finally got to know the family who live across the road from me. It’s only taken seven years.

That’s right. Seven years. During that time, I’ve lost count of how often we’ve exchanged smiles and nods of greeting as we head out to our cars in the morning, off to work or on the school run.

But we’d never actually met, shaken hands, or come to know each other’s names until, a few weeks ago, the husband sauntered across for no particular reason while I was out cutting the hedge and introduced himself.

We were both slightly embarrassed that it had taken so long, and I felt a twinge of shame for not taking the initiative seven years ago when he and his wife and two children moved in. I should have gone over and said hello as part of the process of making somebody new to the neighbourhood feel welcome.

Neighbourliness seems to be on the wane. A survey of a few days ago struck a chord with me – and possibly the man across the road – because it might have been done with us and our years of polite but unspeaking interaction in mind.

Britons are almost the worst in Europe when it comes to the closeness of their relationship with neighbours, according to the Office for National Statistics, with only 58.4 per cent of us really knowing and trusting them. Only Germany comes out worse for people not engaging with those who live around them.

The best place is Cyprus, where nearly 81 per cent of neighbours count themselves as close. But before anybody jumps to the conclusion that a warm climate in which people are outdoors a lot more than we are, all year round, is a factor in people knowing each other, it’s worth noting that chilly places such as Latvia, Poland and Finland are all a lot more neighbourly than Britain.

It isn’t that we dislike our neighbours, but we’ve steadily grown more distant, and perhaps even aloof, from them. The way we live now is a factor, with more couples where both adults work full-time than once was the case, and it is certainly true that many people will know their colleagues far better than those who live, eat and sleep a few feet away.

Opportunities for getting to know each other have diminished. It’s lock the door, get into the car, set off for work, return, get out of the car, into the house. Weeks can pass without people who live side by side ever really seeing each other.

During the morning rush-hour, entire suburban streets empty as children are dropped off at school and then their parents head to work, meaning the time available for interaction between neighbours narrows to the evenings and weekends, when families have so much to be crammed in that there can be little time for anything else.

And an Englishman’s home has become not so much his castle as his capsule, with all the entertainment – and distractions – he wants behind his front door without the need to go back out once the day’s work is done, let alone interact with the people at the other side of a double thickness of bricks where his neighbour is just as absorbed in the telly or the internet.

There have been many concerns expressed in recent years about a breakdown of society, of how we’re not as compassionate or concerned about others as we once were, how people are more likely to look the other way if they see something untoward happening rather than intervene.

It’s not too far a leap to see a decline in neighbourliness as one of the root causes of this. If we can’t be bothered getting to know the people next door, why should we bother about strangers?

Minding our own business too much is not an appealing trait. Better to engage with those around us, because finding good neighbours is a boon, and fostering a sense of community, whether along an individual street, in a village or a block of flats, does nothing but good.

It helps to keep children safe, drives down crime because people watch out for each other’s homes and gives the frail or vulnerable a sense of security.

Languishing at the bottom of a league table of good neighbourliness is not an enviable position to hold. It’s time for more of us to pause for just a moment on the way out to the car, or on the way back in, and say hello.

A house a few doors down from mine has recently sold. When the new people move in, I’ll be sure not to leave it for seven years before I pop round and do just that.