Last update on March 11, 2019

Former expat shares her words of wisdom about what it means to have a culture clash in the world of neighbours when living abroad.

Every picture tells a story. I don’t know what the story behind this picture is, but I have a feeling it’s not a happy one.

My mediocre photography skills don’t capture the head-shaking pettiness on display here. This is a hedge dividing two houses. If you look closely, you’ll see that the homeowners on the right side of the photo have neatly pruned the half that sits on their property, but they’ve pointedly left the rest to sprout forth in all its untamed glory. The dividing line splits the hedge in two so precisely, I suspect a ruler was used.

This is a perfect example of what my mother calls ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’. It could be a case of simple laziness, or it could be a full-blown feud rivalling that of the Hatfields and McCoys. Either way, it’s not particularly neighbourly.

The importance of neighbour relations to expats

As expats, our neighbours take on an importance that perhaps didn’t exist in our lives back home. Especially in the beginning, being far from family means that we’re often forced, à la Blanche DuBois, to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Our neighbours might be the very first people we meet when we arrive, and good ones will make us feel welcome: explaining how things work, recommending doctors and dry cleaners, and generally sharing those snippets of inside information that make settling in a little easier. We turn to them in times of need, and are happy to help when they do the same.

My experiences with neighbours overseas have run the gamut. My first home in Singapore was a townhouse condo close to Orchard Road. Living there was the only time in my adult life that I’ve felt truly part of a neighbourhood community.

It was the kind of place where the kids knocked on each other’s doors to come outside and play while the moms sat on the front steps and chatted. We had impromptu parties by the pool, babysat for each other, went shopping together, and shared countless evenings in each other’s company.

In contrast, both times I lived in France my neighbours were all but invisible. In Bordeaux I once knocked on a neighbour’s door to pick up a package that had been left there while I was out. The woman who answered was polite but efficient; she completed the transaction with a minimum of small talk, said her goodbyes, and gently shut the door. I stood outside on the step, package in hand, utterly deflated.

Two neighbourhoods. Two dramatically different vibes. One important element I’ve left out of the story is that the first neighbourhood was made up entirely of expats from Australia, Japan, Mexico, the US and the UK. The second one was French.

The role of culture in neighbourliness

The fact is, cultures define the concept of neighbourliness in different ways. Life in the expatriate enclave was relentlessly social, and this was due in part to the inclusive nature of the expat community in general.

But I think the bigger reason was the cultural makeup of the people involved. For the most part, my neighbours hailed from cultures where informality and openness are the norm. They had fairly fluid personal boundaries and placed a high value on overt friendliness.

The French, however, are more reserved with strangers and casual acquaintances. They’re not impolite — their rules of etiquette are codified and deeply engrained in the French psyche — but to those of us with less formal leanings, they can come across as being cold and, at times, rude. That, to me, is the real ‘French Paradox’.

I felt quite helpless before the wall of politesse I encountered in France, and had no clue how to get around it. The idea of popping in to say hello was unthinkable — this was Bordeaux, after all: allegedly one of the least friendly places in all of France.

(This was according to the Bordelais shopkeeper — obviously an outlier — who expounded at great length on the subject while carefully placing my canelés in a tidy white box and tying the bow with a flourish.)

I had hoped the legitimate excuse afforded me by La Poste would be enough to break the ice. Not so.

Being a good neighbour

The role good neighbours have played in my expat life makes me even more aware of what kind of neighbour I am now that I’m back home. I still don’t know many of the people who live on my street, but I do have a warm relationship with Bill and Mary, the elderly couple next door. Mary brings me treats from her garden every summer, and I’m happy to drive them to doctor’s appointments or pick up the special sausages they like when Chef Boyardee goes to the Polish market.

Sometimes Mary and I chat across the small hedge that runs between our houses. Standing about two feet tall, it’s more decorative than divisive, and Bill prunes it regularly — all of it. I’d say that’s mighty neighbourly. Don’t you agree?