You know the one: That roommate; the one whose roomie can’t stand her; the one the whole floor talks about. That roommate has the reputation for being impossible, spoiled, demanding, self-centered, or just too weird. That roommate is the roommate you don’t want to have and certainly don’t want to be.
Being a roommate isn’t easy, especially if you have never before shared space with even a sibling. But, believe it or not, it can be as important a growth experience as your classes. Being a good roomie means developing your tact, cooperation, generosity, and tolerance. Being a good roomie in spite of being stuck with that roommate means taking the high road even when you’d rather throw her off the nearest bridge. Managing to put up with her is good practice for the inevitable time when you will be stuck with that officemate, that boss, or that future parent-in-law.
Most colleges now try to match roommates at least by interests (athlete or musician) and habits (night owl or morning person, messy or neat). The effort at least ensures that you have something in common for the first ten minutes. Then comes the hard part: sharing space. I’ve canvassed my students. (Since most of my students are women, this is a decidedly female point of view. I’d be interested to know if the men agree.) Here’s what they say are the seven most important “sins” a person should avoid in order to prevent becoming that roommate.
- Taking the “best side” just because she got there first. That roommate takes the side with the window, commandeers the better closet, sticks posters on the walls, and generally makes the room comfortable for herself before the other person even arrives. A smart roommate understands that how you set up a room together establishes a lot about how you will deal with each other. If you get there first, wait. Cooperate about how the room is arranged and whether you are comfortable with each other’s posters and decorations.
- Sticking like a burr. Lacking self-confidence, that roommate goes where the roomie goes, does what the roomie does, and never takes the hint that just maybe feelings aren’t quite mutual. Smart roommates know that it’s important to stretch and build their own social networks. If a friendship blossoms with a roommate, it’s a bonus.
- “Borrowing.”That roommate believes “What’s yours is mine.” People have different ideas about what should be shared and when. Smart roommates ask at the outset whether it is okay to borrow school supplies, clothes, sports equipment, CDs, etc. There is no need to be judgmental about it. Both people have the right to feel that their stuff is “safe.” You may not agree with your roommate’s boundaries but you do need to respect them.
- Taking up too much space. How hogging a room is defined depends on the roomie. That roommate finds what will drive her roommate out and does it. That roommate plays music so loud her roommate can’t think. That roommate invites ten friends over when her roomie has an exam the next day. That roommate keeps the TV going 24/7 or wants the lights on all night when her roomie is trying to sleep. Smart roommates are considerate. They don’t forget they are sharing a room, not tolerating an intruder.
- Polluting the room. That roommate is a pig. No, your room doesn’t need to be ready for the photographers from the alumni magazine at all times. But there’s a difference between being comfortably casual and becoming a landfill. That roommate is oblivious to the molding pile of laundry in the corner, the scuzzy cup that is growing a new bacteria, or the sticky something that glues feet to floor. Smart roommates come to agreement about an acceptable level of cleanliness. Both tend toward piggyness? Smart roommates agree to a periodic cleanup so the college doesn’t have to fumigate.
- Sex in the Dormitory. That roommate has the love interest spend the night, leaving the roomie to decide either to deal with those unmistakable noises in the dark only 6 feet away or to sleep on the broken-down couch in the lounge. Some choice! Smart roommates figure out how to deal with romance and overnights in advance.
- Asking the roommate to keep unwanted secrets. That roommate is involved in illegal or harmful activity and expects her roomie to go along with it, regardless of the roomie’s feelings. Swearing a roommate to secrecy about self-destructive behavior (like bulimia or self-cutting) or illegal activity (like dealing drugs or falsifying records) or threats to others (like planning to hurt someone) puts a roommate in a terrible double-bind. To tell means betraying another’s confidence; something most people don’t do lightly, even to that roommate. To keep silent might mean signing on for a lifetime of guilt or the possibility of being the accessory to a crime. Smart roommates don’t expect a roomie to participate in keeping secrets about things that are a threat to self or others.
No one wants to be that roommate. No one wants to live with one either. A good conversation on day one protects you both. Some colleges are even going so far as to require an annual “contract” between roommates about issues like these. If you really can’t come to basic agreements about these seven areas, you should probably leave your stuff packed and arrange for an immediate switch. Why set yourselves up for a miserable semester? If, on the other hand, the two of you can make compromises so that you can both be reasonably comfortable in your room, you will have made the opportunity to stretch yourselves and to learn how a different kind of person manages her world. That’s an important part of what college is all about.
See Getting Along with Your College Roommate for more tips and information.