Dealing with roommates?
August 23, 2011 6:28 PM   Subscribe

How do I deal with feeling isolated in my own home? Kind of a long story.

I'm a college student, and I recently moved into a new house, living with four roommates, lets call them Alice, Bob, Charlie, and Eve. Alice and Bob are a couple, and tend to be the dominant opinions in the group. Bob is a serious redneck, sometimes racist, always a dick (I live in a University town, so it's slightly more liberal than the surrounding, but still very much a red state.)
The problem is that I am, for lack of a better word, different. I think, act, and approach problems differently than most people my age (early 20s). I like to discuss and debate issues, logically and reasonably, but every time there's a conflict, Bob throws a redneck hissyfit, Alice tries to calm him down, Charlie and Eve don't want to "make waves", and I'm left as the only person on my side.

-We had agreed on room selection months before, and 24 hours before the move Alice calls me and says "Our room is too small, we're trading." and acted like I was crazy for even thinking this wasn't ok.
-We had a party, so I made a cleaning checklist the next day and posted it on the bulletin board. It was straightforward, not passive aggressive, but they said I was treating them like "babies" and acting "like I was their father".

Today I had to empty the dryer because someone left their towels in it and I needed to use it, and I was afraid to put a note on the bag of towels for fear of offending someone.
I feel like it's four against one, and I don't want to feel this bad the whole year. Am I overreacting? What do you guys think?
posted by nickhb to Human Relations (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
All of you sit down and make out a roommate contract and chore chart. Bring up everything that has been bothering you as something to discuss on how to handle in the future from vacuuming to doing dishes to quiet time in the house.

Make a list of everything you discussed and post it on the fridge. All you can do is hope that they are grown up enough to stick by it.
posted by TheBones at 6:36 PM on August 23, 2011

I think you're overreacting about the towels...why would you leave a note? You said whoever it was had left a bag to put them in, so it's all good. It's not like you had to fold them or anything. (now, if someone had taken your wet clothes out of the dryer because they wanted to use it, that would be problematic, but that's not what you're describing here. )

The bit about the room swap dictate would be really annoying, but a symptom of thoughtlessness, not some endemic huge miscommunication issue.
posted by leahwrenn at 6:38 PM on August 23, 2011

Response by poster: The towels thing was just that I put them in a trash bag so they wouldn't get dirty, and no one was home, so I put a note to communicate that this wasn't trash, it was a bag of towels that had been in the drier and I didn't know whose they were, but I was afraid to write that for fear of having left "another condescending note", and that fear of overstepping is part of the problem
posted by nickhb at 6:41 PM on August 23, 2011

We had a party, so I made a cleaning checklist the next day and posted it on the bulletin board. It was straightforward, not passive aggressive, but they said I was treating them like "babies" and acting "like I was their father".

Was this cleaning list discussed beforehand? Were cleaning duties discussed beforehand? If not, why couldn't you just talk to everyone the next day about getting the place in order? If I lived with four people and threw a party and woke up to an unexpected cleaning list the next day, I'd think you were being passive aggressive too. Why the need for the list?

Today I had to empty the dryer because someone left their towels in it and I needed to use it, and I was afraid to put a note on the bag of towels for fear of offending someone.

Why do you feel the need to leave the note? Put the towels off to the side, that's usually what people do when living in a house with others and they need to use the dryer.

Have you even lived with other people before? This question comes across like you haven't.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:42 PM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I have lived with roommates before, and we left each other notes and reminders all the time. We were very good friends, which is why it's hard to adjust to living with people I don't know as well
posted by nickhb at 6:44 PM on August 23, 2011

A cleaning checklist, without an "Hey, do you think it would be useful if I drafted up a ...." inquiry? A note on the bag of towels?

Lots of people your age like to discuss and debate issues; that is a big part of being at school. Often people take things a little less seriously with age, though... If you find your "logical and reasonable" style keeps leading to conflict, it is probably time to tone it down a bit. One reason people temper that stuff a bit as they get older is to avoid drama, which can be the end result of "debate" if it's not done with sensitivity. Between the disdain for Bob (who does not sound like a pleasant fellow, but stop ranting about him and find what common ground you do have -- maybe you both grew up playing soccer and watching a particular teevee show?) and the "checklist" and the urge to leave a note because you emptied a dryer, I'm inclined to think you could be conducting yourself with a little more sensitivity, empathy, a little more charity for your fellow humans. You have shortcomings, too...

Stop trying to debate if that's leading to conflict. Accept that living with others sometimes means taking 1.5 minutes to take towels out of a dryer. Don't post checklists without input from the other roommates.

Why are Charlie and Eve not on your "side" if they don't want to make waves -- do you want to make waves? They sound like good people to ally yourself with; don't go at them with "Hey man, can't you see that Bob's all wrong on that" stuff. Charlie and Eve are setting a good example in trying to avoid drama in the home. If you are dying to have it out with Bob, take him out to the pub and do it there.

...on preview: don't put people's laundry in a trash bag. There are reasons those things come with warning to not use them for food storage, and it's just asking for a "It's Nick's fault my towels went to the dump!" problem. Acceptable places: in a laundry basket, on top of the dryer, or possibly folded and placed on the owner's clean bed or dresser.

If there have been more "notes" than mentioned here I would go to them with an apology; explain with genuine humility that you are new to the roommate thing and trying your best, and you get that you went too far, and are eager to do better.
posted by kmennie at 6:45 PM on August 23, 2011

Am I overreacting?

Well, in my point of view:

1) Alice trying to change rooms at the last minute is a BS thing to do. I would be angry and frustrated by that.

2) Your cleaning checklist? If you sat down all by yourself and created this checklist and then put it up (as opposed to all four of you getting together and making it) I would think that was somewhat strange, overbearing behavior. I would, if your roommate, probably just ignore it completely if I wasn't in on the creation of it.

3) I don't see a reason for irritation here; just pull the towels out and dump them on some clean, handy surface, and use the machine.

As for your Bob, nothing good comes from debating rednecks on the finer points of politics, unless you just enjoy conflict and baiting people. Confine your conversations with him to the weather and what you had for dinner. You don't have to be friends with the people you live with, just pleasant and polite.

Reading your updates: yeah, you're overthinking things. Just go about your daily routine without worrying too much about what everyone else is doing or thinking about you. If they encroach upon your corner of sanity (your bedroom, your corner of the kitchen, etc.) then speak up; otherwise, it might be better for your peace of mind to disengage a little from the running of the household.
posted by frobozz at 6:49 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

we left each other notes and reminders all the time. We were very good friends

There's your problem right there. If you're already good friends, the tone and intent of the note is pre-established. If you don't know each other well, and there is already a kind of antagonistic tone between you, it's more likely for notes to be read with the antagonistic tone that's already in their heads from before. Before you establish a good, friendly tone in notes you have to establish it in person. Kind of like how you don't want to send a message through email that may be misconstrued if they can't see the look on your face.

I can see how it can be difficult to deal with a guy who throws temper tantrums and three others who just try to deal with the tantrum instead of the original problem. You have to figure out a way to adjust to that. Specifically I don't know what to tell you, just trying to help you narrow down the problems. I guess you have to figure out what sets off the tantrums and try to work around it. Maybe have a chat with Eve and Charlie about ways to improve intra-apartment relations in a very non-confrontational "help me out here" kind of way.
posted by bleep at 6:52 PM on August 23, 2011

I don't understand the purpose of a post-party cleaning checklist, so I'd be irritated by that, too. If you're so concerned about cleaning, get to it! People talk about "the problem of tone on the internet", but that's not an internet problem, it's a text problem, and "written communication among roommates about cleaning" is a notoriously a passive-aggressive genre, so it's always going to seem like that no matter your intent. Just don't do it.
posted by moxiedoll at 6:55 PM on August 23, 2011

Some of the dumbest time I spent in college was trying to bring people in share houses around to observing the rightness and utility of not living basically as human swine. Always opt for the easiest and least time-consuming option because no learning will occur in this situation. Stop trying to teach the pigs to sing, in other words.

Situation 1: bullshit but typical bullshit, couples always pull this kind of jack in share house situations. What makes it worth fighting about? If the only answer is really "because we all agreed in advance," that's not an actual reason worth fighting over.

Situation 2: You were wrong. It's not your business to define a chore list for the group. Go about things collectively and they don't work out, keep your space livable and try to avoid the piles. Other people's squalor is just part of the college share-house experience.

Situation 3: Shove the towels back in the dryer when you're done, it will take less than a minute. This is the easiest and most trouble free way to deal with people failing to manage their stupid laundry which I hate to tell you is a problem you will be dealing with until you fully control your own laundry machinery. Every place with shared laundry facilities I ever lived.

And so on. It isn't worth it, it gets you nowhere, and you get so used to fighting dumb battles that you don't even realize when you actually are in the wrong. Are you locked in a full year lease? The only better solution than getting by and not bothering with conflict is to move in with people you are more compatible with.
posted by nanojath at 6:55 PM on August 23, 2011 [15 favorites]

It's hard to live with other people. If you start out by essentializing other people in negative terms (Bob the irrational redneck) then you're setting yourself up for a pretty bad year. Try to accept that if you want to create that sense of home, you have to learn skills like compromise, anticipating and attending to others' needs as well as your own, communication, etc; however mature you may perceive yourself to be, these are real hallmarks of being a functional adult in a world that is full of people operating on entirely different wavelengths.

There's also a ton to learn from each living situation you find yourself in! It's not all bad. Just pay attention, communicate well, and give yourself a little time to build that sense of home.
posted by elephantsvanish at 7:03 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Towel talk! The top of the dryer or the washing machine really should be clean enough for a college student's temporarily abandoned towels or whatever, but if you don't like the looks of any of the available surfaces, you could always put that fresh trash bag underneath the towel pile. Then, yes, cram it all back in the dryer when you're done. This is standard shared laundry facility etiquette, IME.

Don't make lists of chores unless people agree with you that there should be such a list and that you alone should be the one making it. You can ask people to clean up their specific egregious or long-standing messes, but you can't just say, hey, Bob, I decided that it's your job to wash the windows. Get to it.

It sucks that you have to live with that guy. I don't know what to tell you about that.
posted by Adventurer at 7:22 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I learned the hard way with college roommates that it really pays to pick your battles. I used to fight with one of them about doing his dishes (he wouldn't) and it became a huge issue. The problem was that it turned me (in his head) into a certain kind of person, so whenever I tried to talk to him about something else, I had no credibility and he wouldn't listen.

Dr. Phil has a saying that is very apropos here (yes, his show is goofy but his books are excellent). 'You can be right, or you can be happy.' Pick your battles. It sounds like cleaning schedules and notes about laundry might not be the thing to make your stand on.
posted by JoannaC at 7:28 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Alice and Bob wanting to change rooms at the last minute is annoying but they are a couple and maybe they had their reasons. The towels, probably it's better to fold them up and leave them on top of the dryer with a note. Living with roomates is hard, and talking about things (if you are a certain type of person, and I am one of them) is even harder, but to make things go smoothly you have to realize you are now in a different situation and you have to start afresh. Good luck and know that later on you can live alone and do things however you want! (Ideally).
posted by bquarters at 8:04 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

(i) The room thing is bullshit, but as mentioned above, there's not much you can do. On the other hand... if every person is paying equal rent (it's unclear if this is the case), I'm not sure why the couple wasn't given the largest room in the first place. They might've dropped the ball on making that claim, but there's are some pretty solid egalitarian reasons that weigh against whatever preexisting arrangement you had. Let those reasons justify the current state of affairs, and ignore the fact that the couple was too presumptuous to bother discussing them with you.

(ii) The cleaning list is a bit overbearing. I mean, do these people live in squalor already, or were you just going out on a limb and presuming that the place would remain a post-party dump forever? I've lived with dozens of roommates before, and all but a few managed to keep things pretty clean, even despite frequent hosting of parties. However, in one case, we had a new roommate join a house in which all preexisting roommates were clean, but who nevertheless decided that we must hold a "house meeting" forthwith in order to draw up a schedule of chores. We were all like "what the...?", went to his meeting, let him draw up his list, and then ignored it. And yet (miraculously) things remained clean. He, however, resented us for our unscheduled brutishness. Just don't be that guy.

(iii) Isn't the dryer thing exceedingly common? In every single house I've lived in, people would leave a dryer going and take off and/or forget about it (myself included), always with the implicit understanding that if someone needed it next, they'd put the previous person's clothes in the nearest basket. I mean, in most apartment buildings I've lived in, people will occasionally forget about their clothes in the dryer... and yet the next person will just take them out and toss them in a basket. In short: you're overthinking this. No notes, though. If the note is just to say "your clothes are in the most obvious place that someone might put your clothes in this situation", you probably don't need it.
posted by matlock expressway at 9:02 PM on August 23, 2011

Is there more sub-text going on that you haven't detailed? i doubt the few examples you gave are really enough to make you feel isolated.

I know Alice and Bob set up an adversarial situation in the beginning, but maybe try re-framing the whole thing into something more benign and see if that doesn't ease your tensions here?

If Bob is just a straight up mother f'er that makes everything stressful, no matter what it is about -- MOVE.
posted by jbenben at 9:03 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Room trading assumption: their fault.
Cleaning checklist assumption: your fault.

Communicate moar.
posted by pompomtom at 9:52 PM on August 23, 2011

You were living with friends, now you're not - that's enough reason to feel isolated, I'd say. I agree with most of the consensus regarding the rest of it, but re: your question about isolation I'd say you have to do what everyone else who lives alone / with strangers has to do. Get out, have friends over, etc.
posted by Lady Li at 11:43 PM on August 23, 2011

There will always be people who assume the worst when you're just trying to be helpful/clear, and others who avoid taking a stand to preserve the status quo. I'm sorry you live with both types.

That whole "passive aggressive" accusation is as much BS as the room swap, but that's a minority view (as above answers indicate). Now you know, though, that this isn't how these folks operate and you'll need to find a compromise. Best bet is to establish expectations beforehand, but I know that probably seems just as awkward. The key is to make the need for clarity onto yourself and leave it at your role: "Okay, we're having that party tomorrow. I was thinking of doing these tasks [name a couple]. That work for you guys?" Then go from there.

The good news is the bad news: you're going to be learning lessons about negotiation, compromise, and ego-management with these people that will be exceedingly useful after this segment of your life. So I'd encourage you to make the best of it and find ways to make this workable. There are books to help you with this, if you're into that sort of thing.

If it gets too miserable, though, are you able to move out? You might want to do the research for that eventuality just in case it becomes unbearable.

Good luck!
posted by batmonkey at 8:32 AM on August 24, 2011

Definitely don't leave any notes - communicate in person so you can use the tone of your voice to make the spirit of what you're saying clear.

But in response to your larger question: this is just a place you live. It doesn't need to be your social base. Find other friends and pretend you're just living in a dorm with this random collection of people. In other words, if it's not going to function like a household, don't expect it to.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:43 AM on August 24, 2011

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