Monday, April 30, 2012

Nosey Parkers

Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury 1559-1575
It's not clear just where the phrase "nosey parker" comes from.  Some think it's an allusion to the Bishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, who ordered up a number of investigations during his tenure.

The first evidence of the phrase in print is in 1890: "You're a asking' too many questions for me, there's too much of Mr. Nosey Parker about you, an' I'd 'ave you to know as I'm a laidee."  -- Mary Elizabeth Burden, in Belgravia magazine. 

I am thinking of this phrase as I read over our neighborhood blog last night.  There are a large number of highly educated people who live in the neighborhood and "keep an eye out" for anything that looks suspicious. In years past, some blocks in the neighborhood were part of a formal block watch program, where they actually received training in how to be observant and report anomalies and incidents to the police.

In the incident described last night to the blog, a stranger behaved suspiciously to the extent that one neighbor actually went out and questioned him about what he was doing in the neighborhood.  Evidently there were four other neighbors observing the episode as well.  The stranger was eventually retrieved by another person who described him as having MS and living a few blocks away.  Words were exchanged about how people have the right to walk around in neighborhoods if they wish to, without interference.  Nonetheless the neighbor who wrote up the event and who heard the explanation felt there was still something suspicious, and so he made a police report.  And then he asked for vindication on the neighborhood blog.  Shiver.  

Other neighbors weighed in on the issue, one in fact saying she would be glad to give up some privacy in the interests of shared neighborhood communications, thanking him for his vigilance. I should say, though, that there were an equal number who felt that such monitoring and reporting was over the line, expressed as sarcasm for the description of  "suspicious looking." 

This makes me worry that, if educated people model hyper-vigilant behavior in my neighborhood -- which is not, by the way, a gated community -- or if they worry about having to behave charitably during a disaster -- we have somehow walked away from the essential lessons I thought humanity taught us.  Do we really have to know a person to behave in a civil manner or to keep our nose out of their business?  Are strangers always evil? 

And where is the line between being situationally alert and aware and a "nosey parker?"  I have no good answers, but I do understand that block watch programs train you to call the police rather than to intervene directly.  I can understand where the anxiety comes from, but am uncomfortable with the manifestation of that anxiety, especially now that I've researched further and found that half the block watch programs in this country are self-organized, with no liaison or training to the local police department. 

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Annie, I wonder too, just where that line is. I recall a time years ago when my brother-in-law, visiting from MD, returned to our home after going out for a late morning run. My neighbor, whom I knew fairly well, phoned me to say, "Someone with an eye patch is trying to get in your front door." Uhh, that would be a family member, and our door was not locked; he was walking in the same door he had exited 40 minutes earlier. I tried to respond with civility, but, truth be told, it took some deep breathing on my part.

    In this case, his eye patch was the thing that caught my neighbor's attention, which truly was a shocking revelation to me. No, we don't have to know a person to behave in a civil manner. And it surely helps if we have a measure of sound judgement and tolerance that reach beyond our own sphere.