While I was cooking dinner the other night Adam caught me snooping on our neighbors. I was staring at a balcony on the apartment building next to ours, wondering out loud what kind of gathering was going on. “Those were the girls I saw laying out in their swimsuits the other day,” I said, by way of explaining my sketchy behavior. The creepiness was palpable.
Why are we so interested in spying on our neighbors? According to the 2014 National Home Security study in Great Britain, one in three people admit to harmless spying on their neighbors, most often in the guise of “making sure everything is alright”. Others say they can quickly notice when house paint has been changed or when a neighbor gets a new car. Some even mentioned in the study that they can tell who of their neighbors is in a fight, or experiencing a life change.
Our upstairs neighbor has the loudest sneeze known to man. It is frightening in its intensity and frequency. There used to be a young woman who lived in the building across from us who would sit outside and drink coffee and smoke cigarette after cigarette in her bathrobe at all hours of the day. She moved at some point earlier this year. Two other neighbors on the other side of our building had babies within just a couple weeks of each other. I can hear them crying through open windows. Our neighbors across the hallway have become surrogate grandparents to us. They’re always keeping us in the loop of what’s happening in the city and neighborhood.
Does this knowledge make me a snoop? Am I doing something illicit? I’m not trying to justify my behavior here, but it almost seems impossible not to know this much about the people who live around me. Our buildings are all so close and we live with the curtains open–as do many of our neighbors–so aren’t we bound to just learn all this information by accident? Or happenstance?
Working from home can be incredibly isolating. I take some comfort in knowing there are so many other people around throughout the day. It honestly makes me feel less alone. But, I will admit, there is some pleasure in being an amateur sleuth. Sometimes I fill Adam in on the regularities of our neighbors: one neighbor planted her window boxes so it must be time to garden; I think she cleans apartments in the building because sometimes I see her in other windows; so-and-so with the gray ponytail was out cleaning and polishing his purple motorcycle–time to ride!
In the interest of full transparency I sometimes forget that we are being watched as well. What do people think of me when I’m still in my pajamas at noon? Or only brushing my teeth for the first time well into the afternoon? (see note about working from home…) Do they think we look like a nice couple when we’re enjoying a homemade dinner on the balcony? I’d like to think that we look like a sweet little family from the outside.
And what about when harmless spying becomes the more sinister voyeurism? As spies, do we know when we’ve crossed the line? How much knowledge is too much? When does it go from being fun and just clandestine enough to being harmful and invasive? I think we’ve all read too many stories about hidden cameras in hotels and apartments…
We watched Rear Window the other night while mulling over some of these ideas. What a suspenseful movie! I’d highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it. Also, last week’s episode of Radiolab, titled, “The Living Room”, talks about this very issue. Diane inadvertently becomes enmeshed in one specific neighbor couple and what she sees shakes her immensely.
What do you think? Please tell me I’m not alone here! I’d love to hear your experiences with spying on neighbors and whether you think it’s harmless or harmful.