Two of my best, most original pieces of writing on this blog are two of the least popular articles here. They deal with building rapport with your immediate neighbors and building rapport with your larger community. If you haven’t, I strongly encourage you to go back and read those articles. Today I’m going to follow-up with some lessons learned, and share our success and failures.
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I’m going to front-load the lessons learned as these will be the most valuable to you. I sincerely hope a few of you are taking steps to integrate yourselves into your communities. There are some excellent reasons to help develop a strong community.
Why Care About Community
When I began this series it came from a more selfish place. I wanted to be a stable presence surrounded by a stable neighborhood. To the extent that I could influence it I wanted to be well-known and well-liked in my community. In the event of any sort of disaster I didn’t want to be seen as an outsider, someone with questionable loyalties, or an unknown to the others around me, for my own survivability. I feel that we have accomplished that goal. At the end of this article I’ll talk about where we are now.
The more successful we’ve become at integrating ourselves in to the community, the more I’ve learned. As a result I now I have somewhat more altruistic intentions. Or maybe they’re just selfish on a bigger scale. They are to make my community – and by extension my state, region, and our nation – more resilient. I also want to create for myself the old fashioned ideal that everyone romanticizes – friendly neighbors that look out for one another, and that as a neighborhood that can say, “when the chips are down, worry about everyone else first. We’ll be good.”
Finally, we actually care about our neighbors. We’ve developed relationships with them over the past couple of years and it is a wonderful thing. Though none of them (from the Baptist preacher to the lesbian couple) agrees 100% with us, we find that we agree on much more than we disagree on with everyone. I truly feel fortunate to have landed in the middle of such an awesome group of people.
Paul T. Martin’s excellent book Pivot Points is a great resource for anyone interested in cultivating a more resilient community. I waited way too long to read it, but now it’s serving as reference to me.
Now, let’s look at some lessons we’ve learned as we’ve attempted to build a strong neighborhood and strong ties in our community.
Lesson Learned: Fortune Favors the Bold
Don’t be afraid to stick your neck out and give someone your phone number, ask them to go get a beer, or to join you on a hike. It is really easy to be bashful about this. Believe it or not, even into middle-adulthood, it’s really, really easy to still play games, like “we invited them over last…the ball is in their court.” But if you’re looking for people to hang out with or to strengthen your social network, don’t wait around for them call you. Get out there.
On making new friends: we are completely over being bashful about our intentions, and we are bold about it. When we meet a good candidate we literally say something like, “we are always looking for friends so here’s our number!” We’ve found that adding a simple qualifier in there really, really helps make this technique more successful. Here are a few:
- “We just moved here…” or
- “We’re recent empty-nesters…” or one that should work for everyone
- “We both work from home…”
Here’s the thing. You will get shot down. Most of the people you try to befriend will not end up being your friend. But some of them will and heartless as it sounds, it’s kind of a numbers game. If you meet 1,000 people you might have a decent conversation with 100 of them. If you invite all 100 over maybe 50 will take you up on it. You’ll find out that 25 aren’t really your type. That’s cool – you don’t have to hang out with them but you are on good terms with them now, so it’s win-win. Out of the other 25, some will be too busy with kids, work,whatever and you’ll never get together. But of those 5 or 10 that do have the time…you’ve made some friends.
The same applies to meeting neighbors. We were aggressive, up front about meeting our neighbors. As I wrote before, we baked cupcakes, walked around the neighborhood and knocked on everyone’s door. We told them how glad we were to meet them and have them as neighbors. Some people consider that kind of out there…after all, aren’t the neighbors supposed to welcome *you* to the neighborhood? Maybe…but if we’d sat around waiting for that to happen, we’d probably still be waiting.
Get out there. Introduce yourself. Be aggressively friendly.
Lesson Learned: You Will Lose Some Friends
TL;DR: some people will move on, change jobs, or otherwise fall out of touch. Don’t let it discourage you.
You will lose some friends, and not necessarily in dramatic ways. Here’s an example: we met a bartender at our local brewery on the day she interviewed. She was sitting near table, petting our dogs while waiting to interview. A few days later we happened to be there on her first shift. Pretty much immediately she started recognizing us, remembering our favorite beverages, and calling us by name. Unfortunately the brewery changed management and a whole new crop of employees showed up…and all the old ones moved on.
We didn’t invest terribly hard in our relationship with the bartender, but we did invest. We made a point to say “hi” every time we saw her. We tipped her extra-generously, and remembered details about her life that we’d ask about the next time we saw her. But our relationship with her was confined to the brewery and we had no outside line of communication with her. It kind of sucked the next time we walked into the brewery after the management shake-up to realize that she wasn’t there…and none of the staff had a clue who we were.
I have a couple other stories like that but I’ll not bore you with them. We aren’t heartbroken because honestly, that’s just life. People will come and go through your life and some connections are tenuous at very best. In the early days of making friends and connections the loss of even one can feel like a big loss. But hang in there and don’t let that discourage you. That person may eventually circle back into your life, may be responsible for introducing you to others…who knows.
Lesson Learned: You Will Not Win Everyone Over
TL;DR: some people don’t want to be friends with you and that’s OK.
We’ve tried to win everyone on our street over. We’ve taken baked goods to people, invited everyone over to a big, (pre-COVID) Veteran’s Day party, and offered everyone eggs. Some of the people on our street love us and hang out with us all the time. Some are very friendly with us. And some are a bit harder to reach.
We have one neighbor who is in very close proximity that we have continually reached out to, just like everyone else. He and I were in the military at the same time, and on one of the few occasions when we’ve talked we discovered we were on a small, outlying base at the same time. That should be instant rapport. But for whatever reason we just can’t seem to crack the code.
And that’s OK – our goal really isn’t to be best friends with everyone. At times I admit that has been a little discouraging (“what are we doing wrong?”). I’ve come to peace with it, though. Everyone is friendly with each other when our paths do cross. I know I’ve done nothing to purposely offend, and we’ll continue to drop off Christmas cookies and whatnot as we do for the rest of our neighborhood. And that’s really all we can do.
Again, be prepared for some people not to like you. Don’t let it discourage you too much, and don’t let it keep you from reaching out to that person again in the future, or from reaching out to others.
Lesson Learned: Be Generous
TL;DR: BE GENEROUS with your time and attention, and if applicable, your fresh eggs.
This is one we’ve learned over and over again. As I’ve mentioned, our first act as neighbors here was to take baked goods to all of our neighbors. I can think of few better ways to get people to welcome you with open arms than to show up with a delicious treat that you spent the time to make. That worked out wonderfully for us.
Since then we’ve kept it up. Now that we have chickens and collect a dozen eggs per day, we have plenty of stuff to give away. We are extremely generous with eggs. Not even with the help of our neighbors can we keep up with such prodigious egg production, though, so we’ve started donating eggs to the local soup kitchen. We usually try to accumulate about ten dozen and take them up there. The folks there are very appreciative and we’ve started to make inroads with a completely different set of people in our community.
Our next plan is to buy a gift certificate to a local take-out restaurant and give it to the employees of our local library branch. We’ve been to the library so much since they re-opened (post-COVID) that we’ve become familiar faces. We are on speaking terms with almost all of the library personnel. We sincerely appreciate what they do and would like to treat them to lunch. If, as part of the deal, we become a little more endeared to them I’m not going to turn that down.
You can’t go wrong with generosity. Generosity with your time, attention, and a some foodstuffs here are universally appreciated. Generosity is also one of the fastest ways to establish rapport.
Lesson Learned: Less Social Media = Better
TL;DR: build your community in person, like your grandfather did.
I have no direct, personal experience with this one. Fortunately I was able to learn from the mistakes of others. I’ve seen several articles lately about how toxic the NextDoor app is. I’ve also heard directly from friends in my previous neighborhoods how shitty neighborhood Facebook groups can become (in fact, the last time I owned a home two of my neighbors who had previously been best friends completely stopped talking to each other over a Facebook kerfuffle).
In my opinion apps depersonalize your interaction with your neighbors. I doubt this is ever a good thing – if you’re that friendly with your neighbors you probably don’t need an artificial, electric, umbilical cord to maintain communication with them. Electronic communications also permit a too-intimate look into the lives of others (“why didn’t they come to the party? They just posted from a bar!”). With its lack of facial expression and intonation, electronic communication also introduces all sorts of possibility for the spirit of a message to be lost in translation. It just creates too many variables.
On the other hand, if we want to talk to Ray and Barbara, we walk across the road and talk to them. This serves to put a very human face (ours) on whatever we are saying. It demonstrates that we took the time and effort to walk down there to see them. It also means that we have to make sure they are home, it can’t be pouring rain, we have to actually feel like walking down; all these factors create a natural limit to the volume of communication we do with them. The sum of these parts is high-quality interaction that everyone appreciates.
Don’t try to build a community on social media. Instead, knock on doors, shake hands (or fist bump, or whatever the kids do nowadays), and look each other in the eye. Might sound old fashioned, probably is old fashioned, but it works.
Now let’s talk about some of the things we’ve done right, and some of the things that could use some work.
I think our general status in our neighborhood is a success. This part might sound like I’m bragging a bit…and maybe I am. I’m very proud of where we are, not even two years from being outsiders moving into an insular, rural neighborhood.
We never reached a day where we looked at each other and said, “We’ve done it. We are actually “neighbors” now and are members of the community.” That realization occurred slowly as the result of several events. We realized that we’ve been present for the death of a neighbor (I actually performed CPR on her). Another couple called us to inform us of the birth of a brand new neighbor. When an elderly couple moved out and sold their house, we were the first people to make contact with the new occupants, and we were the people who introduced them to our other neighbors. We’ve been complimented several times on how we “neighbor so hard” and how thankful people are to have someone to call if they need something. Though I won’t rest on my laurels I feel that our mission of becoming an integral, valuable part of our neighborhood has been accomplished.
Likewise in the larger community. I have gained employment with our EMS agency. This has exposed me to a vast array of people in my community, from all walks of life. I volunteer at with the Search and Rescue (SAR) team which has given me even more opportunities to interact with the community. So far our county has offered four COVID vaccine clinics. I’ve worked on every single one of them so far, and am going in later this morning to work on the fifth. My girlfriend is volunteering her time to work the next one on Thursday.
There is only one failing so far (at least that I’m aware of), and one that I intend to begin tackling soon: getting others to be slightly more prepared.
I’m not going to lie – this is kind of difficult for me to do. I certainly want to engender the spirit of, “bad things happen. We live way, way back in the country. Let’s be ready for a hard winter storm…or whatever else.” I imagine that I need to become a better student of each individual and talk to him/her on terms that resonate with that person individually. I doubt there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to get people interested in building a few days’ worth of supplies with no immediate return-on-investment.
To be totally honest, I’m nervous about being labeled a “prepper” or painted into a certain camp. I know that can be a turn-off to some and would likely be counter-productive to my efforts. I’ve let that fear hold me back. One neighbor remarked of the recent capital demonstration, “wow, things are getting crazy. Should I be stocking up on stuff?” I wish I had used that opportunity to say, “yes! Between that, the shortages last spring with COVID, the constant threat of winter-weather events…YES!” Instead I muttered something about, “it wouldn’t be a bad idea…”
We’ve come a long way. There’s still a lot to do – maintaining these relationships, being good neighbors and community members, and improving on the things that I need to improve on. If you aren’t actively building a community of people around you, I would encourage you to do so. Like I said last time – it’s not as sexy as a new AR-pistol with a PEQ-15 and a Surefire can…but it’s probably about a million times more useful, and I guarantee it’s more rewarding.