I am currently housesitting for my parents. They have a long and complex relationship with their next-door neighbors, with whom they used to be friends but aren't anymore -- the sort of "Your stuff is on my lawn/your garbage is in my can" push-pull that can happen when people live in close proximity.
Before leaving town a few days ago, my parents (who, though I am biased, are gentle, thoughtful people, aging hippies who are interested in the world and seek peace and interesting conversation) left their neighbors a note saying, in essence, "Please don't do any more landscaping of the bushes in our yard. Thanks so much. We'll be back in a week." I've seen the note, which was the essence of nice urbanity.
Later that day, I showed up at my parents' house to take care of things. As I sat at the kitchen table, typing on my computer, I heard the neighbors, from inside their house, bad-mouthing my folks in pretty crappy terms, talking about the "passive-aggressive" note they'd left, and their awful behavior generally, etc. It wasn't pleasant, but of course that's their right -- I just closed my ears and kept typing away on my laptop.
Then, however, they moved into their yard, about 5 feet from me, and kept on discussing how dreadful they think my folks are. Casually I got up and walked by the window. I just wanted to let them know that someone was home -- I assumed they were under the impression that the house was empty. The wife took the hint and headed into her house. The husband, however, stayed in the yard, shouting to her about my parents as she went inside.
So I leaned forward and said, "Sorry, but I can hear everything you're saying."
At once he laid into me. It was a startling and terrifying rant -- he was bellowing, shaking his finger at me, screaming about the terrible week he'd had, my asshole father, and how dare I tell him to keep his voice down in his own yard? It was clear that he felt perfectly justified, in my parents' absence, in telling me all the abusive and vicious things he would have liked to tell them -- any damn thing that was on his mind. My experience with bullies told me to just stay calm and say a few things gently, like, "I didn't say that," and "I don't know anything about that," and "Why are you screaming at me?" Eventually I turned on my heel and walked away, as he continued to shout after me.
This is not the first time, of course, that someone has raised his voice to me. But I can't seem to get over it. Whenever I see him through the window or hear his voice (the houses are very close), my heart starts pounding. It was such an insane and rage-filled tirade, and it really had nothing to do with me at all; I was just there. Since then, neither he nor his wife has apologized, though they have known me since I was a child -- back when the families were friends. I have a while of housesitting (and dog-sitting) left, and I am afraid of seeing this man, afraid of stepping outside and encountering him.
Is there anything I can do to comprehend this scary behavior? And failing that, how do I get over it? Even after I'm done housesitting, I will still visit my parents a lot. I don't like the thought of flinching whenever I see him for the rest of my life.
Dear Unnerved Neighbor,
As you know, one of our chief functions as animals is to avoid being ripped apart by other animals. We're geared to avoid violent death. So at the first sign of possible violence we have all these responses. We freeze and our hearts start pounding and hormones get released and all that. Then some time later, if we encounter similar situations we have similar reactions. Like if we're attacked by a bear we remember what shirt the bear was wearing, and whether the bear smelled of any commercially available cologne, and if we're out with friends and smell that cologne again we may suddenly want to hang our food from a tree limb.
So it's understandable that you're freaked out. But you did the safe thing.
Even assuming you had wanted to engage, what could you have said to this guy? "Sir, you're being unreasonable!"? Either he knows he's being unreasonable and doesn't care, or he doesn't know he's being unreasonable and hence can't be reasoned with anyway.
I mean, imagine proposing a contrary view. At which point he says, "Are you calling me a liar?"
No, you're not saying he's a liar, just that his facts are mistaken.
"So you think I'm stupid, huh? You're saying I'm a moron?"
"No," you tell him, thinking of the difficulties posed by our postmodern media landscape, "even the smartest people can get their facts wrong."
Right. And then blandly suggest that he consult the text "Argumentation and Debate," by Freeley and Steinberg.
Really, there wasn't much you could have done short of throwing him to the ground and stuffing a towel in his mouth.
But how do you deal with him afterward?
First, I would really try to find out if this guy has a history of violence. Call the cops and ask them. Ask around. Search your own memory. Is this out of character? Has he been building toward a blowup? Does he keep weapons? Are other neighbors afraid of him? I would want to know. And if he does have a history of violence, I would watch him like a hawk but stay clear of him.
On the other hand, if you can assure yourself that he is not physically violent, then you might be able to overcome your own symptoms by acting in a way that sounds crazy, but is actually helpful to regaining your own equilibrium: Be totally friendly and cheerful toward him. What you're doing then is you're reprogramming your body not to have its reactions. You walk up to him confidently, smile, shake his hand, act all friendly. Talk about the weather and such.
Right. Maybe that sounds crazy. Use your own judgment. If it would be too weird then don't do it. Just steer clear. And of course if you find out that he has been violent before, definitely don't go near him. It will be unpleasant to have these twinges of fear when you see him, but that fear is working in your favor. It's telling you exactly what to do: stay away.
I've been yelled at too. It sucks.
I once lived in a seventh-floor studio apartment in the Steinhart Building on Sutter between Leavenworth and Hyde in downtown San Francisco. I liked to play the record "London Calling" by the Clash over and over late at night and I used power tools on Saturday mornings. Stuff like that. One day my downstairs neighbor got fed up and appeared in my door and started yelling at me. He kept yelling while I looked at him and nodded and sank lower and lower in my own self-estimation. As he was making it clear what would happen if I did not change my living habits it occurred to me that I ought to be doing something in response but I felt the safest thing to do was just to let him go on until he was done. There were threats and insults mixed in and one feels compelled to clarify or at least correct the record when threats and insults are made but I was too frightened and besides I knew I was in the wrong. Even though it wasn't right for him to yell at me like that, I knew I was pretty much a punk kid with no regard for anybody else and had been making his life a living hell for months.
So at least my yeller dude had cause. Yours is different. Your yeller dude has no cause.
Still, you don't want to take it to the next level. It isn't worth it.
Because how awful would it be if he turned out to be a real psychopath?
That would suck.
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