Maybe you hear seemingly constant fighting and crying through the walls. Or someone is hollering upstairs for a concerningly long time. Or the guy across the hall has suddenly gone radio silent and his mailbox is overflowing. Now, the big question: Are you overthinking or does your neighbor really need help?
Whether you’re close to your neighbors, haven’t made it past the head-nod-in-the-elevator stage, or didn’t even know someone even lived in that apartment, it’s your duty to be proactive for their safety, even if it’s awkward. While it might turn out that they’re not in danger, the alternative—that they are in serious harm—is always something you should feel compelled to try to prevent.
If you’re afraid that reaching out would compromise your own safety, call the police and let them handle it. “That’s the only way you’re going to solve problems,” says Chief John W. Thompson, deputy executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association. “Unfortunately, in our society too many people turn their heads.”
While this is not an exhaustive list of all the situations that require watching out for your neighbor’s safety, it’s a good place to start. Here, three warning signs that mean you should reach out—stat—according to Thompson and other experts:
1. Their mail or newspapers are piling up.
Is there an Amazon box addressed to them that’s been sitting on the stoop for a couple of days? New York Times subscription piling up at the end of their driveway? Know for a fact they’re not on vacation? That’s a sign you should call (if you have their number) or knock on their door (if you don’t), says Diane Gottsman, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. “If they don’t answer, try to find a family member you can contact, or if you’re in an apartment complex, don’t hesitate to call the office,” she says. “Don’t worry about appearing invasive. The alternative to that would be, ‘Gosh, I should have, but didn’t.'”
In lieu of an office contact, report the situation to law enforcement immediately and ask for a wellness check—especially if they’re elderly—out of concern for their safety. “Why wait?” Thompson says.
What to say when the neighbor answers the door: “Hi, [Neighbor’s name], just wanted to say hi and see how you’re doing. I saw that box in the hallway and just wanted to make sure everything’s all right.”
2. You haven’t seen them in a few days.
Say hello to your neighbor every day before you leave for work but haven’t seen him or her since last Thursday (and, again, know they’re not on vacation)? Might be time to pop over and say hello—just make sure you bring someone else. For your own safety, never go alone, says Elaine Swann, founder of The Swann School of Protocol and author of Let Crazy Be Crazy. If you’re not able to get an answer, again, reach out to their family, your building management, or your local authorities for a wellness check.
What to say when the neighbor answers the door: “Hi, [neighbor’s name]. Missed seeing you around these past couple of days and just wanted to see that you’re okay!”
3. You hear lots of fighting or yelling.
Yes, some people are loud and passionate—and some couples argue (and do other things) loudly and passionately. However, if these noises make you question your neighbor’s safety, you need to reach out.
If you suspect your neighbor is in a violent relationship, make sure you’re reaching out in a way that’s safe for them and for you, says Kiersten Stewart, director of public policy and advocacy at Futures Without Violence, a non-profit organization dedicated to stopping domestic violence. If you know your neighbor, Stewart recommends finding a quiet time when you can talk one-on-one, either in your own home or another safely private spot like a hallway or mailroom—and make sure a friend or family member is around. Let your neighbor know that you’re there if they need anything—you don’t have to directly address the incident.
If you haven’t established a relationship with them, find an opportunity to introduce yourself. Unfortunately, domestic violence victims are often isolated from their friends or family who might help, Stewart says, so a neighbor is sometimes the only nearby person who can be clued into the situation. She also mentions that it’s important to be prepared that they may seem a little put off at first that you’re reaching out. “But you’ve done a really important thing, which is to let them know that you’re there to help if they need anything,” she says. “And that may be the most you do.”
However, if you don’t feel safe reaching out directly to your neighbor or do hear sounds that sound like someone’s being hurt or threatened, call 911 immediately—especially if you know there are weapons in the home.
If you want to report an ongoing situation, call the detective bureau to make a report, most of which will keep your identity confidential. “Even if they don’t find something the first time they investigate, it will be on the record that they’ve been there,” Thompson says.
What to say when the person answers the door: “Hi, [neighbor’s name]. Just wanted to let you know I’m down the hall if you need anything at all.”
If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit thehotline.com, where there is a chat-line manned 24/7.