Modern life is a lot less conducive to friendships and neighborliness than it used to be. The average American moves every five years. People drive straight into their garages, hire lawn services, hang out in their backyards instead of their front porches. These days, neighbors don’t even know each other’s names.
Good neighbors and good friends are a lot like electricity or running water: We don’t know how much we depend on them until we don’t have them. They make our lives more pleasant and give us a sense of who we are, both as an individual and as a member of the community. In fact, the authors of a recent book, Refrigerator Rights, claim that refrigerators are gauges of intimate relationships — after all, you wouldn’t snatch a drumstick from the refrigerator of a stranger.
The surprising thing is that all it takes to enhance your relationship with friends and neighbors is respect for their feelings, concern for their property, and a helping hand when it’s needed. Here’s how to nurture your relationships with two types of vitally important people
in your life.
1. Strike up a conversation over the fence or on the sidewalk. It’s okay to be the one to break the ice, even if you’ve lived next door for years. Most neighbors enjoy making small talk with the folks on the other side of the fence. So as you see them at work in their yards or at play in their pool, smile, wave, and say hello. Ask how their kids are (whether they’re toddlers or in college), whether they could use an extra zucchini from your garden, or what they think of the prices at the local supermarket.
2. Extend yourself to the new family down the block. These days, the old Welcome Wagon is a thing of the past. But your new neighbors may be feeling lonely and unsure, especially if they’re far from home, and might appreciate a friendly face bearing fresh-baked brownies. If they have kids, tell them where the children in the neighborhood live. Clue them in to the best places to eat and shop. Invite them over for coffee when they get settled, give them your number, and point to your house as you say good-bye.
3. Be considerate, especially of elderly neighbors. Return anything that you borrow from a neighbor, such as tools, in good repair and as soon as you’re finished with them. Replace anything that belongs to your neighbor that you, your children, or your pets break or soil. If your neighbor hasn’t brought in his garbage cans yet, roll them back into his yard. Random acts of consideration will have your neighbors talking — and the talk will be good.
4. Invite your neighbors to your next bash — or throw one in their honor. What better way to meet your neighbors than to invite them to an informal barbecue, pool party, or holiday open house? Better yet, you might even consider throwing a get-together just for them. Deliver the invitations in person to everyone who lives on your street and chat with each for five minutes before moving on to the next house. This way, you will get an idea of what your neighbors are like so that you can plan for appropriate food and music.
5. On your computer at home or at work, make “call friends” a standing appointment. Don’t have a computer? Keep a Post-it note on the phone, the bathroom mirror, the car dashboard, anywhere you’re likely to see it. Also make sure your friends’ phone numbers are programmed into your cell phone. Then call that friend when you’re stuck in traffic or waiting in line and chat for 10 minutes. Alternatively, schedule a standing once-a-month lunch — same time, same place.
6. Make time for friendships. Nothing makes closeness fade away than never talking with or seeing each other. While some bonds of friendships may be strong enough to span long silences, most aren’t. If you cherish a person’s friendship, make time for him or her, whether it’s just the occasional phone call or a weekly get-together.
7. Remember: A true friend doesn’t flee when changes occur. Nothing is sadder for new parents than to find that their single friends have abandoned them because of the baby. The sign of a good friend is one who stays true through it all — marriage, parenthood, new jobs, new homes, the losses. Just because situations change doesn’t mean the person has.
8. Make sure you aren’t being a burden to a friend. Friendships fade away if there isn’t an equilibrium between the give and the take. Be sensitive to how much your friend can and can’t offer you — be it time, energy, or help — and don’t step over the line. And vice versa: Friendships that drain you will not last. If a friendship is out of balance in this way, you’ll need to talk the situation through.
9. Sweat the small stuff. Yes, there are times when it doesn’t pay to sweat the details, but in a friendship, it’s the little things that count. Notice her new haircut. Remember to ask about her mother’s surgery or her daughter’s new baby. And if you’re truly a good friend, you’ll know when she needs some cheering up — a simple arrangement of flowers if you can afford it, a simple card or e-mail if you can’t. It really is the thought that counts.
10. Be a good listener. It can be the hardest thing in the world to do — to simply listen as he or she pours it all out or is seeking your advice or opinion. To be a better listener, follow this advice:
Maintain eye contact. Offer nods and murmurs that indicate you understand her point of view.
Don’t finish your friend’s sentences. If you catch yourself planning your response while your friend is still talking, gently remind yourself to focus on him.
Minimize distractions — don’t type, open mail, or watch television while you’re on the phone with your friend. Your friend will undoubtedly hear your disinterest in your responses.
Be careful with advice. Assume your friend wants to vent, not necessarily ask for a plan of action.
11. Be in her corner if she’s not there to defend herself. If you’re at a gathering at which someone mentions your friend disparagingly, defend her against gossip or criticism. Say, “Mary is my friend, and it makes me feel bad to hear you talk this way.” Sooner or later, news of your loyalty will travel back to her, and it will deepen your friendship.
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