Barbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND
Neighbors: Strangers or Friends?
Updated: Dec 6, 2022
If you took a walk around your neighborhood, how many residences could you name the residents? How many residences have you been inside for a visit? How many residents have you had a meaningful conversation with? If the answer is not very many, you are not alone.
My husband, Joe, and I have lived in our neighborhood for 37 years and when our children were small we knew many more of our neighbors than more recently. Answering those questions ourselves convicted us to make a change. So, beginning in January 2018 we became intentional about getting acquainted with more of our neighbors. Each month we have invited one or two households to join us for a meal. Some of these people we’ve “known” for decades and others we only met when we reached out to invite them. In spending time visiting over a meal, we’ve gotten to know everyone better.
For nearly 20 years, I have studied and promoted the benefits of sharing meals – in families, at schools and workplaces, and in communities. Something I have learned is we live in a society where social isolation is the norm. We may connect over Facebook, but suffer from a lack of face-to-face connections.
Getting together with neighbors is one way to forge meaningful connections. Neighbors that know each other watch out for and support one another. On a grander scale, societies with strong social networks are ones known for greater longevity and quality of life.
In addition to monthly meals with neighbors, we set a goal to host a neighborhood block party during the summer. We selected a date right after school started in August so that fewer people would be on vacation. We circulated “Save the Date” flyers in late June and even mailed a few to former neighbors. We encouraged longtime neighbors to invite grown-up children to come back and bring their kids.
We were thrilled with the response. 64 new and old neighbors, including lots of kids and grandkids, came. Everyone brought a dish to share, meaning no one person was burdened with providing all of the food. We’ve learned that potlucks are a great way to guarantee that you will have more than enough food.
I provided name tags and asked people to not only write their names but add the street they lived on and the years they’ve lived in the neighborhood. The longest time was almost 60 years! This proved to be a great conversation starter, prevented embarrassment from forgetting names, and helped everyone get to know each other better. I also created a neighborhood map and guests filled in their names in the label next to their house. After the party I put the map where I can review the names and remember them when greeting my neighbors.
Getting together with your neighbors should be simple and uncomplicated:
Set a date (one that doesn’t conflict with other events)
Invite people to come (limit the number to fit your space)
Ask everyone to bring food to share, you can even ask them to bring their own table service and a lawn chair to minimize advance set-up
Do what feels comfortable and works for you. If a meal feels like too much effort, make it a potluck dessert party or a “s’more party” and roast marshmallows over a fire pit or grill. Start small with just a few neighbors. Just get together and connect!
We knew we were successful by the genuine expressions of gratitude and numerous comments of “we must do this again!” This week a neighbor child came over to ask us to sponsor her for the school walk-a-thon. While visiting, she told us, “You throw the best parties!” Coming from someone 50+ years our junior, that’s a compliment!
As we enter the last long weekend of summer, consider how you will spend it – in isolation or in community, connecting with others. Turn strangers into acquaintances, and acquaintances into friends.
“Human beings are wired for connection… We literally need each other to survive.”
~ Dr. Will Miller, Refrigerator Rights, 2002