Adapting to changes in daily life imposed by the coronavirus epidemic has strained nerves, and for many people spending an unusual amount of time at home has put neighbourly relations to the test.
What under normal circumstances might have been shrugged off as a minor annoyance – noise from the next flat, or a shopping cart left in the stairwell – can lead to escalating tensions and acrimonious disputes.
Finland's Community Mediation Centre, which provides consultation and education in settling such disputes has so far this year received about 20 percent more mediation requests than during the whole of 2019.
"When we are at home all the time, many things that seem insignificant start to become annoying. And if we add to this the fact that people are worried about corona infections, or their own finances, they may no longer be able to accept a neighbour’s different lifestyle," explains Pia Slögs, project manager at the Community Mediation Centre.
According to Toivo Korhonen, who chairs the Finnish Real Estate Management Federation, disputes between neighbours are often caused by rather mundane problems.
"A lot of renovations have been carried out [since the start of the epidemic] that cause disturbances and noise. Another big factor is the increase in teleworking, as a result of which people are at home even during the day. In the past, perhaps it has been possible to make more noise when the neighbours have gone to work," says Korhonen.
Most commonly, people complain of noise, repairs or other activities by a housing association, the way shared areas are used, pets, odours, and differences in lifestyles.
For example, playing children might be considered a nuisance by a shift worker living next door and trying to sleep during the day. Some neighbourhoods also face instances of bullying, meddling by busybodies, and even aggressive behaviour on the part of residents.
Many disputes are, though, the result of misunderstandings and the assumption that a neighbour is being intentionally disruptive.
"The way to start [to settle a dispute] is to first contact the person who caused the disturbance and try to ask if they have noticed that they've been causing one. If this does not help, only then should other means be considered," Korhonen advises.
Mediation must start early
The organisation that operates the Community Mediation Centre, the Finnish Forum for Mediation FFM is now also launching a new online service aimed at lowering the threshold for people to seek help in dealing with the conflicts they may be involved in, or that are only just brewing.
According to Pia Slögs, dispute mediation should be started before any conflict widens and deepens.
"Usually, conflicts in housing associations escalate. For example, a dispute initially between two residents spreads over time to a circle of acquaintances living in each person’s house," says Slögs.
While the Community Mediation Centre's case load has risen, the impact of the exceptional spring and summer have not been all bad, though. There has also been an increase in a sense of community for example, with many people willing to make an effort to help out shut-in neighbours by visiting shops or pharmacies.