Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. The ghost next door: My husband and I recently purchased an older house in a close-knit neighborhood. Shortly thereafter, we received a letter from the elderly original owner (not the sellers, whom the neighbors all bad-mouth) asking us to call her. She was friendly but also verbose, keeping us on the phone for an hour reminiscing. She asked to come over and “see what [the sellers] did to the place.” We told her we were in the middle of renovations and that we would invite her to our housewarming.
Since then, she has called me every other week to discuss the house, hint at us picking her up so she can visit, complain about her daughter-in-law, criticize the sellers’ changes, and just in general talk my ear off. She’s not been purposely offensive, though some of her complaints about her daughter-in-law also apply to me. I’ve come to dread seeing her name on my caller ID, and it makes it difficult for me to think of this as “my house” when I feel like she’s waiting at the door to judge any changes we make.
If I ignore her, she sends over casseroles with neighbors with whom she’s still friendly, forcing me to interact with her to return the dish and adding even more to my packed schedule. I worry that she might come over at any time and expect us to provide an impromptu tour. I don’t want to offend this lady, who means well, nor do I want the negative reputation like the sellers have. I was excited to be a part of a friendly neighborhood, but this is too much! How do we exorcise this ghost from our house?
A: Screen her calls and, if you do answer, say, “I’m so sorry, I’ve got to run, have a great day!” after five minutes. If a neighbor shows up with a casserole, say, “I’m terribly sorry, I had no idea this was coming. We don’t have any room for it in the fridge and can’t accept it. Good night!” Then close the door. If you feel guilty doing this, feel free to look crestfallen while closing the door. But close the door.
Don’t wait for a natural out in your conversations with her, because she’s never going to give you one. Don’t feel like you have to offer countless hours of your time just because she’s not “purposely offensive.” This is your house, and you’re well within your rights to say, “No time for a visit, I’m afraid, have a lovely day,” every time she shows up. If she feels a little hurt, that’s too bad, but if you keep acting in the hopes of not offending her, you’re going to “not offend her” right into letting her into your house whenever she likes. Politely decline her calls, politely fail to offer her a tour, politely turn down her casseroles.
If she gets a little hurt or starts to think of you as cold and distant (or overbooked and flighty), that’s an acceptable outcome. If your two options are:
1) Live in a “friendly” neighborhood where you’re periodically held hostage on the phone for hours listening to a near-stranger complain about her daughter-in-law and houses she used to own, or
2) Live in an “unfriendly” neighborhood where you merely exchange brief pleasantries with your neighbors before decisively moving on with your day,
then I think you should choose to live in an unfriendly neighborhood.