Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Reciprocity of the Rugged Individual

While walking to the bus stop this morning, I noticed the rows of garbage cans and recycling bins out by the garage area. A hand-written sign taped on someone's personal recycling bin read: "Please do not put any more trash in our recycling bin. The only plastics that are currently picked up by curbside recycling are #1 and #2."

I laughed at the message, and then felt sad. Here's the story I had come up with. An unlucky condo owner keeps finding non-recyclables in her bin, which she is tired of re-sorting to the garbage can. She suspects one of her neighbors, who share the garage row with her. She wants the misfit bottles to stop, but she is uncomfortable with seeking out and directly confronting the woefully misinformed culprit. She comes up with the brilliant solution of posting this polite, informative notice.

Why did I find this funny? Well, if my blog is any evidence, I find most things in life funny. Also, most acts of passive-aggressive problem solving are pretty funny, at least when viewed from the outside. The educational line at the end is especially endearing - let's not just treat the symptom, let's cure the disease.

But it is also sad. In an American Lit class years ago, we talked about Rugged Individualism - the iconic American standard of self-reliance, personal freedom, and survival in the free market. But taken too far, the rugged individual is just lonely.

I suspect that when recycling bin lady runs out of eggs, she does not pop next door and ask to borrow one. Instead, she makes the 3 mile drive to Kroger's to buy another dozen. When she goes on vacation, she does not ask her neighbor to collect her mail, but instead has the post office stop delivering. She can survive on her own. She does not want to indebt herself to the charity of others. She does not want to burden.

But how long can you think that way before you impose those same views on others? Oh, we don't need to help the neighbors bring that new furniture in - they probably just want to do it on their own. We could have them over for dinner, but it might be an imposition - they probably have plans, other friends to entertain.

When we decide we don't need someone else, we also decide that they don't need us. And so we live apart together. And replace relationships with silent signs on our recycling bins.


Sarah said...

Here's what I think. (I mean, isn't that why you post? To get my feedback?) I think there was never any "garbage" in her recycling bin. I think she noticed that other people were improperly recycling plastic and wanted a passive-aggressive way to set them straight. Also, I have the post office hold my mail. I like to lighten the load of the mailman's bag if just for a few days. That's my way of telling him that I need him as much as he needs me.

Sarah said...

p.s. Stop putting trash in my recycling bin!

Sherry said...

I don't know. I think that notes in common areas are a good way to address problems without putting on blame on one particular person, especially if you are not sure who the culprit is. We recently had problems with loud neighbors, so we put up a sign in the laundry area just reminding them to keep some of their noises down. We did it in a note so that it would address all eight flats in the building rather than just the two that were particularly bothersome to us.

Then, when things got even worse, we wrote a personal note and put it in the mailbox of the loud person. I thought of MUCH more passive-aggressive things to do. Like stomping on the floor (she is below us) at 6 a.m. or playing really loud yodeling music at odd hours of the day. But, I thought those things would not be as effective as a simple note asking her to keep it down.

Megan said...

I think that the best notes I would see were in BYU apartments. They would say things like "Your mother does not live here. Clean up your dishes!" I always thought this was weird because there is normally a maximum of 6 people in an apartment. You live with them! Just talk to them about it and then live with it. A sign is totally awkward in that situation. I would get an awkward feeling just going in kitchens with those signs.

Dawn said...

This is how neighbors who don't know each other communicate. And it seems more and more than neighbors don't know each other. Especially in condos or apartments. Maybe the random acts of kindness would help that neighbor with the furniture, or groceries, or say HI every time you meet someone...and really listen to their response. You'd be amazed at how nice most people are, and how lonely!

Erin said...

Admittedly, I also have the post office hold my mail. Unless I forget, in which case I usually just let it pile up in my mailbox until I return.

Also, Sarah, I think you may be justified in sending an "I don't need you and you don't need me" message to your creepy white van neighbor.

I suppose sometimes a public note can be effective. Although, one day, in our old apartment, I found a note on our door from the upstairs neighbor telling us that our party had been too loud the night before when he was trying to study. I was very uncomfortable after getting the note. I felt bad about being too loud, and wanted to make amends. So I went all day, feeling guilty about this, until I could finally get home and go apologize to our neighbor in person. I thought making that contact improved our relationship a little bit.

But I would have much preferred if he would have contacted us directly - especially the night before - to tell us we were being too loud, so we would be able to fix the problem. I realize it's more uncomfortable to initiate a direct, face-to-face conversation, but I think it's almost always more successful. It's much easier to stay angry and resentful at a piece of paper than an actual human who you have shared a conversation with.

Side note. This principle of face-to-face communication vs impersonal communication works with almost anything. I've sent off a ton of job resumes, but the only real bites I get are when I actually make a personal visit to the organization, no matter how uncomfortable that feels.

Rachel said...

Dan and I have been having this same conversion regarding our upstairs neighbor and her love for Dance Dance Revolution parties. Since it seems like such an obvious thing to have to tell someone, I worry I won't be able to put it politely ("Hi, um, our apartment is sort of shaking...).

Erin, you should submit the note to (a site I think you will enjoy).

M&M said...

Oh Erin, I love the way you think and your ability to put it into words... I think you are onto something... having been in the condo life for 5 years now... I hardly know my neighbors... we did break some barriers and had the couple (who we can hear yelling through the walls and who have scared me because of thier suspicous activity in the middle of the night) to dinner with the missionaries. Quite a break through, but really I don't ask for an egg, unless it is someone from my ward I know in my complex, I just don't have that bond with them. I have to admit, after reaching out some I don't seem to notice somethings any more. I would love to use this concept in a short story for fun... if that isn't plagerising or anything ; )

Brittany said...

Maybe she didn't know which neighbor was doing it and didn't want to go around door to door finding the culprit only to be yelled at. I would have done the same thing, to save time and avoid confrontation. You don't want a neighbor to hate you or even be the tiniest upset with you and there is always that chance.

People today don't take criticism well and will often get defensive and even aggresive. I have asked for help from my favorite neighbor and she is gracious but I usually feel guilty. Some people are just more comfotable being an island and being self sufficient (but not in an egotistical way).

After my quick 18 months in apartment living as a married woman, most occasions I would have liked to have a neighbor stop by for help, or let me know of a complaint. Since I didn't live there that long, I just decided not to care. I may have taken it more seriously if we were going to live there longer. I think it all starts with the initial move in, all it takes is an itroduction and then there is already a foundation of communication but that ususally doesn't happen.

Mamacita said...

I don't know where you got that philosophical gene, but it wasn't from me. I can provide more supporting evidence for face to face rather than impersonal communication though. Being a "remote" worker, I've never seen most of the people with whom I work. I can send pretty terse and to the point emails... "I need this now and it needs to be correct." Whereas, the people I have met in person - even briefly - I'm more likely to send more polite and friendly email requests. "Hey, how's it going? Do you have time to do this..." And they always respond quickly and with greater care.