On Spying

cat spy

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.



IMG_2451^^my spying perch

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.




2 thoughts on “On Spying

  1. It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in an apartment/condo, but I think some of that comes with living your lives in such close proximity to each other. When we lived in the condo in CT, we definitely knew what was going on with our neighbors and still keep in touch with a few of them to this day. Now that we have a house with a little more separation we’re not nearly as involved in our neighbors lives. It is hard not to notice a pregnancy here or new car there, but there is certainly more distance than when in an apartment setting.

    All that said I do also think there has been a cultural shift to focus on how other people live their lives. I think it started with the 1st true reality TV shows MTV’s “The Real World” and the “Ozzbornes”. Those were back in the day where reality TV was reality. While I won’t pretend that there were decisions made in the editing room about how to portray that reality or create drama that may not have really been there, it was no where near the scripted or assisted reality TV shows that are on the air today. These shows became the new soap opera’s, only the people weren’t actors, they were real people experiencing real life. Those shows fed into what I think is an inherent human voyeuristic trait. We’ve always looked around us and been curious as to how other people live, it’s human nature. One of the 10 commandments warns about coveting your neighbors wife, clearly a warning against looking around you and wanting something others have. Same logic holds for the old adage, “the grass is always greener”, the difference today is the proliferation of personal data making it so much easier to see what everyone else has.

    Starting with those reality shows and continuing on to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Snapchat, and now Periscope, it’s become easier and easier to see what other people are doing and become “involved” in their lives. I’m not going to argue if it’s good or bad (it’s bad), only stating that as a culture we’ve generally become more voyeuristic and watchful of other people, so you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself for participating in society. I do think it’s important to do some self evaluation on how much time you spend on social media, and how much weight you put on what you find there.

    Anyway, there’s my poorly written, stream of consciousness comment on your blog, which a little hypocritically let’s me be a casual observer of your life from 1/2 a world away. 🙂

    Love you little sis and can’t wait to see you guys again.

  2. I totally agree about the “self evaluation” exercise. Spring is a good time for that. I find myself making even more big changes and resolutions now than I do at around the new year. Must be the perfumed flowers making me do crazy things…

    Can’t wait to see you guys too! I miss you all!

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