I recently moved to a new flat and am having trouble with my next-door neighbour. I’d like to be on casual friendly terms with my neighbours – smile and nod and maybe wave when we see one another outside – but nothing more. I have a social anxiety disorder & agoraphobia, and have no interest in inviting people in for tea, or being invited in return. I live alone and I like it that way.
I don’t want to make enemies or have them create problems for me. I’ve sunk a lot of money into renovating this rental property so I really don’t want to have to move.
The problem is that my next-door neighbour is too friendly for my comfort level. I was warned about her when I signed the tenancy, so this is an established pattern of behaviour for her. She’s an elderly lady who seems to be lonely, and despite me trying not to encourage her (offering no invitations, turning down invitations, trying to draw conversations to a close, volunteering no personal information) she knocks on my door at least every other day to chat. With no prompting she talks at length about drama with other residents, her health problems, with very personal (and pretty gross) details, and ignores gentle prompts to try and end conversations. We talk at the front door as I do not invite her in, but this never makes her less keen to come and visit. I cannot convincingly pretend to be out, since the lights would give me away.
My sister has mentioned to her that I have social anxiety problems and she seemed sympathetic and said that she would not approach me, but wait for me to approach her, however this did not happen and she was knocking on my door the next day.
How can I discourage this lady without alienating her by being rude? Are there any scripts you could give me for shutting down conversations politely, or a long-term campaign to help her get the hint that, while I do not dislike her, I’m not interested in cultivating a friendship?
Lacking the necessary social nuance.
I think you have the social nuances of exiting conversations exactly right! It is your neighbor who is lacking them, and you have reached the impasse that polite people always reach with really obtrusive and impolite people:
They just create a sea of plausible deniability for oblivious people and boundary violators to swim around in.
Your sister already asked her, nicely, not to knock on your door and explained that you don’t like it. Your neighbor did not respect this request. She is going to knock on your door whenever she feels like it for the rest of time, unless you teach her that doing so will not get the response she wants (standing helpless, politely listening to her). It’s very possible she thinks she is “helping” you with your social anxiety by being so “friendly.”
It bears saying that you don’t have to answer the door just because someone knocked on it. A knock is not a command. It’s really hard not to answer a knock – What if it’s an emergency? What if it’s a package, or someone you want to see? – but if you know it’s her, and the building isn’t on fire, and you’re just not in the mood to deal with any of it? You can decide not to answer. I’ve had to do that with pushy neighbors/former landlords who don’t give notice they are coming by. If they ask you about it later, you can say:
- “I wasn’t expecting anyone/I was in the middle of something. Next time call and set something up.”
- “I was in the shower.”
- “I was napping and didn’t hear the door. If I had known you were coming….”
Lo and behold, after making a few trips for nothing, they started calling in advance. Your neighbor may have grown up in a time or culture where we just pop by for tea and a good gossip, but that doesn’t mean you have to virtually time travel to that place to make it possible for her.
If you do answer the next time she knocks, open the door a mere sliver to see who it is. Say, “Who/What is it?” If you can, act like it is very strange that anyone would be knocking and clearly there is some kind of emergency afoot (a variation of visibly and audibly startling when the office creeper touches you). If it’s an emergency, or she is holding your package, say “Thank you“, deal with the package or whatever, and then shut the door. If she’s just stopping by to talk at you, say, briefly, “Sorry, I’m busy!” and shut the door. Or give the conversation a physical limit by giving the Clooney Hello (starts around 1:45, link should be fixed now), as in, walk out to check your mail or see if there are any packages for you or check the weather outside for a second so you know what coat to wear, and then head back inside your apartment when the task is done. If you’re always moving, she can’t linger at your door.
When told “Sorry, I’m busy,” a person with reasonable boundaries will apologize for interrupting you and immediately go away. Did she apologize and immediately go away? No? Cool. Say again, “I don’t want to talk, I am busy.” Then shut the door. Shut it right in the middle of her sentence if you have to. Walk away. Put headphones on, call your sister. You’re going to feel weird and guilty and keyed up, it’s not like you can just go back to peacefully existing two minutes after shutting the door in an “sweet” old lady’s face. We’re really taught not to do that, ever, right? You’re going to feel rude, and you were kind of rude, but knocking on someone’s door when they’ve asked you not to and monopolizing their time is also rude, and polite-ing at her has not worked to make it stop.
You may be tempted to go with “It’s not a good time” or “Sorry, I can’t talk …right now.” It seems softer, or kinder somehow, right? But intrusive people hear “not now” and think “ok, later!” or “When???!!!” and it just prolongs the whole ordeal. The actual message you want to send is “I don’t want to” so say “I don’t want to.” Also, never feel like you have to go into detail about what you are busy with. “I’m busy counting ceiling tiles…” is a perfectly cromulent reason to not want to answer the door.
Try this and see if she changes her behavior. If you run into her in the hall or outside the building or doing laundry, exchange basic “Heyhowyadoing” pleasantries. If she knocks on your door without a really good reason? Building comma On Fire? Terse and door-shutty. You have to be consistent with this, because any reversion to long hallway chats will open up the old behavior again.
If this makes it better, problem solved! She has learned that dropping by will not get her what she wants. If this doesn’t make it better, you’ll need to have a chat with her. Good thing your sister had that talk with her, because it gives you a starting point for this chat. It will be Awkward. The Always Be Nice To Old Folks conditioning runs deep, which is why when F. the chatty handyman wants to tell Just One More Boring Story after completing his repairs, I sometimes excuse myself and hide in the bathroom until he leaves. (We keep books in there for a reason).
Here’s the script for The Chat. If you think it will help, practice it with your sister beforehand.
Wait for her to knock on your door.
“What is it?”
It won’t be anything, so jump in. And I know you were taught, like me, that interrupting people is rude, but go ahead and interrupt. “Sorry, I need to interrupt you.”
“Neighbor, I feel very awkward saying this, but I need to ask you not to knock on my door or drop by unannounced for visits anymore.”
She will not enjoy hearing this, which is understandable, as no one likes to be told “Shut up and go away.” I don’t know how to predict what she will say. You don’t have to respond to any of her points or discuss it with her. If you get into a point-by-point rebuttal you’re engaging with her on her terms, so steer clear. Just let her get whatever it is out, acknowledge that you heard it, and make sure you are very clear about what you want going forward.
Script continued: “I know my sister talked to you about this, trying to save us both from a conversation like this one. I don’t really like it when visitors – even close friends- drop by without notice. It makes me very anxious and upset, especially when I am trying to concentrate on something.” If you work from home (or work on concentration-heavy projects or hobbies at home), throw that out there, it’s helpful. If you don’t work from home, throw that out there in a different way – “My job is demanding, so when I am home, solitude and quiet are very precious to me.”
She will say some more stuff. If there is a way you can help her save face – thanking her in advance for being understanding, for example – do it. Appeal to her kindness. “I know you would never try to upset me on purpose, that’s why I needed to let you know directly. Thank you for understanding.” Then cut the conversation short.
Best case scenario: She shows you that she heard you and backs off. You can reward her by being basic-neighbor-friendly: Making sure to say hello to her in public spaces and giving it a good 3 minutes of pleasantry exchanging, shoveling the walk or the stairs in the snow, leaving a holiday card by the door (if that’s your thing, no worries if not), checking on her during extreme weather, bringing in her packages or mail, etc. Continue to not answer your door or respond to any social invitations.
Second best case scenario: She departs in a huff, swearing to never darken your door or speak to you again. She tells the rest of the people in the building how unfriendly you are. The rest of the people in the building secretly envy you. Over time things will probably thaw to what you’re looking for – mutually nodding “Hey” as you walk by.
Not good scenario: She does not get it and keeps bothering you. Possibly you can refer it to the landlord – “I’ve asked her directly to stop knocking, she is being a nuisance.” This isn’t necessarily worse than you have it now, so you might as well shoot for peace and quiet.