I grew up with the television show “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.” I was about 2 years old when the show started airing on PBS in 1968, and I was a devoted viewer soon after. In every show, he would enter the house, change into slippers and a sweater and invite us into his neighborhood.
A core lesson of the show was that we should all strive to be neighbors. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first nationally distributed episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” this advice rings true now more than ever, because it helps us to understand how we want to treat the other members of our society.
Sociologist Alan Fiske pointed out that there are three major types of relationships that characterize the kinds of relationships we engage in throughout our lives. An easy way to characterize these relationships is to think of them as family, neighbors and strangers.
Family members are the people we spend significant amounts of time with. We engage in rituals with them like holidays and birthdays. We keep them apprised of our daily activities. We accept family members for who they are.
And in most cases, we also don’t really keep score in transactions with family. Parents devote a lot of time and energy to their children without expecting an equal expenditure in return. A spouse might spend years taking care of an ailing partner, knowing that effort will never be repaid.
In contrast, most people in your life are strangers. You don’t know them well. You don’t engage in deep conversations with them. When you have a transaction with a stranger, you settle up right away. You can’t borrow a cup of sugar from the store; you pay immediately. If you get a flat tire on the highway and someone stops to help, you might thank him by offering a $20 bill.
In between are neighbors. You have conversations with your neighbors about how things are going. You celebrate some holidays. You see them regularly. You develop a trusted relationship.
When you engage in transactions with neighbors, you settle up in the long run. You can borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor, but you better bring over a slice of the banana bread you baked. You wouldn’t whip out a $20 bill to thank your neighbors for helping you fix a flat, but you might drive their kids to school or cut their grass the following week. And you are keeping score. A neighbor who consistently takes and never gives ultimately gets cut out from the neighborhood.
Of course, not all of your neighbors live close by. Some of them are our colleagues at work or friends you interact with on social media.
These days, business often sets our ideal for relationships. Experts tell us we should treat government, health care and education more like a business. But businesses are structures that are set up to create transactions among strangers. Exchanges between businesses and their customers assume that the two parties are strangers. Businesses set up contracts with each other to specify what must be done by each party so that they can settle up in the moment.
What we really need are more neighbors.
We need people with whom we have covenants, not contracts. Agreements to treat one another with respect. To trust that the actions we take now will meet with equal value over the long term. Of course, being a neighbor means actually following through on obligations in the long run. You can’t remain a neighbor unless you participate to the best of your ability.
And so, Mr. Rogers was right. A civil society is one that is based on the principles of the neighborhood. More of us need to get to know the people in our world. Celebrate the good times with them. Give what you can with the expectation that you will receive in kind in the long run. Treat the people around you with his invocation, “Please won’t you be my neighbor?”
Art Markman is a professor of psychology and marketing at The University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. His latest book is “Brain Briefs.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in the McAllen Monitor.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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