Winona Domingo, who recently moved into a new flat, considers her immediate neighbours her friends.
It started with the small things: “At first, I would just smile or nod, when we made eye contact. Then when they made small talk, I would respond.”
It seemed like the polite thing to do.
“But in time, as we kept chatting, our relationship progressed to become something a little more genuine,” said the 23-year-old preschool teacher.
In Singapore, stories like Domingo’s – where one befriends one’s neighbours – are surprisingly rare.
While most of us live in apartment blocks, side by side with multiple other households, proximity doesn’t count for much.
Instead, most of us probably identify more closely with Celine Chan, also 23. She said: “I’ve lived next to the same family for 12 years, and while we do say, ‘hi’ from time to time, I don’t know much about them – not even their names.”
Why is it so hard for people to open up to their neighbours?
The Pride finds out what’s holding Singaporeans back from becoming friends with their neighbours.
My neighbour looks unfriendly/hostile/grumpy (insert similar adjective)
We get it: Nobody wants to be that overly-perky person who goes around offering smiles and hellos to their neighbour who doesn’t respond positively, or worse, ignores their friendly overtures.
So, we’d rather just give our perceived unfriendly neighbours a wide berth and avoid any potential embarrassment.
But instead of writing them off or judging a book by its resting bitch face, why not give yourself a chance to get to know them a little more?
They may just be introverts who need some time to warm up, or simply aren’t used to neighbourly interactions.
And for all you know, they may turn out to be great neighbours like these ones, who helped their underprivileged neighbours, or who raised funds for a family who lost their flat in a fire.
My neighbour is a talker… but I’m not
What’s worse than a serial killer for a neighbour? Someone who loves making small talk – lots of it. After all, with a serial killer, you’d at least get a quick death.
“Off to work?” They’ll ask, as you enter the lift, dressed in a blazer and smart shoes, clutching a shiny briefcase.
“No,” you want to reply, as you struggle not to roll your eyes. “I’m going fishing.”
While some of us may see our nosy neighbours’ curiosity and concern as invasive and annoying, keep in mind that your neighbours are simply trying to be friendly. And that these are the neighbours who actually care enough about your life to ask about it.
They’re the ones who’ll remember the little things about you, like the fact that you love baked foods, for example. And they may be the ones who, during festive seasons, will offer you a tin, or three, of their homemade pineapple tarts.
Many time-stressed or reserved Singaporeans may not enjoy partaking in small talk. But while there’s no need to indulge in lengthy, forced conversations about the weather with your neighbour, at the very least, you can acknowledge their efforts with a smile, nod, and a polite response.
Maybe it’s not them, it’s us
According to a Graciousness Survey commissioned by the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM), fewer Singaporeans actually desire greater neighbourliness, and more want to maintain their privacy.
And in a poll conducted by SKM, a mere 11 per cent actually strike up casual conversation with their neighbours more than three times a week. The rest of us hardly chat with our neighbours.
Making small talk may be annoying, but really, it can’t be that bad, can it?
Time-strapped Celine, a public relations executive, used to enjoy a healthy relationship with her next-door neighbours.
But in recent years, simply because of Celine’s increasingly busy schedule and their lack of interaction, that relationship has deteriorated. Today, they hardly interact.
“We used to chat quite a bit at the lift landing, but now it’s become just silent nods of acknowledgement,” she said. “Maybe a decade ago, when we were in Secondary School, my neighbours’ daughter forgot her house key and as it was late, she came over to our house to wait.”
“We also used to exchange Chinese New Year goodies, but haven’t done so in recent years.”
Although Celine’s parents still make it a point to wave and greet their neighbours, the self-described introvert explained: “Because I’m so tired at the end of the work day, I’m less inclined to ‘put up’ with small talk. I don’t initiate it, and when asked questions, I’ll give one-word answers. In the lift, I smile awkwardly and then look the other way, or use my phone,” she said.
“When the lift opens, we go our different ways, and that’s that.”
If we’re being honest with ourselves, perhaps it’s our own fault that neighbourliness levels are down.
Improving relationships with our neighbours
In addition to making a new friend, cultivating a close relationship with our neighbours can benefit us in many other ways.
It may be something small, like a friendly neighbour helping you to collect your online shopping, or helping to water your plants when you’re overseas.
Or it could mean your neighbour has got your back – and you, theirs.
When emergencies happen at home, the nearest, and most immediate help is in the form of your neighbour.
Maintaining a good relationship with them could mean that one day, instead of simply relying on the walls around our house to protect us, we can rely on our neighbours, too.
So, what can we do to improve our relationships with our neighbours?
Like Winona, you can easily start by greeting your neighbours and engaging them in conversation once in a while.
While such a gesture isn’t necessarily the driving force that will shape the future of Singapore’s neighbourhoods, it’s a good place to start.
We may be neighbours by chance, but with a little work, we can move towards being good neighbours by choice.