Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Keeping ourselves to ourselves So much of contemporary neighbouring is about noisiness, but this is about nosyness. A survey reported as part of the Digital Switchover Help Scheme has found that for 27 per cent of the 2,000 respondents from across London, ‘fear of appearing nosey’ was the reason for keeping themselves to themselves. Disparaging terms like ‘curtain twitcher,’ ‘nosy parker,’ or 'sticky beak' have damaging cultural ramifications. Fear of appearing nosey might be seen as a consequence of the way we emphasise privacy. We are not allowed to build or extend our houses if they allow us to see each other within. My house was built before such legal insistence, and fortunately a healthy relationship with our neighbours is reinforced by being able informally to keep an eye out for each other. In the Netherlands, a curious culture of window dressing evolved through the late twentieth century, whereby it was frowned upon to use curtains or shutters, so homeowners would restrict what was visible internally through elaborate decoration (see 1989 article by Hernan Vera). I’m reading Emily Cockayne’s history of neighbours and finding various examples of intimate details shared unintentionally in previous ages, due to ‘the thinness of pre-modern walls’ – complicated no doubt by lower expectations of privacy. The determination to avoid accusations of nosyness obviously reduces people’s availability to respond in time of need; and as soon as a critical mass of people with the same attitude has built up, it’s likely to have an impact on the other side of the equation, readiness to ask for help. This is one of the explanations for what Lilian Linders terms the 'request scruple'. As I noted a year ago, her research shows that this reluctance is more problematic than the assumed shortage in the supply of neighbourliness. Dilemmas of interference in neighbouring are persistent unless you choose not to occupy your neighbourhood. Here’s my own example, after which I started to wonder if my neighbour thinks I'm nosy for having advised him that his downstairs window was open overnight in the rain.

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