Busybody neighbors

When we travel, we leave Baxter the Wonder Dog with a retired couple who live in another suburb and have their own dog. It is no doubt a source of some small income to them though given that they live in an upper-middle class area, I doubt that they really need the money. They will take up to one or two extra dogs at a time but most of the time Baxter has been their only guest. We like keeping Baxter in a home rather than a more impersonal kennel because he has the run of the house, gets walks and treats, and can play with their own dog.

But when we returned from Sri Lanka the dog sitter told us that a neighbor had reported him to the city for running an unlicensed business and that the city’s dog warden had come by to investigate. So I am not sure if we can keep him there again in the future.

I suspect that almost every neighborhood has its busybodies who stick their noses into other people’s affairs. Our neighborhood too has people who are quick to report to the city the most minor violations such as the grass being a little too long. No doubt our friendly dog sitter was violating some city ordinance against running a business in his home but such rules have the intent of avoiding major interference with the life of other residents. Having a extra dog or two for a few days hardly seems to matter unless the dogs are being a nuisance to others, and there is no evidence that they were.

In that vein, I was struck by this story about four women in a retirement community, aged between 87 and 95, who would regularly meet and play games like mahjong at a table near the swimming pool and would wager small amounts of money. But someone ratted on them to the authorities that there was illegal gambling going on and investigators arrived to check them out. Although no one was charged, that visit was sufficient to have the condo board shut down all such games.

No doubt the people who alert the authorities in this way pride themselves that they are good citizens who are just making sure that everyone follows the letter of the law. But one also wonders if they do not get some sort of perverse enjoyment simply from shutting down other people’s harmless activities. Some people just hate to see other people having fun.


  1. Chiroptera says

    From the article:

    Police showed the condominium board Florida’s gambling statute, which permits wagering up to $10 on cards and other games of chance but forbids advertising those games.

    Investigators did not charge or arrest anyone in connection with the small-stakes games and apologized for the intrusion, but the condo board was spooked by the visit and closed the clubhouse to any games that can be gambled on.

    Sounds like the games, sans advertising, were within the law, so it’s the condo board that is over reacting.

    I think that my state’s laws don’t make an exception for “home games” in its antigambling laws, so I keep reminding my colleagues that our occasional poker games are against the law. We use euphemisms when we use email to arrange the next time and place. Not that it would fool anyone, but still.

  2. Querent says

    @Nate Carr
    I work with someone who, a few years back, rang on Christmas Day to report a neighbour’s expired car tax disc. And still brags about it. Contempt isn’t nearly a strong enough word.

  3. says

    Meanwhile, a person can get named a “busybody” for reporting on something that actually is illegal (e.g. drug dealing, excessively loud parties) or against established rules.

    Waffle House waitress shot, killed after asking customer not to smoke

    BILOXI, Miss. — A popular waitress at a Waffle House restaurant in Mississippi was fatally shot by a customer after she asked him not to smoke.

    Police say the suspect shot the 52-year old woman once in the head. The 45-year old man pulled out a handgun at about 1 a.m. Friday after being asked to extinguish the cigarette or go outside because of a no-smoking policy inside.

    As you might expect, the victim blaming has already started in that story, i.e. “You should be careful how you approach people”.

  4. snoeman says

    @5 kyoseki The minor irony there being that by doing that, they’re actually violating the law in many states (maybe even most or all), where you are required to keep right except to pass.

  5. lorn says

    I suspect that everybody knows at least one like that. What annoys me most is not the reporting of situations which are not even theoretically harming anyone, no, it is the self-righteous glee at ‘defending the system’ , and ‘society’, and glorying in the needless troubling of others.

    As part of my job I deal with a lot of inspectors, regulators, and enforcers, and others whose jobs force them to answer to such unsolicited reports. Most are, by law and for reasons of liability, required to duly investigate every report. They have to record and investigate every crank call from busybodies abusing the system. They are required to treat every call, even the most obviously lame, seriously. They know that the one time they blow off a call and someone gets hurt it will cost the locality millions.

    That said, don’t despair, once recorded and investigated the officials usually have a whole lot of discretion in how they handle it. A local man builds furniture in his garage and sells a few pieces a year. His neighbor calls code enforcement claiming he is running both a factory and business in a residential area. The inspector comes out, looks around, talks to the homeowner making the furniture and files it as a false report. When the HO asked if he is being ticketed, fined, or shut down the inspector tells him that everything is fine, presents him with a form saying as much, and that he can keep doing what he is doing. A few months later the lady next door will call it in again and the inspector will come out and investigate.

    The investigator has done this so many times he sometimes takes the homeowner up on his offer of coffee. A few months ago he rolled up and noted a particularly fine cabinet. After the investigation he bought it. Said it would look good in his living room.

    The point here is that, almost without exception, the inspectors and investigators showed that they were reasonable people just doing a job and that people who are trying to stay within the rules will generally be given the benefit of the doubt. If called, they have to go look. It is a major liability risk if they don’t. But just because they look doesn’t mean anyone is in trouble.

  6. says

    lorn (#8) --

    That said, don’t despair, once recorded and investigated the officials usually have a whole lot of discretion in how they handle it.

    Or mishandle it, as the case may be. Unfortunately, as we’ve often seen, discretion allows for disinterest and discrimination. Whether a person gets investigated or fined and punished often depends on whether the investigator likes or gets along with the person being investigated (re: religion, politics, racism or simple personal dislike). Contempt of cop is a prime example.

  7. Mano Singham says


    I suspect you are right. But it is still disconcerting for people to be investigated by officialdom and to think that their own neighbors are the ones behind it.

  8. lorn says

    left0ver1under @9:

    Discretion is always a double-edged sword. Ultimately somebody has to have it. If not the inspector, then their boss, a judge, or a appeals court judge, or …

    The good news is that, in my experience, investigators are too busy to bother to pick on people or hold a grudge for long. Being an inspector is a good job. Most of them are smart enough not to risk their position, and have prior decisions called into question, by setting themselves up for accusation of bias. They are human, and bias can creep in, nobody is perfect, but obvious bigots don’t last very long.

    Every decision is subject to review and appeal and, to their credit, the county inspections department in this area is pretty well diversified. Generally the consensus on the construction side is that they are tough but fair.

    Most complaints come from people who don’t know the rules, and/or are trying to take shortcuts. Most inspections departments, I have done business with five or six, are happy to field inquires about what the rules are and what the inspectors like to see.

  9. starskeptic says

    kyoseki @5 “These are the same fuckers that sit in the left lane doing EXACTLY the speed limit.”
    Chicago columnist Bob Greene once wrote about the traffic cops, including the cop who ticketed one such fucker for “obstructing traffic” ; the driver was instructed that it wasn’t his job to enforce the speed limit.

  10. Dunc says

    These are exactly the sort of people the Stasi recruited for their famously comprehensive network of informants.

  11. lanir says

    I suspect this sort of thing is just a sort of vicarious, seemingly risk-free authoritarianism. The person doing the reporting rarely has to do much or justify what they did after the fact. They just get to appropriate the organization they’re siccing on their neighbors and feel like they have the power of someone in that organization without any of the pesky rules keeping those people from being petty tyrants.

  12. Lesbian Catnip says

    I also work in a bylaw system. The unfortunate truth is that the more petty a bylaw seems, the more damage someone caused with some fantastically stupid choice. Those bylaws in my city are thankfully a minority--most are easy to explain. But every so often I come across a silly fine and shake my head, because the person in front of me has to deal with said fine because someone somewhere did something stupid and it cost the city thousands.

  13. bargearse says

    This reminds me so much of the one neighborhood watch meeting I attended. I’d just moved to the area and thought it would be a good way to meet the locals. After half an hour of complaints like bins being left out an extra day and lawnmowers being started too early I decided I didn’t really need know them that much.

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