What suburban residents notice about their neighbors

Reading through some of the coverage of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the child he had with his mistress, I found a common explanation of what suburban neighbors know about each other in one account:

As TV satellite trucks gridlocked the block and spilled over to an adjacent street, residents sat in their homes, stunned. Some worried about the effect the news would have on the polite 13-year-old boy who they say often walked a white poodle named Sugar through the neighborhood when he wasn’t swimming in his backyard pool or playing basketball…

Residents said the family was friendly and, like other homeowners on the block of fashionable houses with red-tiled roofs and two- and three-car garages, they kept up their house and its neatly trimmed lawn and palm trees.

While the boy was a fixture in the neighborhood, residents say, they rarely saw his mother until she retired 2 1/2 months ago. Until then, she told them, she had been working for Schwarzenegger’s family and had kept an apartment near Schwarzenegger’s Los Angeles home, 100 miles away.

I realize that this is simply one news report so perhaps the information is condensed in order to tell other important parts of the story but several things stuck out to me:

1. The boy was seen walking the dog, swimming, and playing basketball in the neighborhood. If a suburban resident doesn’t do these things outside of the home, they may not be noticed at all.

2. This family maintained their home to the same standards as everyone else. This is a key marker of suburban civility: do you help insure the property values of everyone else by keeping your yard neat and your home maintained? If not, I don’t think most suburban neighbors would have a favorable impression.

3. The mother was rarely seen. Again an emphasis on what neighbors saw rather than what they experienced in interaction with the family.

4. “The family was friendly.” What exactly does this mean? They didn’t yell at kids in the neighborhood to stay off their lawn? They frequently talked to neighbors? They had backyard barbeques with other families?

On the whole, since most of the descriptors are based on what people saw rather than what they experienced in interaction, I would guess these impressions from the neighbors are based more on appearances and perceived status than anything else. Based on what we are presented, it sounds like the family kept up suburban appearances: they walked the dog, kept their home and yard neat, and were friendly. This is more than enough to get a favorable review from suburban neighbors. If some of the information was changed, such as the family let their grass grow long or no one in the family ever walked a pet, I imagine we might hear some different thoughts along the lines of “the family kept to themselves.”

A cynical take on this would be that this is typical suburban living: it is all about appearances, most neighbors don’t really know each other, and suburban neighborhoods are superficial and lack true community. Some of this may be true though I doubt any of the neighbors are replicas of Gladys Kravitz. But how many suburban residents would or could share more specifics about their neighbors if approached by an outsider?

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