Two neighbors are locked in heated discussion over a hedge that separates their homes. They disagree over how to trim it. In theory, they share the hedge. But in reality, each believes it is his alone. Each wants to mark it as exclusive territory.
Their faces flame red, voices sharpen, gestures become truculent. As emotions rise, each one steps closer and closer to the hedge, so that finally, their faces are only inches apart. Both stand tall, chests out, jaws thrust forward.
Both, consciously or unconsciously, are trying to dominate the situation through physical intimidation.
And both are exactly aping animal behavior. Picture two dogs in a standoff, stiff-legged with muzzles pointed; cats with their fur puffed to look twice their size; or birds dive-bombing foes, trying to force them from their perches.
Dogs, cats, birds--and people. Like animals, people often respond instinctively in matters of territory.
"It is part of our basic makeup," said JoAnn Farver, a professor of developmental psychology at USC. "Socialization doesn't change those instincts, even when we know logically that we don't really have to defend our property against our neighbor."
Perhaps the term "urban jungle" is more accurate than we like to admit.
Like any animal who scents intrusion, you feel a flush of rage when you spot a neighbor's pickup parked in front of your house. Do your neighbors across the street have to wash their car every single weekend, flooding the street each time?
And doesn't your next-door neighbor even hear her dog anymore? The thing barks all day long. Maybe it's time to do some howling at the moon yourself with your favorite Garth Brooks CD. You'll blast it tonight right when she goes to bed.
That'll fix her. But:
"It is in your own best interest to be cordial and tolerant," cautioned Cora Jordan, an attorney and author of "Neighbor Law," a Nolo Press book that gives practical, no-nonsense approaches to handling neighbor disputes.
"Remember that these people are not going to go away. You have to live together."
Take, for example, the matter of the barking dog. For weeks you fume. Not only is your sense of territory being invaded by the noise, you are further angered by the assumption that your neighbor knows there is a problem yet chooses to ignore it.
So suddenly one night you find yourself shouting threats over the fence. Like any attacked animal, your neighbor rears up and returns in kind.
"Once you get aggressive with a neighbor, the relationship will never be the same," Jordan warns. "To maintain a neutral relationship, you need to approach your neighbor objectively and pleasantly."
First, Jordan advises, keep a written log to track a problem, noting, in this case, how many times the dog barks during the day and for how long.
"For one, it's very possible you'll see that a problem, though annoying, isn't as serious as you first thought," she said.
Maybe the dog barks only for a few minutes when the owner leaves, barks again at the mail carrier and then once more when the owner comes home. You realize that the "constant" barking has a pattern and that, actually, you can live with it. Or, if there is a real issue, a dog that barks several times a day, you have solid evidence to back your claim.
Also, more often than we think, a neighbor who is causing a disturbance may be genuinely oblivious of it. Nor are the neighbor's actions specifically directed toward annoying you, though our territorial instincts often make us see it that way.
Maybe the neighbor is gone all day and does not realize how often her dog barks. Jordan recommends that if you approach her about the issue, assume that she does not know there is a problem. "This will change the way you word a request," she said, "which in turn will affect a neighbor's reaction to you."
Even the animal kingdom recognizes the need for diplomacy.
"In the heart of the territorial principle," writes Robert Ardrey, anthropologist and author of "The Territorial Principle," a book that links animal behavior to that of people, "lies the command to defend one's property. But as close to the heart also lies recognition of the next animal's rights."
In terms of those rights, our neighbors make choices all the time, some of which affect us. After all, these are the same people with whom we live cheek by jowl.
That proximity means that we know when they have a party, what sort of music they favor, what they put on the grill. After a while we become familiar with their daily schedules, since we live with their habitual comings and goings.
And we know that they know us as well.
"Yet, too often Westerners don't acknowledge the importance of the emotional factor in informal human interaction," USC's Farver said.
"Instead, we have an individualistic, me-first attitude which directs our initial reactions in those informal situations."
Despite this knowledge, Farver says that though Westerners greatly prize intellectual skills and their professional achievements, we don't always stress social skills.
So though most of us would think twice about expressing anger to a professional colleague, we might righteously rush to our phones over a neighbor's loud party.
"Put it this way," Jordan said. "What about your own parties down the line? If you are intolerant right away, why should you be afforded any tolerance?"
One loud party does not make a bad neighbor. Wait and see what his or her habits actually are before reacting.
For example, a new neighbor who immediately throws a loud, late party might simply be celebrating a housewarming. You, like an old-timer moose who resents a young buck's intrusion, feel invaded. Your first impulse is to charge over, like a moose with his antlers lowered, and pound on the door, demanding silence.
Your reaction wells from biological reactions that cannot be denied. But they can be modified. Hang on. Wait it out.
If the wait does seem excessive, you might mildly comment the next day, saying, "That was quite the party you had last night." Most likely your neighbor--who knows, after all, that he is the new kid on the block--will respond apologetically. "Yeah, we got a little crazy," he might say, "Sorry if we kept you up."
This way a clear, if covert, message has been transmitted. He knows that you were disturbed. But because your approach was mild, you gave him room to both save face and apologize, if casually. Chances are very good the situation will not be repeated in the near future.
If it is, however, Jordan always recommends communication, rather than retaliation. Some of us suddenly burst out in fury over a long-term annoyance, like yelling about the barking dog, but some of us try to get silently even.
Perhaps, in an attempt to cure your neighbor's habit of parking in front of your house, you begin blocking his garage with your own car. Since you have never talked over this issue, you don't know that your neighbor uses his garage as storage and so cannot park there.
In turn, since he observes that you use your garage for parking, he does not realize that you feel squeezed by his appropriation of the street parking. In fact, back to our animal roots, you probably could care less that he parks on the street; you just don't want him in front of your house.
Much bad blood can be spared here through simple communication. After talking it over, he makes an effort not to park in front of your house. You make the effort to understand when he does park there occasionally. Remember also that you cannot forbid your neighbor from parking on the street. So a polite request is more effective than an empty demand.
And rarely are situations either/or. "There can be creative solutions to a supposed impasse," said Jordan, citing one example when a neighbor's cat kept killing the wild birds that flocked to the garden next door. The neighbors with the birds became increasingly enraged. But they said nothing. "The frustration grew so strong," says Jordan, "that there was even talk of secretly killing the cat."
The problem was that it did seem an either/or situation: Either the cat would have to stay indoors or it would go on killing birds. Finally, a creative solution was reached: Buy the cat a bell for its collar and request it be put on while the cat was outside. "The cat owners were only too happy to oblige," Jordan said.
Finally, there is that little matter of money. One should note that in the classic Robert Frost poem "Mending Wall," two neighbors come together once a year to bolster the fence. Although the narrator is amused at his neighbor's flat assertion that "good fences make good neighbors," he also pitches in.
If, for example, a neighbor's trees cast too much shade in your yard, you could contribute half of the cost for a trim. Keep in mind that anything you do financially does contribute overall to the value of your home as well. You could even pay for the whole thing yourself if it matters to you. That is the key question: How much does something matter to you and how much are you willing to pay?
Jordan's son, who lives in Manhattan, was bothered by the sound of the footsteps in the apartment above. But he knew his upstairs neighbor couldn't afford a rug at the moment, so he bought the rug himself. For Jordan's son, peace of mind was worth more than money.
"Most of us are friendly with our neighbors, but we are not friends," said Barry Glassner, a sociologist at USC. "That is an important distinction because it is an ambiguous relationship that can go many ways."
Potential for Conflict
He points out that though urbanites often decry the coldness of city life, they also know there is a high potential for conflict with neighbors.
"In general, if you are embroiled in a conflict with someone," he says, "it's easier if you are not close to them. A more neutral relationship means you can pare an argument down to a small, well-defined set of issues."
Perhaps the defining word is "small." How many of us have seen what started out as a small problem escalate as swiftly as a brush fire when we deal with our neighbors.
Sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists all suggest the same thing:
Our instinctive, animalistic drive for territory causes us to react to neighbors emotionally more often than objectively.
But it is calm objectivity that Jordan advocates. Although we cannot shrug off our biological inheritance, it is helpful to know that it does exist, that there are reasons why you feel so furious over opera thundering from your neighbor's windows yet again. That knowledge can help you take a breath before you do anything.
I have to laugh when I watch the interaction of my cats and those of my neighbor. Although they often stray into each other's yard, the minute the "home" cat appears, the intruders slink back to where they belong. Often there is a polite touch of the nose as they pass.
They know instinctively what we must learn from behavioral experts: They are both cordial and tolerant. After all, they are next-door neighbors too.