Cigarette ashes flutter into my kitchen window like autumn leaves into a cottage.
They land on the floor, forming black clumps that are warm to the touch. The smell of smoke stings my nostrils, and I know the same scent would perfume the clothes drying outside my window.
My neighbour, who lives directly above me, is smoking by his kitchen window again. What was a swell morning turns into a scene of chaos; I yank bamboo poles of clothing back indoors and rack them up, all while holding my breath and avoiding the hot ashes. It is an extreme sport.
If you think it’s a small matter, I’m willing to bet that you don’t have a neighbour who smokes.
I go to my friends for advice, and I realise that each of us has a unique solution to the problem.
Some get up in arms. “If I were you, I’d snap pictures of the ashes and go knock on their door!” To them, neighbours like these needed to be taught a lesson. After all, they have intruded into the sanctity of our home, and considering that most Singaporeans live on average about 10 years in their HDB flat before moving out, it’s not something we can simply ignore.
Others prefer to invoke the authorities. “Just go there and be firm. Let them know that you’ll inform the town council if they do it again,” one of my friends suggested.
Someone I know even up and moved away. Her previous neighbours smoked by their gates and windows, sometimes along the corridor near her unit. The smell never faded due to the frequent smoking and it haunted her family. They almost never opened their windows and doors, which was less than ideal in our hot weather. “My mum was driven to insanity over it,” she joked.
Such experiences are so commonplace that when a ban on smoking at home was suggested in Parliament, it quickly became the talk of the town.
Some smokers were fuming, concerned about losing autonomy over what they can do at home. While they understood the implication of the intrusion, non-smokers favoured the idea due to health concerns or unpleasant experiences. Netizens hopped on to support the ban or suggest alternative solutions – like using cameras to catch those who smoke at home, setting up little “smoking zones” complete with air filters, or beefing up the resources to settle disputes.
Both sides bring up valid concerns. Yet one question remains: How do we get to the middle ground and gain a mutual understanding?
Keep calm and deal with it
We spend the day dealing with the world, and when evening rolls around, we look forward to putting our feet up and winding down. We just want to get by comfortably, so when someone steps on our toes we reflexively respond in anger.
But do we reach for the phone or knock on our neighbour’s door too soon?
Perhaps it has happened three times this week and you are just so done. Or you are worried for someone in your household who has respiratory conditions. In a fit of annoyance, we forget that there is always the other side of the story.
Let’s show some empathy. When non-smokers look at statistics like how six Singaporeans die from smoking-related conditions every day and how inhaling second-hand smoke can be as lethal as smoking itself, it is easy to wag a finger and judge without understanding.
Some smokers do it as a coping method to relieve frustration, loneliness, stress and anger. Most of the time, they are aware of the health risks, but are addicted to the habit. This results in smokers trapped in an endless cycle of dependency and despondency.
Smokers often begin smoking in their youth, influenced by peer pressure or having older relatives who are smokers. Those who have smoked for decades often also believe that there is no turning back.
This by no means says that all smokers are in the wrong or that we must condone their habits just because they could be going through a rough patch. But it is worth considering your neighbour’s situation just as much as your own.
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So keep an open mind when approaching your neighbour. Some are considerate enough to change up a few things, such as agreeing to smoke away from windows or balconies. Sometimes, you might realise that that inconsiderate person may actually be a friendly neighbour who just made an honest mistake.
But draw the line between silence and tolerance. My mother paid little mind to the ashes, saying that it didn’t happen too often for her to be ruffled by it. She changed her mind when she got a whiff of my wardrobe days later, but it was too late by then. The damage had been done, and we had to toss the clothes back in the suds.
Finding the perfect balance
Many agree that a ban on smoking at home is a tad bit intrusive. While we can enlist the help of community mediation centres and town councils to facilitate a discussion, we need to approach the conflict with the right mindset. If you go in spoiling for a fight, even if the negotiation seems effective, it may end with both parties agreeing half-heartedly to terms they won’t comply with anyway.
Adopt resolution skills; don’t go in with preconceived notions. Ask questions that show curiosity rather than judgement. For example, a simple change from “You smoke at home and I don’t like it” to “Is there anywhere else for you to smoke?” can prompt someone to engage in a constructive conversation.
Dealing with angry neighbours
Chances are, their frustration might not be directed at you; they may just be having a bad day and are not provoked by you. If so, remain patient and eventually they will come around. Of course, if the anger is directed at you, or they are simply too riled up to address the matter, back off gently and try again.
Generally speaking, it is better to speak to each other as neighbours first, before involving external agencies. There are avenues for additional help. Complaints to NEA or the police may feel like an easy choice, but it shouldn’t be the first resort, as this can spark off misunderstandings.
For both sides of the debate, the point is to keep trying to understand the alternative point of view, even when the other party gets aggressive. For an effective way to resolve neighbour conflicts, everyone should take a walk in each other’s shoes.
Non-smokers, remember that you’re not there to instantly flip their perspective around and make them stop smoking at home there and then. For smokers, remember that it takes courage for your neighbour to broach an uncomfortable subject. Be mindful that both sides have concerns and wants – the key is to be open to negotiation.
With that in mind, you can bet I’ll be knocking on my neighbour’s door with my smoke-infused dri-fit tee, not to tell them to smoke less, but simply to find out more.