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Miss Conduct

Advice: We saw through our neighbor’s window that she may need help

Can we offer help without seeming creepy?

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Is there a non-creepy way to ask a neighbor about something you observed from your, er, rear window? We noticed a neighbor who seemed to be walking with difficulty. We’d love to offer to help with errands or see if there’s anything she needs, but the only reason we noticed is that we’re stuck at home and spend too much time looking out the windows. We’re not going to run into her out and about, and thus be able to ask how she’s doing while preserving the polite fiction that we don’t all live close enough to see into each other’s houses.

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B.G. / Somerville

I too live in the land of three-deckers, and dang is this relatable! Half the women on my block are yoga instructors and I’m just waiting for the anonymous critiques of my morning sun salutations to land in our mailbox.

It’s often a dilemma, what to do when tripping over unexpected intel: an overheard conversation, a misdirected e-mail, receipts carelessly scattered on a table. But not in your case, because you don’t actually have any information that you previously lacked. Before you saw this particular neighbor limping, you knew you had neighbors who probably need help, but you didn’t know who they were or what, exactly, you might do for them. This is still the case. Your neighbor may have a quarantine partner, or be well set for deliveries, or maybe she was only walking like that because her non-ergonomic home office chair was giving her a charley horse. (The sun salutations do help.) Meanwhile, there are surely people with worse hardships whom you’ve never seen.

So you are not obligated to take action, as you would if you’d witnessed a capital crime. But if you are of a mind to be helping neighbors, good for you! You can leave notes for people you know by sight but have never been introduced to: “Hi, we’re the so-and-so’s, we can help with occasional errands or chores. We’re [at whatever phone number, on Facebook, etc.].” When it comes to neighbors you do know, I’m going to edge out on a limb I never thought this Robin would be found on, and say that dropping in has become a bit more acceptable these days. Ring the bell, hang a bag of cookies on the doorknob (optional), run back to the property’s edge and holler your kindly intentions when people come to the door.

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It’s not about maintaining the fiction that we don’t all know exactly what takeout and Netflix the neighbor is binging, it’s about acknowledging the fact that other people know what they need better than you do.


Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.