Growing up in rural communities there was a strong emphasis on community spirit and looking out for your neighbour. This was very evident when there was school events or camps where parents would step forward to organise, creative, lead and contribute in various ways to the activities and running of things like bonfire nights, school camps or field trips. Being part of a relatively small school community meant that most families knew each other to some degree and were often connected through multiple networks such as sports teams or working together on community projects.
When my family left farming and moved into a small rural town, I remember still being aware of some level of community connectedness in the neighbourhood. This was added to by our enthusiastic neighbourliness which came in the form of shared garden produce, flowers or assistance with minor household issues as the need arose. Having a number of elderly neighbours meant that these people were more open to being friendly and willing to reciprocate where they could, with their own spare produce or little bits of home baking.
By the time I left home for my own living situation during my university studies, I was thoroughly immersed in the culture of neighbourliness. I didn’t initially have the confidence to go out and introduce myself to the various residents on my street as a 17 year old, but my mum’s suggestion of taking a basket of produce and a smile was a good conversation starter. Having lived where I am for nearly 15 years, I have seen many neighbours come and go but it has always been important to me that I at least recognise my neighbours and to take the time to greet them if I see them out on the street or in the community.
Many people feel a tension between feeling cautious about strangers and the loneliness and isolation that ironically exists for many of us, even though we are continually connected to social media. That is why it can make a big difference to smile at a neighbour and greet them by name if possible. Something as simple as that can make a big difference in the day of someone who may not otherwise have any direct human contact. There are cases where people who have struggled with mental health issues have said that small acts of kindness by strangers have often been what helps them get through particularly hard days.
When we take the time to acknowledge others and build even the beginnings of a connection through a smile and a wave, it can have significant positive ripple effects in the wellbeing and safety of a neighbourhood and wider community. If all neighbours were able to at least somewhat get to know their neighbours on either side, then the risks of social isolation, loneliness or more seriously the cases of unreported absence would be reduced significantly. It comes down to when there is a connection, there is someone to notice whether things are good or bad. And that can contribute significantly to the quality of life of everyone involved.