Kindness and Civility Within Community

[Philip Dowds is responding to an coho-l inquiry: while we often discuss the mechanics of creating and maintaining cohousing, what we don’t see as often are discussions about such things as kindness or civility within communities.]

Cornerstone Cohousing has been up and running about 15 years now, and our 32 households (approximately 50 adults, various kids) know each other pretty well. We tend to know who has a sense of humor, and who is easily angered; which kids seem to be having a problem with a parent; who won’t eat meat, and who can’t eat cheese; who is a good cook; who’s living on a tight budget, and who has some financial flexibility; who can be trusted to follow through; who is available to lift heavy objects — and so on. Moreover, the normal courtesies and kindnesses of coho life are well established: We offer help to those who incapacitated in some way, or temporarily inconvenienced. If a household needs a ride to the airport, an onion, or some emergency babysitting, a single e-mail usually solves the problem in five or ten minutes.

In short, our basic communication, understanding and kindness are in pretty good shape — at least when we’re acting as casually empathetic individuals dealing with ordinary episodes of residential life. But as a community …

As a community, we still have some problems when it comes to doing community business with each other. Like most cohos, we celebrate diversity — and, we have it. Retired households have needs and interests differing from families with young kids Values about investing (more) money in the community, or levels of maintenance, differ greatly — and not necessarily in proportion to how much money a household has. Some people prefer to operate within a context of well-defined procedures and groups; others prefer informality, spontaneity, and addressing special cases with common sense, not rules. These foundational value differences, poorly managed, can and do lead to hostility, or paralysis, or withdrawal from participation. In my opinion, Cornerstone could benefit from some improved cultural mechanisms to help us deal better with our differences.

So I would agree that a pathological fixation on “problems” and “difficult people” and “violent communication” is bad for coho life. But I am not yet on board with the notion that ordinary kindnesses and casual empathy will, by themselves, lead us out of the woods of controversy.

Philip Dowds
Cornerstone Village Cohousing
Cambridge, MA