Knowing Your Neighbors: The Language and Culture of the People Around You

Culture and Practicality


Americans believe it’s a good idea to know the people who live on our street. When we start meeting our neighbors, they will wave at us when we go out to walk the dog, mow the lawn, or fetch the mail. 

It’s helpful to know these people in case we get locked outside the house one cold day.  Maybe our car will need a jump start.  Or perhaps we’ll want to borrow a tool to finish a home project. 

If we are stuck in the snow, they will stop to push us out.  If their kids are selling Girl Scout cookies door to door, we will buy an extra box because we know (and like) them.

The poet John Donne once said, “No man is an island.”  We live in society to meet and help one another.  If you don’t like people, maybe you should live on a farm.  Or a mountaintop.

Identifying your neighbors

How do you describe people’s houses in relation to yours?  Take the diagram below for example.  You live in the house labeled “YOU.”  How do you describe neighbors A-D?  How about neighbors V-Z?


The people in Houses B and C live next door to you.  They are your next-door neighbors.

The people in Houses A and D live two doors down from you.  They are your neighbors two doors down.  (You can also say “two houses down.”)

The people in House X live across the street from you.  They are your neighbors across the street.

The people in Houses W and Y live kitty-corner* across from you.  They are your neighbors kitty-corner across the street.

The people in Houses V and Z live across the street and two doors down.  They are your neighbors across and two doors down.

* In Michigan, most people say kitty-corner.  Elsewhere people say catty-corner or cater-corner.  The earlier English expression was cater-corneredCater was an anglicization from the French quatre, meaning “four.”  This expression was handy describing four houses which are diagonally across a street (or intersection) from each other.

So, what about the people who live behind your house, the people who live on the next street?  How do you identify neighbors J-N?


The people in House L live behind you.  They are your back-door neighbors or the neighbors behind you.

The people in Houses K and M live kitty-corner behind you.  They are your neighbors kitty-corner behind you. 

You may not have a chance to know the people in Houses J and N, so don’t worry about describing them—unless they are axe murderers.  In that case, you should describe them as people from your former neighborhood.

Do you have other questions about neighbors?  This is a safe place to ask.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.