It was presaged during the pandemic: “Masks have also become so much more than mere barrier between germs and lungs,” the New York Times reported in April 2021. “They can keep that too-chatty neighbor at bay or help the introvert hide in plain sight.”
Everyone had shouted at us in spring 2020 to stay at home. They told us that neighborhood get-togethers were bad because social distancing was part of 15 days to slow the spread or something. A year later, when masks were touted as anti-neighbor shields, it was impossible not to wonder if the message was actually neighbors the real pathogens.
In this age of low social trust and in a world in which we socialize on social media, the idea of stopping by a neighbor’s house has become rare enough as to strike many as creepy.
Witness the June 2023 advertisement for DirecTV. Actor Brian Cox explains to the viewer that “Jeff doesn’t have DirecTV, so he’s watching baseball at his weird neighbor’s house.”
Jeff tries briefly to defend his neighbor, who interjects, in an odd tone of voice and too much eye contact, “I love watching the game with you.”
The message is clear, for a few bucks a day, you can buy freedom from people who are different from you and might want human attention.
Around the same time, a baffled mother posted a TikTok about the oddest experience: Her child ran into a friend in the neighborhood, and the two of them played together at her house for a few hours.
There was nothing actually odd about this: The neighbor, like her son, was 8. They were friends. He was polite. Mom remained baffled: “I don’t know this kid. I don’t know his mom. I don’t know where he lives.”
She walked him home to meet the parents, who “were not concerned in the slightest. That was wild to me!”
This is a story about helicopter parenting, but it’s also a story about neighborliness. The notion that neighbors, young or old, would simply get together when there are other options strikes more and more people as odd.
That’s not good. A healthy society is one in which people know their neighbors and hang out with them for no real reason. The modern mind, though, believes in planning and self-sufficiency. In such an atomized world, nothing is less welcome than a friendly neighbor.