Just minutes after I decided on a college, I set my sights on what I believed to be the second-most important decision that I would make in my senior year of high school: who I would be rooming with in the fall.  I searched for the perfect roommate in ‘Class of 2021’ Facebook groups and on social media, hoping that I would avoid all possible conflict by finding a like-minded person to share space with.  I’d never even shared a room before, and heard countless roommate horror stories online and from older friends.  But my fears were just about gone after a few days of back-and-forth Facebook messaging about everything from sleeping habits to music taste with my then-future roommate.  

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We applied to live in a double in one of the nicer dorms, agreeing that the famed six person rooms in the largest freshman dorm on campus ‘seemed scary and cramped.’  My roommate and I texted excitedly the night before receiving our official assignment, sending each other decorating ideas and possible floor plans.  Our excitement soon turned to dread when we noticed that there were six names listed under our room number.  We would be living with four other girls in one of those ‘scary and cramped’ six person rooms—and sharing one bathroom. 

Despite all of my planning, the roommate horror stories that I had only ever heard about became somewhat of a reality.  While I loved getting to know my roommates, we faced a lot of issues over the course of the year.  There was an unclean bathroom and, an overcrowded (and sometimes smelly) fridge.  There were uninvited guests, overcrowded closets, and anything else you could imagine from six 18-year-old girls living in one room.  With so many girls who had never lived alone before, we were bound to make mistakes and face a steep learning curve.  And while some of these issues were unavoidable, like waiting longer to shower in the morning, others could have easily been prevented.

I found that our avoidable problems were mainly a result of one thing: a lack of communication.  While it isn’t necessary to be best friends with your roommate(s), communication is integral if you want to make your room into a space in which everybody feels comfortable.  

My roommates and I avoided a lot of possible conflict through establishing a list of rules and expectations at the beginning of the year.  In September, our resident advisor (R.A.) provided us with a form to fill out collaboratively in which we listed rules and set procedures for various situations including overnight guests, sharing food, and cleaning.  While you don’t always need a formal, written-out agreement, it’s worthwhile to set rules early. This makes it easier to communicate any issues, as you can always refer to the previously agreed upon rule rather than establishing a behavior as an issue offhand.  

Because of these rules, we did comparatively well when managing overnight guests.  When friends were visiting, we agreed to let everyone know at least a week in advance, and to only allow one guest at a time, to prevent overcrowding.  This rule became integral, as two of my roommates were from the area and often had friends or family members visiting on weekends.  And when another one of my roommates let her friend stay on our couch for a week without informing us until the day before, it was easier to start a conversation about why this was an issue, because we had established a rule that specifically addressed it.  

In contrast, we didn’t have any sort of precedent for who should take out the bathroom trash.  This caused a lot of issues later in the year because it usually fell on the same few people, which became tiring and created resentment toward the roommates who weren’t contributing.  It would have been much easier if we had initially created something like a rotating schedule for basic chores (e.g. cleaning the bathroom, emptying the trash, sweeping, and cleaning the fridge) to avoid putting all the responsibility on one person.  

Coordinating six people with six different schedules is difficult, and for us, it resulted in a lot of group texting and post-it notes.  I found that the most effective way to communicate issues with my roommates, or anyone for that matter, was through face-to-face conversation—no matter how different our schedules were.  My roommates and I were all guilty of taking issues to our iMessage group chat which resulted in a lot more confusion and passive-aggressive texting than valuable problem-solving.  There were times when I would pointedly ask whoever was leaving their dirty clothes in the bathroom to please pick them up, and receive no response, or one of my roommates would send a text to all of us to quiet down, when I was obviously the one who was talking on the phone or playing music at the time.  Usually, we were all in the same room but were just afraid of having an awkward conversation. This fear of confrontation caused frustration for everyone involved - it never truly accomplished anything.

In our second semester, my roommates and I put our schedules together and made time for a monthly dinner at our favorite restaurant on campus.  This created a space to discuss any brewing problems directly, and allowed us to hash out issues without causing confusion or unneeded conflict.  It was also a way for us to get to know each other better.  During one of these dinners, one of my roommates told us about her long EMT shifts and opened up about how stressful it was for her to get home so late.  After that dinner, I didn’t care as much if she made noise when she got home late on weeknights, knowing that she probably was coming from a long shift.

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I found that our avoidable problems were mainly a result of one thing: a lack of communication.

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These dinners were particularly important because they created a friendly space to address issues without making anything personal, and encouraged us to compromise in real time rather than letting issues drag out.  It’s always uncomfortable to confront people that you literally share a room with—especially when your views differ—but it’s worth the trouble.  Just because you have an issue with something that your roommate is doing doesn’t necessarily mean that you have an issue with that roommate as a person.  This is why it was so important to create space for complaints and compromise in my roommate relationships.  

One night, one of my roommates dyed her hair in our bathroom, leaving the bright red dye stains in our shower for almost a whole day.  This was in early in the year, and I was terrified to confront her about it because I was afraid of making it into a personal issue.  At the time, we were in different sections of the same General Psychology class, and had spent hours studying together, reviewing each other’s papers, and sharing funny anecdotes about our eccentric professor.  I didn’t want to harm our friendship, but I also had to take a shower, and needed to find a way to confront her about the bathroom.  I asked her to clean up and explained why it was an issue, which did create some awkwardness, but it was soon forgotten about.  I learned that by directly addressing issues in a calm and friendly manner, problems could be solved without hurting anyone.  I had an issue with the red dye in the shower, not my roommate. Directing any negativity towards the problem rather than the persons involved made it easier for both of us to talk about it.

My relationships with my roommates were never perfect—for everything that turned out alright, there was an equal amount of fights and ongoing issues—but by learning how to confront our issues, we were able to create a comfortable living space with effective communication.  Despite everything we went through together, I consider my former roommates friends, and was ecstatic to hear that some of them will be living in the same building as I am next year.

 

Bridget Duggan is an editorial intern at bSmart.  She is a New Jersey native and a rising sophomore at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

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