She was a nightmare! My first roommate and I could not have been more different had some sort of incompatibility test matched us. To her, the floor was a substitute for a closet, studies were something to be ignored, and the only thing worth majoring in was boys — lots of them. Her music was louder, her taste in decorations gaudier, and her interests far more rebellious than my own. I was aghast. I was overwhelmed. I was — jealous. Introverted and studious, I both envied and feared the lifestyle that this creature from the suburbs of New York City thrust upon me because she was there — in my room — and therefore in my life.

I wish I could report that we worked out a beautiful friendship. We didn’t. Equally convinced that the other was wrong-headed about everything, we barely tolerated each other until the end of the semester when I, with a sigh of relief, moved down the hall to live with someone who didn’t challenge my values and activate my fears. With the hindsight of middle age, I now know that it was a loss for both of us. I wish we had had the skills to grow with each other.

In spite of the best efforts of colleges these days to match roommates by interests and habits, it is a better than even chance that roomies won’t be instant friends. Even if both are non-smoking vegan tree huggers (or beer-loving TV-watching jocks), it’s amazing just how different people with the same external attributes can be. It requires tolerance, communication skills, and a willingness, even an eagerness, to learn about another person to make these arbitrary roommate assignments begin to work.

Even in the best of circumstances, it’s a challenge. For some students, especially those who never before have had to share a room or negotiate when the lights would go out, it’s one of the most difficult adjustments that college life requires. Unless a young person has had some “rehearsals” by sharing a tent at camp for a week or two, this is the first time he or she has to sustain tolerance for someone outside the family for any length of time.

I tell my own kids that figuring out what your roommate is about and finding ways to live together can be one of the most important learning experiences that college provides. Done well, the experience is an exercise in human relations that can lead to lifelong friendship or, at the very least, lifelong skills in getting along.

I tell them to think about sharing a room as a cross-cultural experience. Your roommate will quite probably have different ideas about when to get up, when to go to sleep, and what is appropriate when and where. He or she will have different tastes in music, videos, food, clothing, and friends. Habits about order, studies, money, and use of the phone and computer are likely to differ. In addition to the obvious disparities, there will be a hundred little ways that this person will both fascinate and appall. Don’t worry — you are equally fascinating and appalling!

Tips for Getting Along with a Roommate

Find ways to admire and appreciate this person. This is the first move toward getting along. Get beyond appearances. There isn’t a person on this earth who doesn’t have something interesting about them. Figure out what it is and observe it, ask about it, talk about it. People respond well to people who see something admirable in them.

Assume good will. The thing you are convinced the other person is doing specifically to annoy you may well be just a habit or a holdover from the way things are in his or her home. Before you leap to the conclusion that your roomie is out to get you by blasting heavy metal during study hours, ask if this is the way he or she always studies. It just might be the case!

Communicate. No one can read minds. If you don’t like your roommate to borrow your shampoo, CDs, or blank diskettes, say something. Simmering in resentment will only make it more difficult to get along. Conversely, you can’t read your roommate’s mind. You don’t know if it’s all right to borrow things unless you ask. You don’t want to create resentment on their part, either. Communicate in a friendly way. Snapping at people invites them to snap back even harder. “What the f— are you doing with my calculator?” invites a fight. Instead, try something like, “Maybe you don’t realize that I’m kind of particular about people using my stuff. I’d really appreciate it if you wouldn’t borrow my calculator without asking.”

Communicate about things that interest you. People get interested in people who are interesting. If you limit your conversation to who gets to use the phone first, you won’t get very far in getting to know your roomie. Lose your shyness. This is the person who hears you snore and sees you first thing in the morning. Better balance that with some sharing about movies, music, or harmless gossip.

Negotiate. Somewhere along the line, you’ve already learned how to state a problem, brainstorm alternatives, and choose a solution (even if it was in your international relations class). Got a problem? Call a meeting when neither of you is hungry, tired, or furious and see if you can work it out. Remember, you’ve got to be reasonable if you want the other person to listen to reason.

Have fun with the situation. Positive energy invites more of the same. Having a roommate isn’t a problem. It’s an opportunity to learn about yourself and, perhaps, to make a friend.