Not surprisingly, studies have found that we in Britain are a pretty reticent lot. Only a minority of people know their neighbours by name, and many believe they have never even seen their neighbours, let alone spoken to them.
But it is clear that people would like to get to know their neighbours: in a recent study conducted by Neighbourhood Watch almost two-thirds (65%) of people say their neighbourhood would be a ‘stronger’ and safer place if people were encouraged to get to know each other better.
A recent Guardian article describes an experiment carried out in Lingard Road, a suburban street in Manchester. Five households were instructed to start smiling at their neighbours as they passed them in the street, and to try to start a conversation and offer to help them when possible. They were asked to keep a diary of how they got on over one month. Although several reported ‘strange looks’ and some initial reserve, by the end of the month all the participants reported success.
‘I’ve really seen a difference. People I’ve never met before have been a bit more sociable and said hello on several occasions. The study has been useful and really proven that we are a nice little street with a small community,’ said Jay Crawford, who had lived in the area for 24 years without plucking up the courage to talk to anyone, but now is delighted to be running a bin rota with his new friendly neighbours.
Social anthropologist Kate Fox, author of Watching the English, a sharply observed and often hilarious anthropological view of our country and its people, believes that this study confirms her view that people in the UK are not inherently misanthropic or unsociable, just a bit shy. Fox says: ‘We need more props and facilitators – pubs, clubs, pets, sports, games, weather-talk, alcohol, internet – to break the ice and get us interacting with each other.’
Could smiling and trying to engage with your neighbours work where you live? Success cannot, of course, be guaranteed, but the experience of a few residents of a Manchester street suggests that it might be worth a try.