Sharing Spaces with Roommates
March 22, 2013 4:57 AM   Subscribe

What is a normal way to share common spaces among four roommates? If there isn't a norm, how do I (should I?) approach a roommate about her things in common spaces?

There are four roommates living in a two-story house. Me, Katy, Paige, and Peter (fictional names). Katy have lived here for a year and a half. Paige and I have been living here for about 6-7 months. We are all in our late 20s / early 30s. We are all fairly introverted and sensitive, and mostly keep to ourselves. I don't actually know if we all pay the same rent. If there is a difference, Paige and Katy probably pay maybe $10-50 more because they have the bigger rooms upstairs.

I was gone for three weeks in December. When I came back, there was a desk and floor-to-ceiling cabinet in the already cramped dining/living room. The desk is only used by Katy. The cabinet seems to be used by no one except for Paige.

In February, an Ikea ottoman-like footrest sans cushion appeared on the back porch, lined with only her shoes on top. It takes up 1/3 of the back porch, recycling products take up the other 1/3, and the leftover, narrow walkway is in the middle.

I've also noticed that for 3-5 days out of the week, Katy leaves her dishes on the living room table, her mail on the bottom of the stairs, her laundry basket in the dining room floor (which I trip over sometimes), and her carry-on work luggage in the kitchen.

There are other issues, such as the uneven share of chores, and buying stuff (toilet paper, kitchen towels, dish soap, etc). More times than not, Peter and I do her dishes because they fill up half or all of the sink and "she doesn't have time" to clean. These things go untalked about, and I get the feeling that I am the only one who cares.

I have tried to arrange a housemate meeting 4-5x since early January, but due to wildly different schedules, we could never all meet. I thought about sending an email, but from my experience living here so far, emails do not get responses.

Katy is the "nicest" out of my other three housemates, so I find it hard to approach her about sharing spaces equitably and leaving her things around the house. She is also the most "busy" in terms of how much she puts into work, but I don't think this should excuse her from certain responsibilities, like picking up after herself.

I regret not asking about cleanliness before I moved in. I plan on living here for 1/2 a year to 1 1/2 years. I don't know if these issues are worth bringing up, or how they should be brought up. I grew up in a highly dysfunctional family where problems don't get talked about, so I don't know what's normal.

However, this use of common space makes me feel like it's unfair, cramped, uncomfortable, and a little angry. Sometimes, I try to tell myself to not care, but...I always come back to caring when I trip over the laundry basket or see that her stuff is left in *every* common room so that the entire house feels more like Katy's than any of ours. How do I approach this situation? Help...!
posted by mild deer to Human Relations (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't know if these issues are worth bringing up, or how they should be brought up.

However, this use of common space makes me feel like it's unfair, cramped, uncomfortable, and a little angry.

OK, given the second sentiment, you do need to address this. On one hand, you don't know if the others share any of your feelings, but on the other, your feelings are your feelings, and sitting on your hands and stewing tends to lead to uncontrollable blow-ups down the line. So a house meeting is pretty much the way to go, I think. You probably want to write down what is bothering you, and then heavily edit it to try to get to the significant, central problems. When you do present your issues, you don't want it to be a laundry list of specific incidents delivered in a hot rush of frustration; you want it to be a relatively short list of principles -- we are all paying rent based on the size of our rooms. The common space is common and should not be significantly changed without a house vote, that sort of thing.

Make a list and sleep on it until you can edit it down and deliver it in the shortest and most succinct manner possible. If you get too much pushback or dismissal, the best plan is to decide when you can reasonably leave and work toward that.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:21 AM on March 22, 2013

I leave things (like the luggage, laundry basket) outside people's doors when I find them in the way - "returning them" to the owner and getting them out of common space. YMMV with this approach - in one shared house I visit regularly, the pile of things outside the door has just stayed there for months and the owner climbs over/around it every time they enter or leave the room!

As for furniture - anything placed in a common room should be available for common use. Use the cabinet and the ottoman. If it's a problem, that person should find a new space in their private room for it. Spread yourself out around the house and that'll help you feel more like it's your home. I lived in a fairly unsociable place until people started putting stuff in the living room (due to one person basically wanting to make space in their room, and it snowballed) and it turned into a much nicer, more sharing, trusting, sociable homey space!

As for the cleaning/buying stuff - that's standard houseshare suck - just stop doing what you consider over and above, or keep your own supplies. Let dish soap run out, let other people suffer the consequences of that and don't sweat it too much. talk about doing a clean-up day/evening if needed where everyone pitches in and organise it via a big "What's the best time/day" note on the fridge.

Reading this back, I sound like a passive-aggressive nightmare to live with, but actually, I find changing my own behaviour rather than other people's makes me much more chilled out about these things and a nicer person to be around.
posted by f3l1x at 5:33 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

and OMG please do not have a house meeting. nothing worse for morale. just talk to the people you suspect may be responsible. no need for a public shaming and flogging, fer chrissakes.
posted by f3l1x at 5:37 AM on March 22, 2013 [5 favorites]

If Katy is the nicest of your roommates, it's not clear to me why it's so hard to approach directly and, with equal niceness, suggest that these things are bothering you. I'm with f3l1x: it's certainly much nicer to talk to her about it one-on-one before calling a house meeting. It sounds like this is mostly a Katy-and-you problem, and so that is certainly where you should start.

I grew up in a highly dysfunctional family where problems don't get talked about, so I don't know what's normal.

I think it's healthiest ("normal" may not be the right target to shoot for!) to talk to people about problems, respectfully but directly: if someone leaves their laundry in the dining room, to ask them to move it and stop doing that; if someone's piece of furniture is making a common space feel cramped, to ask them if it really needs to be there and if there's not some alternative arrangement to improve the usability of common spaces for all. If, and only if, Katy is unwilling to admit there's a problem, or unable to come up with and follow through on a solution, do you need to drag this to the level of whole-house discussion.
posted by drlith at 6:03 AM on March 22, 2013

So long as you do it calmly, and with a good-natured approach, it's best to go directly to the person & say something like "I hope you understand that this bugs me a bit -- could you get better about not leaving your stuff in the walkway? I'd really appreciate that." You may find that they're surprised & contrite, and if they're not, you'll know it's time to start making plans to move.

Don't be confrontational, don't go spoiling for a fight, & don't push the issue if you don't get the response you desire.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:27 AM on March 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh! (Sorry, last comment, I promise) May I recommend talking about one problem, when it happens. "Hey Katy, can you move that BLAH please so I can cook!" will be MUCH easier to approach than "Hey Katy, why have you made my life hell for the last three months? Here is a list of How You Have Wronged Me".

It seems counter-intuitive, as sometimes 'in the moment' is the worst place to discuss emotional stuff, but from Katy's point of view it will be much easier to deal with a thing that is happening, that she can rectify and (possibly) prevent from happening in future, than a feeling that she's made someone feel crappy in their home for the last few months. She sounds nice, but scatty and thoughtless - just let her know how that's affecting you when it happens and I bet she'll fall over herself trying to fix it!

or, on preview, exactly what DevilsRancher said.
posted by f3l1x at 6:35 AM on March 22, 2013 [9 favorites]

I also recommend talking about one problem, as it happens. "Hey Katy, would you mind taking care of your dishes so I can cook?"

I agree that people shouldn't make changes to the common area without discussing it with housemates first, but I also would have asked my housemates as soon as I saw new furniture appearing--perhaps Paige intended that the ottoman thing and cabinet could be used for storage by everyone.

It seems like you're making a lot of assumptions here--you don't know which roommates exactly use the furniture, you're assuming you're the only one who cares, you don't know how the rent is split between your roommates. I am sure growing up with a family that doesn't address issues makes it more difficult to approach people about things, and makes you constantly question yourself about whether you have a right to feel the way that you do. It's completely justified to want to be comfortable in your own home, and if your roommates are decent people, they probably don't want to be making you feel the way you are feeling.
posted by inertia at 6:56 AM on March 22, 2013

As opposed to sitting down with a long list of grievances, and a generalized sense of unfairness, try to bring up specific annoyances as regularly as they annoy you. Ideally, suggest a solution. "Hey, can you get your dishes out of the sink, sometime in the next half-hour?", "Hey, can you give me $10 for household supplies, since we just bought a bunch?", "Hey, it bugged me that we had to clean the kitchen before we could eat last night. I don't want to do your dishes, but I can't work around them. I think putting them in a cardboard box and leaving it in your room is tacky, so what should I do instead?" "Hey, can I start putting my shoes on that ottoman, too? I can't? Okay, maybe you could use something smaller, then, because that's a big piece of furniture to walk around..."
posted by aimedwander at 7:02 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have had similar issues with my three housemates, and I've found that the "bringing up the annoying thing in the moment" works best.

For example, dishes in the sink of food things left out in common spaces really piss me off. Instead of stewing about it, I try to very politely say "oh hey, this is in my way right now could you take care of it so that I can use table/wash dishes/make food?"

Even though my roommates haven't generally changed behavior, this allows me a way to get my needs met without it turning into drama or fighting.
posted by forkisbetter at 8:35 AM on March 22, 2013

The normal way, in my experience, involves about two months of attempting to give the slobs the benefit of the doubt while being politely and positively assertive, then six months of straight-up nagging, then another two years of unacknowledged and increasingly bitter passive-aggressive infighting followed by a massive blowup with everybody shouting at each other. Then those with actual life skills - the ones who actually were doing all the cleaning - move out to somewhere more expensive, leaving the original house to the slobs who take about another year to turn it into a festering, stinking garbage dump and get kicked out without their security deposits.

This happens because people who don't respect a house's shared spaces don't actually respect themselves or their housemates either, and this lack of respect is corrosive.

Anybody who lives in a shared house with me should be prepared for shit left lying around in the kitchen to be washed, dried and hidden. If you crap up our kitchen, you will inexorably run out of stuff. Simple and effective.
posted by flabdablet at 8:55 AM on March 22, 2013 [7 favorites]

There are very few perfect housemates in the world, and as nice as you sound, you are probably not one of them. I'd suggest taking a serious and honest inventory of your own quirks and habits as a housemate before you talk to anybody else about theirs.

I've lived with the same room mate for 5 years, and we get along great and generally don't have problems talking about stuff that annoys us. But I've found that for every little thing she does that annoys me, I do something that annoys her just as much, without even thinking about it. When you mention Katy's dishes, she's likely to bring up something you do that makes her crazy, and you'll need to be prepared to change your own behavior as a gesture of friendly compromise.

I also second the "please, don't have a house meeting" advice - I keep seeing people talking about that here lately, where does that even come from?? It sounds horrible, don't have one. Just be a grown-up and tell people what's bothering you. Do it one-on-one, in a casual and friendly way -- only one thing at a time, and over a period of time so nobody feels hammered or ambushed with a list of their sins.

Chances are you can work something out that makes things better. Maybe you do Katy's dishes and she does your laundry or runs errands for you, whatever. There are always trade-offs to be made if everybody is willing to work together.
posted by kythuen at 9:20 AM on March 22, 2013

Ok, no house meeting it is!

I have tried approaching Katy individually twice in the last two months, and asked if we could talk. Both times, she said that she was busy, arranged for a later time, then canceled. So, I'm just discouraged about this whole situation in general. :(

Also, she's not usually around when I prepare meals, so there isn't really a chance for in-the-moment corrections. However, I was able to ask Peter to clear the stove of pots and pans once, and now he usually puts them into the sink soon after he's done cooking.

I really like the advice about bringing up general concerns, rather than dish out a laundry list. God knows how many times I've written and rewritten my laundry list -- luckily, I kept those lists to myself. Do mefites have more ideas on how to phrase these general concerns?

Finally, I'm afraid to address these things because they've already gone on for so many months...!
posted by mild deer at 11:23 AM on March 22, 2013

Finally, I'm afraid to address these things because they've already gone on for so many months...!

This is why you should address them now. The longer you wait, the worse this will get.

I find it helps to think about something I really like about the person before I have to talk to them-- makes me less gripey, which makes a positive result more likely.

Are you around when Katy cooks? If you are, say, hiding in your room then, it's tough to have to wander out and say "hey please clean that up, I am going to want to cook later". But if you are already sitting about it becomes simple- "hey I'd like to cook in 1 hr. Would you mind making space for me?"

And present positive solutions, or a request for them, rather than complaining about things you don't like. E.g. "how can we find a space for your work luggage and laundry basket?" rather than "stop leaving your things in my way".
posted by nat at 12:55 AM on March 24, 2013

For dishes, I had a lot of success with just dumping out any liquids left on them and putting them in a box next to the sink. Your roommates can clean their dishes when they need to and they won't smell or prevent you from using the sink or stove. If they are perpetually using 100% of the dishes, wash the dishes you own one last time and keep them in your room. Also, start keeping your own stuff in the common areas to stake your own claim.
posted by fermezporte at 8:44 AM on March 30, 2013

start keeping your own stuff in the common areas to stake your own claim

This is a typical first move into the unacknowledged passive-aggressive infighting stage :-)
posted by flabdablet at 7:54 PM on March 30, 2013

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