The Charm Offensive (Or, How to Manage Your [Offline] Reputation)

There were drunken louts having a fist-fight outside my house Saturday night. In the middle of the street, wailing on each other, screaming epithets, were a two college boys and a crowd of about 10. It was 12:30, I had been snug in my bed, reading myself to sleep. Just as I was about to reach for my cell-phone to call the cops, the crowd on either side of the louts breaks in and hauls them apart. As the loudest yeller was hauled down the street, two of my house-mates knocked on my door, and we stood watching at the window as the crowd broke up. It was scary, and made us realize we needed to do something about the atmosphere on our street.

Like many college students living off campus for the first time, we have been slow to find out who lives on our street. After living in a dorm, it’s a luxury being able to ignore the people around you. But not knowing who your neighbors are gets scary at 12:30am, with a fight outside. So, after watching to make sure everyone went back inside their houses and our housemate who had been walking home alone got back, we all went to bed.

In the morning, I had a plan.

With a stack of post-cards and some careful wording, one of my housemates and I set out to introduce ourselves to the neighborhood. The text was fairly simple:

Greetings from the ladies of The Fair! We’re loving the neighborhood and would like to get to know you. If you ever need to talk to us, come on by or call [one of our names’s and cell-phone numbers]

These cards had 3 purposes:

  1. Let us introduce ourselves to our neighbors, setting ourselves apart from the loutish, drunk, and worrying college students across the way
  2. Let us meet the neighbors to whom we delivered the cards in person
  3. Give our neighbors a way to contact us if they ever had a problem–reducing our anonymity and giving them a connection to us.

A mix of neighborliness and Machiavellian scheming, these post-cards–or, The Charm Offensive–gave us a pretext to really look at our neighborhood. In delivering the cards, we met a diminutive collie, a large grass-hopper, and the a lot of tall grass on student’s lawns (and tightly cut on non-students’ lawns).

According to our neighbor across the way (one of the hosts of the previous night’s brawl) the fight had been between a tiny Archi and some large party-crashers. Our neighbor was one of a house of Architecture majors from CMU (Archis). Our neighbor explained, defensively, that a tiny Archi-lout had gotten drunk and decided to tackle total strangers on the street, who proceeded to freak out and wail on him.

I wasn’t really interested in the story behind the screaming and bad behavior outside my home, I just wanted to make sure our neighbor guaranteed it would never happen again. Instead of threatening to call the cops (which I hope was an implicit threat) we explained how the fight made us scared in our own home, and worried for our friend, walking home alone.

It was the right tact. As soon as we started using I-statements, she relaxed and started to look guilty, rather than defensive. I laid the guilt-trip on hard, and we left pretty sure she would think of us the next time she planned a party.

Living in a new house, as members of a new neighborhood, I have the opportunity to try and set (or in this case, re-set) the tone of my relationship with my neighbors. I’ll tell you how it goes.

Inspirational Quote:

Q: How can Carmelites give up freedom by vowing obedience to superiors?
A: This is a tricky question. We are used to thinking about freedom in terms of self-autonomy — being able to do whatever we want whenever we want. But this is not true freedom, but what some call caprice. This kind of freedom leads to alienation from others. But true freedom is rooted in love and that means it is interpersonal — fundamentally responsive to others. We are persons in community and to be truly free we must be truly in community with one another and with God.

A: Carmelites give up a particular kind of freedom but gain a new, deeper freedom in community. We are responsive to the needs of others and can act as one because we abide by the decisions of the community as expressed by its superiors. This is a collaborative freedom that recognizes the freedom of each as persons in community. (California Carmelites Website)

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