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The Buckblog

assorted ramblings by Jamis Buck

Being a Good Neighbor...

5 March 2016 — Some reflections on what it means to be a "good neighbor" — 6-minute read

Disclaimer: this post is a departure from my usual fare. No computers, no code, no programming. It’s intended primarily to help me process a rather painful, frustrating, and complicated episode in my life, and may or may not have any particular relevance to you.

Years ago, when I lived in Provo, Utah, I had a neighbor that ran his own landscaping business. He was friendly, and we’d wave to each other periodically and swap howdies now and then. I was a new homeowner, uncertain and self-conscious, or maybe we would have been better friends. But when a section of my lawn suddenly became extremely swampy, it was he who came and helped this new homeowner dig up the lawn to discover a broken sprinkler pipe. It was he who showed me how to turn off the water and pointed me at resources for repairing the break.

Later, in Idaho, my wife and I had a neighbor two houses down that we became good friends with. Her kids played with our kids, and we’d swap desserts almost weekly. She was friendly, kind, and generous, but her value as a neighbor was demonstrated one summer after my family and I had packed up and left on vacation. We were on the road, hours from home, when she called us, and told us that our garage door was open, and did we mean for it to be? We were horrified! No, we didn’t mean for it to be. We told her where our spare key was hidden and she generously closed everything up for us.

When moving into our new home last summer, there were several from our new neighborhood who helped us settle in. One neighbor in particular sacrificed his time to help us install our washer and dryer, and to help maneuver both our refrigerator and freezer downstairs and into the utility room. This involved some significant dismantling to make everything fit, and it could not have happened without him. He didn’t know us at all, only knowing that we needed help, and he offered that willingly.

I’m sure we’ve all known people like this–people who act without thought of reward, who recognize when help is needed and offer it generously and repeatedly. This is what I think of when I think of “good neighbor.”

So maybe this has skewed my expectations when it comes to interacting with a company that has as its slogan “Like a Good Neighbor”. Not that I expect any company to consistently act counter to its own best interests, but surely being a good neighbor ought to include the occassional altruism, and a bit of compassion? A bit of understanding, mercy, and humanity?

On February 15th, my father was in a car accident. It was his fault–he rear-ended another driver in traffic–and though he totalled his own car, he was (miraculously!) uninjured.

The thing to understand, leading up to this, is that my father was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s early stages, and definitely not severe yet. He’s still very functional, and his doctors have not restricted his driving or other activities, but given his recent difficulties with memory he’s been living with my family for a few months, and I’ve been working hard to get a handle on his finances and other obligations. Simultaneously, my wife has returned to school for a second bachelor’s, and is a full-time student…and we homeschool our kids.

To say it’s been overwhelming would be colossal understatement.

So I was completely blindsided when my dad’s insurance–State Farm–told us that he was uninsured at the time of the accident. His policy had lapsed two days prior to the accident.


Two days!

I couldn’t believe it. I had called just a few weeks earlier to get his insurance policy all paid up, and had been told an amount to pay. I’d paid it. I understood everything to be level.

So what had happened? How could his policy have lapsed?

Here’s where things get pretty complicated. I won’t go into it all. It was a perfect storm of miscommunication, bad timing, and unfortunate circumstance. I thought the bill had been paid, notifications were sent but not received (because they went to my dad’s old address) and when all was said and done, the policy lapsed due to non-payment.

But not out of negligence. Not out of any desire to avoid payment, or lack of ability to pay. The situation was extraordinary. I had an expectation that State Farm would volunteer more information than they did when I was on the phone with them, and when they didn’t, I assumed all was well.

My fault: I assumed. My fault: I didn’t update my dad’s mailing address. My fault: I wasn’t checking my dad’s email regularly enough.

My fault. But… two days?! Surely this could be worked through? Surely a company that touts itself as a “good neighbor” would show some understanding in a situation like this?

Now, some might argue that it’s not really possible to run a business compassionately. It’s too easy to be taken advantage of, right? But I worked for 37signals/Basecamp for almost ten years, and I can tell you first-hand that David and Jason are two of the most compassionate businessmen I know. They are kind, merciful, and eager to give meaningful help to their customers. Their example shows me that it is possible to run a successful, profitable business built on principles of kindness.

So, the question isn’t so much whether it is possible to have a compassionate business, but whether a customer deserves compassion, right? How do you determine that?

Well, frankly, no one deserves compassion. Mercy is not something you earn. The word “deserve” itself comes from Latin meaning “to be entitled to something because of good service”, and that just doesn’t apply here. Compassion is something that devolves entirely on the giver. Either someone is compassionate and merciful in some situation, or they aren’t. They choose their response to the situation.

So I don’t believe that my father and I (or anyone else) deserved compassion and mercy. But the situation was one in which I believe State Farm had the opportunity to live up to their slogan, and they didn’t.

And now my father–who paid them loyally for years, and never once filed a claim with them–is left in the cold, facing potentially significant legal and financial repurcussions.

Some good neighbor.

This whole experience has been one to make me reflect on my own interactions with people, and with my own neighbors. What kind of neighbor am I? What kind of neighbor do I want to be? Am I sensitive to their needs? Am I finding opportunities to be compassionate in ways that make them feel valued and appreciated?

Or am I looking for opportunities to withhold help, because they didn’t do something for me?

I want to be like those neighbors I’ve had over the years, who have sacrificed their time for me, because they sincerely cared about me. I want to be someone that people can claim as a friend, because they’ve seen concrete evidence of that friendship.

And I want to be that kind of neighbor in all aspects of my life: professionally, as well as personally.

Is State Farm obligated to be a good neighbor? You could argue that, as a business (and especially an insurance business), they are only obligated to minimize money paid on claims, and I’d mostly agree with you. However, they’ve chosen to take as their motto the whole “good neighbor” thing. If a company tells you that they’re going to act like a “good neighbor,” what are you supposed to think?

I don’t expect State Farm to change their business practices, but “like a good neighbor” doesn’t describe my experience with them, at all. At the very least, perhaps they should reconsider their slogan.