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How to solve your noisy neighbour problem forever



Rob Burke writes a searingly honest and to the point guide to solving the problem of noisy neighbours…


So, your neighbours are making noise.

Whether it sounds like they love a good disco every evening (starting after eleven to catch the late crowd) or just some casual shouting, presumably to be heard over the noise of the disco. This is audible in your house – enough to register with you but not enough to be easily recordable.

What do you want to happen?

“I want them to stop making noise” – really? Think about this for a moment.

If you’re out of the country, do you care? If the walls are magically perfectly sound insulated, do you care? If a Harry Potter-style forcefield is placed around everyone’s head in your house so you can perfectly hear each other but not them, do you care? You don’t want them to stop making noise. You want to stop hearing their noise. There’s a subtle difference there, but it allows for a whole new world of solutions beyond them-just-not-making-noise.

A side note on what-people-really-want: It’s like the poor confused fella standing in the hardware store looking at all the options of drills, nails, hammers, etc. He doesn’t want any of those things. He wants a hole in his wall about the size of a pencil so he can finally hang that photo of his eldest daughter at her Debs. Strictly speaking, he doesn’t even want the hole in the wall… he wants the photo up. And going further, he probably doesn’t even want the photo up, he wants said daughter to know he cares about her and loves her enough to proudly display the photo. Once he’s identified that as the problem he’s trying to solve, he has a whole array of new solutions that might not require him being in a hardware store at all. (For the record, I recommend “Command” picture hanging strips for most picture-affixing-to-wall needs.)

What can I do?

Actions, dammit.

There are three things we want to do here:

1. Figure out how big of a problem is this

2. Figure out the things you can change

3. Figure out the things you need them to change

How big of a problem is this?

Our minds are funny things. We’re pretty bad at intuiting the actual amount of times things happen. We overestimate how frequently annoying things happen and we underestimate how frequently great things happen. (Keeping a gratitude journal is a great way to consciously correct this imbalance.) Before you even begin: what is an acceptable baseline here? We know that living in close proximity to people is a special sort of relationship. It’s what differentiates neighbours from strangers. In the best cases, neighbours become friends and can be relied on to hide Santa gifts with or keep a key to your house when you’re away. In the neutral case, they’re just people who live next door to you who you occasionally interact with.

In the worst case, it’s an adversarial relationship that can cause an incredible amount of stress and pain if not improved. So, what is an acceptable baseline? How many times a year is it reasonable for them to be noisy to the extent you can hear it? Is a New Year’s Eve party okay? What about a 50th? A 21st? A christening? During those events, is it reasonable that they might have music or talking loudly a little late into the night? It’s not perfect for you, obviously, but there’s a quid-pro-quo because you will hopefully have similar things: a family gathering at Christmas, celebrating a big milestone with pals, whatever. How many times a year would you be okay impacting them? How many times could you reasonably look them in the eye and say “sorry things were a little noisy last night”. (Better yet: “things will be a little noisy this Saturday night, feel free to pop in, but if not, here’s a Just-Eat voucher to hopefully make up for it”.) Let’s say six times.

Your number might be one, two, ten, or twenty. I’d caution against “zero – it is never acceptable”. That is a very rigid way to approach the world and, the more rigid you are, the more the world will grate against you. If that is truly so important to you, you need to find ways to insulate yourself from the world which are more effective than fully 25% of your house being directly connected to a house full of strangers. Okay. Six times. Now, how many times is this actually happening? We have to figure that out. Let’s assume their behaviour is roughly cyclical (most human behaviour is). In that case, getting 2–4 weeks of data should give you plenty to extrapolate across a year. Find some way to log when it happens. Plain old pen-and-paper, a note on your phone, whiteboard in kitchen, whatever.

You want to note three things: 1. When it happened (time/day) 2. What happened (“music playing between 10:30 and 00:30”, “series of loud shouts at 23:15”) 3. What impact did it have (“woke the baby”, “stopped me from sleeping when I had a 5am alarm set”, ”it just fucking annoyed me and that’s justification enough”) Don’t over-complicate it – it will discourage you from logging it. When, what, impact. When, what, impact.

Now, after a couple of weeks you will have a set of data that you can use to extrapolate how frequently it happens (“on track for 60 times a year”) and predict a trend (“always seems to be Thu, Fri, and Sat nights”). Once you have it laid out in front of you, you might realise that actually, it’s not as bad as you thought. Or, quite the opposite, it actually is happening more than you thought and your mind was suppressing it and now you’re Raging-with-a-capital-R. Regardless, you now have the data.

What is within your control?

Following on from the data, specifically the impact pieces, what can you control in response to them? Some of this might initially hit you as “why the fuck would I do that? they’re the ones making noise” – yes, true. Unfortunately, you’re the one with the problem. They seem fine with it. And the more problems we can solve for ourselves, the happier we will be. (This is perhaps more personality-driven than I am aware of but I do know it’s true for me.) If the impact is, say, waking you from your sleep. Is it possible to move your bed to another side of the room? If the impact is you can hear it and it annoys you during your TV show, movie, whatever… is it possible to close the door to the room you’re in? What about raising the volume of your sound source slightly? As before, is it possible to put any sort of sound dampening against the walls? If the impact is that it disrupts your silence (reading, sleeping, etc.) then what about a white noise machine? And if none of those things work or are practical, what could you do that would minimize the impact on you and your family? What about moving house?

Hold on again here now, I hear you say. Move the baby’s room? Ear plugs? Cute sound dampening blankets? Move fucking house?! Go and fuck yourself. They’re the ones making the noise, they should stop. Why do I have to turn my life upside down? Well, as we said, they’re not the one with the problem.

They’re just living their lives, perhaps more noisily than the average bear, but it’s clearly not bothering them too much — they’re still doing it, after all. And being realistic about steps you are willing to take (“hmm, we could wear earplugs”) and those you aren’t (“I’m not moving house, you weirdo”) will help you frame and rank the problem in your own mind. If you take ownership of the problem, and are frank about what you’re willing to do about it, then suddenly you shift from ‘victim of noisy neighbours’ to ‘confident, assertive person in control of managing my acoustic environment’. Probably not one you want for the CV but a useful life skill nonetheless.

What could you ask them to change?

This really is a last resort because once you’re relying on driving change in not just one person but a whole family of people, who will have limited incentives at best… Well, it’s an uphill battle. You have your data log from earlier. I wouldn’t go barging in stapling this to their foreheads (you’ll look like a lunatic) but I would distill it down to a couple of salient points: “the noise you’ve made has come through to our house X times after 10pm in the last two weeks”; “it’s been every Saturday for the last four weeks”.

Now, how to start? A couple of cute, yet wise, sayings first: (1) put yourself in their shoes; and (2) you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. If it’s children, teens or younger family members that are the issue as you see (or hear) it, there are a whole bunch of tiny fixes that could probably make a huge difference. The most important part is to build a relationship with the kid directly. If you go ‘telling tales’ via their parents, it just sets it up for badness. The parents aren’t going to really put the effort in because they don’t own the problem: they don’t play the music, and the noise doesn’t bother them… they’re not directly involved. The kids are going to resent you because the parents probably will come down hard on them for a day or two and then the kid isn’t empowered to improve the world themselves, they’re getting hit over the head by mom or dad for reasons they can’t quite fully understand. Bring them in cake. Or pasta. Or a Just Eat voucher. Or something.

Again: why the fuck do I need to bring them in a gift when they’re the ones annoying me? Back to the beginning: you are the one with the problem, not them, at least at this stage. You’re hoping to make it a shared problem that is easily solved but, at the beginning, don’t overlook food bribes as a way to help build the human connection. It probably helps to align with the parents first to get their buy-in but I strongly recommend that the majority of your effort goes into building the relationship with any kid or kids that are causing the most hassle. Even getting to the point where you had a WhatsApp group with them and were able to quickly fire in “music’s a bit loud” would be huge.

The fact this is happening to you at all so far means, unfortunately, it’s likely that they will always be slightly noisier neighbours than ones you’ve had in the past. I’ve left this approach to last and I can’t reiterate enough how managing your own expectations and controlling your own environment will likely lead to significantly more improvement in your overall happiness.

Okay, so, we’ve talked about being clear about what is and is not the actual problem. We’ve talked about being clear about what you want to happen, what you care about, and what you don’t. We’ve talked about collecting some data so you can sanity check how much of a problem this actually is and compare that to a reasonable baseline. Then we talked about changes you can potentially make in your environment: some quite easy and practical, others quite outlandish. Then we talked about things you could ask them to do which, again, should really be your last resort if you want to make effective progress here. People are inherently wrapped up in their own lives.

Above all, what I want you to take away is: focus on the things that are within your control and take positive action in those areas; work hard to accept and let go of the things you cannot change. I know that’s not really fair. Life isn’t really fair. That’s why you’re reading this on a thousand-euro supercomputer that fits in your pocket while your friends and family are safe and sound relatively nearby. Meanwhile, someone in Syria just had a piece of metal launched through their head from the sky and some mother in Equatorial Guinea had to decide which of her three children she could feed today.

I’m not saying this as a guilt trip. I could equally list the people who have far more than you (in every dimension) and how great their lives are in comparison. The point is to remind ourselves to put everything in perspective. All things are relative. If you can get yourself to a spot where this stuff doesn’t bother you, then you’ve solved the real problem. You’ve got your pencil-sized hole-in-the-wall to hang that Debs photo on.