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Heavy Meddle: Neighborly Etiquette Edition

This article is more than 7 years old.

Dear Steve,

Our neighbors have been giving us the passive silent treatment ever since we put up a fence around our backyard. There’s no requirement to apply for the right to put a fence up — but we did talk to them before and they gave us the verbal go-ahead.

We're new to the hood and I’m worried they'll attempt to bad mouth us to other neighbors.

What's the best way to handle this? Especially since they haven't complained directly to us, only our contractors, and they basically avoid running into us.


Fenced In

Dear Fenced In,

What sort of fence are we talking about? (Picket? Chain link? Electric?) Why’d you erect the thing? And why, exactly, are your neighbors upset about it? Without this context, it’s impossible for me to give a responsible answer. Then again, it may be beyond my skill set to give a responsible answer in the first place, so let’s proceed.

You have two options here. Either you say something to your neighbors, or you don’t. My inclination in these situations is always to break the cycle of non-communication. But if you approach these folks the wrong way you run the risk of making things worse, especially because there’s a backlog of resentment on both sides.

My strategy in these situations is to lead with an apology: You’re worried that your decision to build a fence might have upset them and you’re sorry about this. I do this because apologizing to people (particularly defensive people) disarms them. It has the added benefit of being true — you do feel badly. A note like this can serve as an invitation for them to be more forthright. And it may be they have a legitimate concern to voice, or at least an anxiety that you can sympathize with. Maybe beneath all the passive-aggressive shenanigans, their feelings are hurt. That’s often what it boils down to.

But look: You’re pretty new to the neighborhood. You’re still figuring out who everyone is. Try not to worry about what other people are saying, or not saying.

I wouldn’t point out that they okayed the project, or should have spoken to you directly rather than the contractor. That’s you trying to be right, to win the argument. It prolongs the conflict rather than ending it. If your neighbors refuse to accept this apology, or deny that they’re upset — so be it. You tried to clear the air. You behaved graciously. Maybe in time these folks will return the favor.

Plan B is to go about your business and remain friendly but don’t engage them any further. Because there are people out there who, for some set of convoluted and probably unknowable reasons, seek out conflict. It’s what makes them feel alive in whatever diminished way. The only sensible approach in these cases is to refuse to do the dance.

But look: You’re pretty new to the neighborhood. You’re still figuring out who everyone is. Try not to worry about what other people are saying, or not saying. Instead, focus on finding those relationships that feel honest and nourishing and invest your time and energy in those.

And if things really head south with the neighbors in question, you can always go GOP on their asses and build a bigger fence. ♥

Dear Steve,

Next to our house we have a tall, beautiful pine tree. Several of its branches overhang our next-door neighbor’s driveway, and our neighbor — a very nice guy — tells us that he spends hundreds of dollars a year getting its sap removed from his car.

We wouldn’t mind cutting off those overhanging branches, but we don’t particularly want to pay the hundreds of dollars it would cost. We do want to be good neighbors, but do we have any obligation to cut off the branches, or to help defray the cost of our neighbor's car-cleaning?


Our Sap Runneth Over

Dear OSRO,

I am glad you came to me, given my advance degree in Arboreal Law. I guess word travels fast on the Internets.

Here’s the dillyo: According to the so called “Massachusetts Rule,” while your neighbor has a right to trim branches that overhang his property, you, as the owner of the tree, have no liability should the tree cause damage to a neighbor’s property. (I’m assuming you’re in Massachusetts. If you’re not, you need to do some research, as the laws on this vary from state to state.)

So by the law of the courts, you’re in the clear.

The most important thing with neighbors is to be considerate and keep the peace.

By the law of karma — and Good Samaritanism — it’s a bit more complicated. After all, if you’re neighbor really is a “very nice guy” and you really do want to be “good neighbors” don’t you think you could come to some kind of compromise? It’s not his fault, after all, that your tree grew over his property. I’d apply the Golden Rule here, not the Massachusetts one. Consider how you would feel if the sap from one of his trees was dripping onto your car. What sort of response would you consider fair? That’d be the course I’d follow.

If it were me (which of course it isn’t, because in my neighborhood we harvest the sap off of cars and make it into moonshine), I’d find a way to split the cost of a tree trimming. You could also contact the city to come see if the limbs might classify as a hazard, in which case they might trim them back for free. The most important thing with neighbors is to be considerate and keep the peace. Paying a few hundred bucks to preserve good relations with the guy who lives next to you feels like a bargain to me.

Does that sound sappy? ♥

Editor's Note: Check back on Monday for another installment of Heavy Meddle. In the meantime, what about you? Need any advice? Are you struggling with an existential crisis? An etiquette issue? Mild forms of social self-recrimination? Steve "Heavy Meddle" Almond can help. Unburden yourself. Email us.

This program aired on July 10, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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