What to do about a difficult roommate?
September 29, 2013 7:04 PM   Subscribe

I freely admit I'm not good at having aggression directed towards me, so I can't tell what to do. Essentially, cultural differences are making it really hard to get along with my roommate. Please help this co-op living delicate flower (me) coexist happily with my very German roommate! Like everyone, I am a special snowflake. This is long and detailed because I'm processing as I write.

Me: I live in a house full of "I feel" type folks: therapists, teachers, etc. I feel (ha!) most comfortable living in situations where open dialogue and non-violent communication are valued, and I actively sought this out when I decided to move in two months ago. I'm in grad school and work, so am under a good amount of stress.

My house: We share meals on a regular basis, are probably about an 8 or 9 out of 10 on a clean scale: common spaces are very clean, chores are well-established, and our house is lovely.

My roommate: German, older than me (she and the rest of the house are in their early 30s, me in my mid-20s), scientist, moved in about a month ago, so I've been here a month longer. In many ways she is great: we have rewarding intellectual conversations and can joke around in a way I enjoy. I like a lot of things about her when we're not in conflict, and she seeks me out to hang out with in a way she doesn't seem to with other members of the house. She can be very direct, terse, efficient, can feel offended by things I wouldn't think were offensive (eg being called "talented").

The problem: I don't know how to communicate with her about stressful things or problems in the community. In the past week, our interactions:
-We had a house meeting, at which she scowled at everyone, said "there was nothing good this week" when we went around the circle to say one good thing that happened in the past week, loudly expressed frustration with the balance of chores (necessitating special accommodations and a rotation schedule specific to her). She also loudly expressed frustration with the idea of chores (like taking out the garbage) where one person is cleaning up after the house, which I always thought was the point of chores. When after the meeting I asked her if she was okay, she said "don't ask me questions."
-Mid-week, she knocked on my door and we had a perfectly lovely and normal conversation about a girl she's friends with.
-Today I had three friends over to study. It went longer than I had told the house I thought it would (I anticipated 10-12, it went from 11 to 4:30), but since only this roommate was home and she was upstairs, I didn't think to check if that was a problem. If I were to do it over again, I would have asked her if it was okay that we stayed past twelve.

We spent about half our time studying outside, and when I came inside she was sweeping (her chore). I said "thank you for sweeping" and she glared at me; when I asked what was up, she explained that she found it insulting to be thanked for doing a chore. I said I got it and thanks for explaining, and she then loudly and angrily said "will you clean up after yourself?!" I was confused because I hadn't been aware I made a mess, and she (continuing to be close to shouting and with an angry affect) started talking about how the kitchen stovetop was not clean and how she didn't like that. (FWIW, I hadn't used the stove in three days and had cleaned up before). I said something along the lines of "I have a really hard time processing things when people raise their voices and seem to be angry at me. I'm happy to talk about this, but can you lower your voice?" She continued to talk/yell about the cleanliness and I asked again that she lower her voice. She said she didn't see the point of talking about this if she couldn't be angry about it, I said okay, and we ended the conversation.

A few minutes later I was cleaning up the kitchen a little and getting some water when she came in. I didn't feel great about how things ended and said something like "we don't have to do this now, but let's try to think of a way we can talk about cleaning and stressful things in a better way." This led to a tense conversation that became decreasingly tense as it proceeded, as she matched my calm tone more. We were able to clarify that a) she understands I'm not responsible for all the mess in the world and her anger was not directed at me alone, b) that she feels being asked to lower her voice is frustrating and disrespectful, c) that I need to be in a place where voices are not raised at me. I was calm and reasoned the whole time, but after we ended the conversation I had to go take a moment to tear up and take deep breaths in the bathroom before returning to my guests.

I have a stressful job and can handle myself very well around anger in the workplace, at school, whatever, but picked this home specifically because the people in it valued non-violent communication. I get a big flush of adrenaline when I'm being yelled at that really throws me off for a couple hours afterwards and makes it hard for me to focus or do work.

What should I do in this situation? How can I balance her legitimate desire to express her anger with my legitimate desire not to be yelled at? How can I address the cultural differences, if that's what's in play? I come from an activist model that values nonviolent communication and a co-op model of interacting that seems to be really different from hers. How can I happily cohabitate with someone who does not value/participate in nonviolent communication?

I really don't want, or have time for, the adrenaline rush and anxiety that comes from having tension be so vocally and physically expressed at me. If this happens again, and I think it will, what should I do differently, and what can I do to dissipate the physical reaction it provokes in me afterwards? I feel cautious about bringing our communication up again because I don't want to be in that situation again.
posted by c'mon sea legs to Human Relations (48 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
She sounds a little bit gruff and assertive, but honestly, it seems more that you're really sensitive and possibly should only live with a hand-picked selection of people you know you can handle.
posted by xingcat at 7:09 PM on September 29, 2013 [21 favorites]

Not to threadsit, but I definitely get that I'm sensitive. I'm lucky to live in a place and culture where this is not usually a problem and is often valued, and I haven't had problems getting along with roommates in the past.

I'm trying to approach this from the specific circumstance of being in a community that has one set of values (NVC) that aren't being met. If I didn't live in this specific environment, I would try harder to just get over it, but I'd like to try to address things within this context first.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 7:16 PM on September 29, 2013

Kill her with kindness. She'll back off.
posted by discopolo at 7:20 PM on September 29, 2013

Keep letting her know you are not an asshole. Give it time. She's adjusting to new things, perhaps the chores.
posted by vrakatar at 7:22 PM on September 29, 2013

Oh man, eff that. How do you other housemates feel? I say keep a low profile, let her piss your other housemates off, then move her on.

I think I'm a little bit like you in that for various reasons I find ongoing resentment or conflict - even low level - very stressful, and I have an unhealthy tendency to dwell on it, role play in my heads different ways of resolving it, I tend to think/worry a lot if I have made someone upset or let them down in some way. I even get stressed out when people are having fights with each other that have nothing to do with me! Conflict upsets me more than most people, I think, and more than it should, to be frank.

I resolve this by surrounding myself with people who are very relaxed, are good at talking about their feelings, sensitive to others, and rarely if ever raise their voices. As I've grown older, I've also realised that this preference is my prerogative, as well, and that - actually - you don't need to put up with douchiness as a mark of maturity. I'm too old and busy for drama now.

The point is: your housemate is not being a good housemate. Your house sounds a little more regimented than any I've shared, but it sounds like there's a few of you and that kind of thing is necessary. It doesn't sound like it's working out for her, or you, or the house. I don't think this situation will last long.

I know how tortuous it can be, the nagging feeling that someone is unhappy with you, and your instinct to correct that. Ignore that feeling if you can! It's okay for someone to be unhappy with yo (and vice versa). If I were you I would just avoid it her, treat her more like a colleague (ie keep it 'professional') and I wager she'll move out, or your other housemates will crack the shits and ask her to move out before too long.

Best of luck.
posted by smoke at 7:24 PM on September 29, 2013 [7 favorites]

Your follow up confuses me a bit- you say that your community's needs aren't being met? And that you want to address it within this framework? But what does that mean? It sounds a bit like you want to dominate her out of her behavior- as in, we all dislike the way she behaves, and so it's more legitimate. That sounds a bit like...bullying? Perhaps I've misunderstood, but it seems that it would be more helpful to think about this as a conflict between the two of you or kick her out. She doesn't have to like your model any more than you like hers- but if you have some kind of regulated model then make that definitive. Fwiw describing your interactions as 'violent' also seems a bit...disingenuous to me. I mean- she spoke loudly. You may not like that but--violent? She does sound a bit abrupt and grumpy. But you sound a bit drama-ish.

So- either you both change a bit or you get rid of her. I don't think there is an option where she just 100% caters to your communication style when she's annoyed.

And actually, fwiw asking her to speak in a soft tone while she's annoyed would seem condescending to me, too. Especially since you are not dating or anything. If you decide to stick it out, I'd save that kind of comment for later when you are both calmer (and it does sound like you had a better convo later).
posted by jojobobo at 7:41 PM on September 29, 2013 [7 favorites]

"we don't have to do this now, but let's try to think of a way we can talk about cleaning and stressful things in a better way."

There is nothing more insulting than being told that your opinions don't matter because you said them "wrong". Maybe you could try really listening to what your roommate is trying to say as opposed to fixating on all the ways that she doesn't live up to your standards of communication and empathy.

Why do you assume that the problem here is "cultural" differences? Does her Germanness somehow overwhelm her existence as an actual human being with her own personality?

But honestly, if you can't handle talking to her, then don't. I'm not even sure why you needed to have any of the conversations with her that you describe. Stop talking to her and let her come to you.
posted by sparklemotion at 7:46 PM on September 29, 2013 [13 favorites]

Cultural differences are huge here. Germans do lots of things quite different from Canadians and Americans. Direct eye contact lasts far far longer. Less personal space is the norm. German men often lava ball simply because they have room. Then there is the nudity. I often feel intimidated interacting with the German people I know until I remind myself they are German.

Be aware that your non-verbal experiences up to now with others will lead you astray with Germans (and many other cultures - You might also want to be very careful about ever having Israeli roomies) . They are not getting up in your grill when they directly face you and speak loudly and directly. They are just talking to you the way they know how.
posted by srboisvert at 7:55 PM on September 29, 2013 [6 favorites]

I feel like your behavior is getting interpreted as condescending. (That's how I'd interpret it, and as a person who tends toward being angry, it would only make me even more furious to be spoken to that way.)

Assertive people tend to respect assertiveness more than the really passive, really accommodating tone you seem to be going for. I interpret that kind of talk as weasel-y and insincere. I'd much rather someone just tell me what they want.

For example, a more assertive way to say this: "I have a really hard time processing things when people raise their voices and seem to be angry at me. I'm happy to talk about this, but can you lower your voice?" would be "I'm not having this conversation right now. Come find me when you calm down." It's not rude, but it's a lot more assertive, and is less likely to be read as condescending.

Instead of this: "we don't have to do this now, but let's try to think of a way we can talk about cleaning and stressful things in a better way." try "I didn't appreciate the way you spoke to me earlier. If you have a problem with the cleanliness of the house, bring it up at the next house meeting."

I don't know what "nonviolent communication" is, but assertiveness and violence are not the same. Try to meet her halfway on your communication style, and I'd bet you get decent results.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 8:03 PM on September 29, 2013 [63 favorites]

If I had to do therapy-speak sharing around a table, I'd be crabby too--maybe she did have a bad week. In general, I think speaking less like a therapist and more directly would be more productive. Goodbyewaffles made great points.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:04 PM on September 29, 2013 [21 favorites]

She is not violent. I had a violent roommate who screamed at me, put his fist up in my face, punched holes in the walls, and broke things. This is not a violent sounding roommate.

Question: Why are you talking so much!? If she says "I don't like being thanked for chores" just say, "Okay" and walk away!

I really honestly don't understand why you have to dissect every action and thing she does. She's being grumpy so leave her alone and only approach it if it becomes a thing. I mean, not only did you get into a discussion with her right away, then you went back to it again! Over what? Her getting grumpy and blaming you for leaving dirt that you didn't leave? That is like, seriously, not a big deal. Just say, "Hey, I didn't use the stove, must've been someone else!"

I mean, if someone came to me and needed to go over our feelings over me being grumpy about the chores I would be so annoyed. You are her roommate, not her therapist, or spouse, or sibling, or parent.

Newsflash: She is doing the chores. She doesn't have to be happy doing the chores. You don't have to get in a huge discussion about her not whistling while she works as birds and squirrels help her out.

That being said, is she being a "bad" roommate? No, grumpy and fussy maybe. Is she being a roommate that perhaps doesn't fit into the rules and style of your house? Yea. At that point it's really up to the house to figure out if this is a big enough thing to have a discussion about. At this point I would let it sit. She has only been there a month. If she still doesn't fit in, then maybe something needs to be done, but at this point just give her space.
posted by Crystalinne at 8:07 PM on September 29, 2013 [10 favorites]


Seriously, someone who was this aggressive to waitstaff would be NOT ok. It is more not ok in someone you live with.

It's your home. Home is supposed to be safe space, a sanctuary, and if she can't keep it together enough to not YELL at you for things you haven't done wrong, then she shouldn't be living with you.

You are not playing customer support with an irate customer, you are not at work, you are not being paid to deal with someone being unreasonably angry at you. She isn't even a stranger on the street who you can be briefly 'WTF?' about, and then move on.

Either you or she needs to move out, and honestly, if she's this irritated by you all so soon after moving in, maybe she'd be happier living with someone else, or by herself (has she lived with flatmates before? Sometimes this behaviour is because they haven't, sometimes it's because they do this in every social situation, and finding people to live with is how they fill their social needs if they are so abrasive they keep pushing people away).

But yeah, don't give it any more than 2 months for things to improve, don't compromise your own well being if living with her is a stressful experience. Move out.
posted by Elysum at 8:08 PM on September 29, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'll put it even more bluntly than xingcat. I mean no offense, but based on your post, I would probably have a very hard time being your roommate. You sound quite demanding and inflexible in your needs, and your actions sound passive-aggressive and extremely sensitive. That would be a very difficult combination for me to live with. I imagine some other people would feel the same way.

If you want to keep being so demanding (insisting on house meetings and sharing sessions, strict schedules for visitors, strict chore breakdowns) then you need to be assertive and direct about what you want. And, you need to stop being so sensitive when your needs aren't met, because they are so darn specific... it's going to happen! Someone is going to break these very specific rules and expectations, because frankly, most houses and shared spaces just aren't that structured.

If you're not up to being assertive and working on being far less sensitive, then you need to stop asking your roommate to live with your specific demands. You need to back off, and potentially even find another living situation for yourself, or you need to tell her to go.

It's one way or the other, really. If you stay on your current course, it's just going to get worse, until there's a blowup and she (or you) leave the house.

Again, no offense meant. While reading your post, I just happen to empathize with your roommate quite a bit. I hope you both can work it out as I'm sure you both have good intentions.
posted by Old Man McKay at 8:20 PM on September 29, 2013 [9 favorites]

What stands out to me, if I am reading things correctly, is that you were the initiating party in all of these uncomfortable discussions.

She was asked what she was thankful for...
She was asked if she was okay...
She was thanked for sweeping...
She was told "let's think of a better way..."

I will assume you ask these type of questions and speak this way to everyone. Perhaps they are used to it, but I would also be a bit puzzled about what is going on.

When I lived in shared housing at university, 95% of the conversation was along the lines of "what's up" or "hey" or "what are you doing later?". If someone was frowning or aloof, I'd assume they had a bad exam or a difficult day. For them I'd stick to a quick greeting and keep moving. If they frowned at me every time for several days in a row, then I would ask: "Hey, is everything cool between us?"

Anyway, that is my take on your dilemma.

Good luck!
posted by 99percentfake at 8:25 PM on September 29, 2013 [6 favorites]

Cultural Schmultural:

Sounds like an alpha dog pissing on her new territory.

Address these things at house meetings, where you may or may not have some support. Do not go around the house and try to arrange a cabal against her, because the notion you're sensitive to such things and have been there a month longer is not exactly the higher ground.

Sounds like everyone in the house is pretty busy, and are either immune to, or haven't got a taste of her hospitality yet.

Find a way to not be around when she does her chores, and avoid her for a while after.

Til then? Live your life as best you can. Get your shit done. Pull your end of the house deal, and don;t give anyone anything to bitch about. Then you are clear.

I'll leave you with this quote

"It's nice to be affectionate to something German...You don't get the opportunity that often."

I'm half German.
posted by timsteil at 8:28 PM on September 29, 2013

Woah, could c'mon sea legs come clarify on this post?

Because I didn't interpret this as having anything initiated by sea legs - It sounds like it was a regular house meeting insisted on by the rest of the flat, and a standard hippy sharing to deal with stuff.

sea legs didn't insist on a schedule for visitors, sea legs just told the others when *sea legs* would have *their* visitors over.

If German flatmate doesn't like that structure, german flatmate should move out.
posted by Elysum at 8:29 PM on September 29, 2013 [10 favorites]

Is she being a roommate that perhaps doesn't fit into the rules and style of your house? Yea. At that point it's really up to the house to figure out if this is a big enough thing to have a discussion about. At this point I would let it sit. She has only been there a month. If she still doesn't fit in, then maybe something needs to be done, but at this point just give her space.

Yup. Living in an NVC hippie crunchy granola co-op house is one of those things that for many people sounds great in theory but sucks hairy sweaty balls in practice. Sounds like your roommate might be one of them.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 8:34 PM on September 29, 2013 [9 favorites]

Ah, and to be honest - c'mon sea legs:
It sounds like you are getting along better with this flatmate than all the other flatmates, e.g. "she seeks me out to hang out with in a way she doesn't seem to with other members of the house".

It sounds like she is frustrated with the structure of your flat, and because she gets along with you better, she is choosing you to vent her frustrations on.
I'd very tactfully back off, and avoid contact for awhile, so that she stops venting at you.
posted by Elysum at 8:37 PM on September 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Ha. As soon as I read "German roommate" I knew what your issues were going to be. Your roommate is very stereotypically German. [Note: not all Germans are like her, no, but it's a stereotype]. She's blunt, opinionated and very to the point. At the same time she has her own set of assumptions and reactions to things which are very different from yours.

Let me digress with a persona anecdote because I have find this funny. I was working at a trade show in Germany for a software company. We sold a software performance analysis tool. A German developer came up to me and said "I use your product every day. it is indispensable." At this point the average American developer would say something effusive like "I love it!" The German? "There are 10 things wrong with it." And then he actually listed all then things without waiting for me to say a word.

No doubt she speaks very good English unless you speak very good German and I've misread your description. But foreigners who speak good English can easily mislead you unintentionally into believing that they're not foreigners. But rest assured, she comes from a very different cultural background from you and you should no more assume she behaves like you than you would for someone from Chuzhou or Botswana.

So first off you should think about how you would or could treat someone from a different culture in general. Do you think of someone who is open-minded to other cultures or do you feel that the culture you were raised in is somehow inherently better than others?

How can I happily cohabitate with someone who does not value/participate in nonviolent communication?

Do you think she would characterize her communication style as violent? I don't read your description as her being violent. Aggressive, maybe.

I get a big flush of adrenaline when I'm being yelled at that really throws me off for a couple hours afterwards and makes it hard for me to focus or do work.

Not everyone reacts to being yelled at this way. You could examine why you react that way and try to be mindful when you talk to her about how you're reacting. It's possible to disagree with someone who is yelling without being rattled. being able to do so places you in a place of power in the dialogue in fact.

Practically speaking you're under no obligation to change and neither is she. If neither of you has any interest in changing how you either initiate or react to your conversations then you just have to avoid her. It doesn't sound like can unilaterally make her move out. But roommates can be avoided for the most part.
posted by GuyZero at 8:38 PM on September 29, 2013 [7 favorites]

Elysum, that is correct. House meeting, hippie sharing, defined chores, and setting and communicating defined hours for guests were all standards initiated by the house, not by me. They predate both me and the roommate in question.

The conversations I cited more specifically from today were initiated by me, and I'm appreciating the feedback to just not interact. I would like to clarify that I don't care if someone looks pissed while they're doing chores, but I do care if someone glowers at me when I thank them for cleaning.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 8:38 PM on September 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

And I should specify that when I say "nonviolent communication" I'm not meaning to imply that she's being violent like punch-the-walls violent. I'm using a hippie term of art also known as compassionate communication. I regret including it because I think I made things more confusing than they had to be.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 8:41 PM on September 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just because you aren't being hit doesn't mean that you are not suffering violence. From your description it doesn't seem like your roomie is likely to modify her behavior.

"she seeks me out to hang out with in a way she doesn't seem to with other members of the house". Isolation is a hallmark of abuse.

"...her legitimate desire to express her anger", anger is legitimate, her means are not.

"...what should I do differently?"


"I really don't want, or have time for, the adrenaline rush and anxiety that comes from having tension be so vocally and physically expressed at me. If this happens again, and I think it will, what should I do differently, and what can I do to dissipate the physical reaction it provokes in me afterwards?"

Again, nothing. You are not the problem but you should probably remove yourself. Once kindled - triggered is another term - it's difficult, if not impossible, to mitigate your response to a percieved threat.

You are not the problem. Your response is not the problem. Your roomate is the problem. The best solution may be to remove yourself from the threat.

Best of luck.
posted by vapidave at 8:45 PM on September 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, that explains things better. Don't feel too bad about it, it's easy to get used to using certain specific terms to explain more complex concepts.

Anyway, perhaps she does value Nonviolent Communication but she's just not very good at it. Sometimes people change their external environment to try to effect changes in themselves. Maybe you're going to have to carry more of the water here.

But who knows. Maybe she's just really cranky and will never change. There are definitely people like that around.
posted by GuyZero at 8:47 PM on September 29, 2013

How did this person come to live there? It sounds like the house, as it was already established, had some norms and ways of communication that were what I'd characterize as very passive and ... sort of hippie? She does not seem like the kind of person the house would meet and think "Yeah, she's TOTALLY the right fit!". And did she know when she moved in that these norms had been established?

I'm not German or particularly aggressive but I would find it weird (and probably over time super annoying) to be thanked for doing chores too. They're... required and what I agreed to be responsible for doing. Someone thanking me for doing that would seem super condescending, like you're my mom or something. And the "say one thankful thing" is potentially a really personal thing.

People have different expectations for what they expect of housemates. Some people really want to join a community and will adapt to fit into one that exists. Other people just want a place to live that's respectful of their stuff and their privacy and maybe, maybe, might make a friend but without coming in with that expectation. It just sounds so much like her expectations and modes are SO OFF what exists there. Or, if no one else has this problem maybe yours are?
posted by marylynn at 8:49 PM on September 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I guess in one sense I have a lot of sympathy for your roommate, in that living in a group house with weekly house meetings where we had to go around a circle and everybody say one good thing that happened to them this week, and we had to use non-violent communication when talking about the chores schedule, has roughly the same appeal level to me as prison. But I think what it boils down to is that she's not a good fit for the house culture, and as soon as it's practical, she needs to go. More than likely she realizes that too, but if not is there some procedure for ejecting people when they aren't following the house rules?

In the meantime, I guess try to keep your interactions with her minimal and focused on innocuous things like mutual friends, deal with the chores stuff through the existing structure rather than one-on-one with her, and giver her a pass on the mandatory Masters of Social Work drum circle stuff when it's not actually hurting anybody for her not to participate.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 8:54 PM on September 29, 2013 [6 favorites]

Well, my first thought upon reading this was that if I had to, IN MY THIRTIES, sit around in a circle with my housemates and name something positive about the week, I would either be rolling my eyes if I was in a good mood, or doing exactly as your roommate did if I wasn't. I mean, seriously, are we in kindergarten? Something happy about the week? Some people don't find this mindful and meaningful; they find it quite the opposite - shallow, simplistic and patronizing. I definitely would, and it's not because I'm not "hippie" enough, I am pretty darn hippie, I just find that particular style of hippie to be affected and frufru. So try to understand that your roommate may well simply think that she's the one being "real" and the rest of you are being kind of petty and stuffy. Perhaps she feels that the two of you in particular are close enough that she is ok to be a little comfortable with you, a little grouchy when she's grouchy and chatty when she feels chatty, and that you will understand and accommodate her, within reason; in my experience, accommodation of a certain amount of (reasonably controlled) grump on people's bad days is a part of being a family or family-like unit. Particularly looking at the fact that she comes and talks to you normally after these interactions, I don't see that there's any actual deep offense taking place on her part - she's just processing out loud and more bluntly than you are. I strongly disagree that expressing yourself bluntly or "seeking you out" to chat with about things is abusive. WTF. There is nothing in here remotely to imply that. She sounds normal to me.

On the other hand, I have known (and greatly liked! Some of my favorite people) people more like you, but they frankly do drive me up the wall. I agree that thanking someone for doing a required chore when the two of you are equals is condescending; you thank someone for something they do for YOU, so if you are thanking her for something you are implying that she's doing it for you or that she is indebted to you in a way (like an employer-employee relationship, or like parents thanking a child for helping with the dishes because they are trying to be encouraging in a very specifically parental way that is extremely insulting between equals). I am not saying this was your intent, but it's a very strong implication of the thanking to a lot of people, and I would be giving you a sideye too, to say "excuse me? you think I'm sweeping for YOU? How exceptionally presumptuous of you." Some people - including hippie-type people - place a pretty strong value on being able to be real, unaffected, and genuine. Expressing irritation, for example, is being genuine with your feelings; as long as she isn't being abusive or nasty, I would feel like someone telling me that my voice should not express that I am irritated to be a violation of self. It's not violence, it's honesty. To me, your approach to communication may be completely non-violent, but it is also be non-genuine. There is a balance.
posted by celtalitha at 8:56 PM on September 29, 2013 [48 favorites]

I was once a member of a group that used Nonviolent Communication. I had to quit, because having to do fucking twinkle fingers to be supportive of other people was making me actively angry at people I had previously liked. And I lost respect for friends who insisted that everyone needed to be praised constantly for doing totally normal things, like keeping their commitments and refraining from yelling. It made me feel like a bad person, because everyone was constantly so ridiculously, patronizingly nice, but it was all fake, because it was mandated by the process. It was infuriating, and participating in it made me feel more angry and less nonviolent than I did before. And when I quit, and when I told them why I was quitting, none of my former friends in the group could understand, and I didn't get any twinkle fingers.

I think that if you want to run people's entire home lives by these principles, you need to make sure that everyone actively buys into it and actively wants to participate in that way. You can't just have them agree to do it; you have to screen new roommates based on them actively seeking out this lifestyle. And you have to get everyone to agree in advance that if it's not working out, they'll move out. Because you can mandate that people participate in this stuff, but you can't mandate that they stop thinking it's total bullshit, and you can't mandate that they like it. You have to choose people who agree with you.

In this case, I think you need to have a meeting to discuss having this roommate move out. Because it's pretty clear that she's not a good fit. And that doesn't mean getting her to agree that it would be best if she moved out, it means actually kicking her out. If she gives moving out a "thumbs down," she still has to move out. Either that, or everyone else in the house needs to become okay with her refusing to participate in the way the house is run, and with her frowning, and with her raising her voice, and with her not wanting to be thanked for telling you she doesn't want to be thanked. Either all of the rest of you change your chosen lifestyle radically, or she leaves. Those are really your options here. Because what you're doing here sounds like it works great for you, but it is incredibly irritating and, yes, violent-feeling-inducing for a lot of people who aren't like you, and it sounds as though your roommate falls into the latter category and just didn't understand what she was signing on for.

In the future, I'd recommend a trial period of, say, two months for all new roommates, with an understanding that they'll move out after that period, no questions asked, if things aren't going smoothly for everyone. Because you're doing something really unusual, and so you're going to need to do more work to find roommates who are on board for that lifestyle.
posted by decathecting at 9:14 PM on September 29, 2013 [22 favorites]

One thing-culturally Germans are very, shall we say, direct in a way that seems challenging and rude to us Americans at times.

(on preview-someone else made this very point. THIS is what you need to focus on.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:29 PM on September 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some of the people at the start of this thread definitely didn't get that these aren't your rules, they're the house rules, and you're trying to abide by them. The "say one good thing" and non-violent hippie house culture is a set of customs and rules that housemates agree to abide by. Love the co-op, love the co-op rules.

That said - it's super-irritating when your sister thinks she's your mom, right? You're the second-newest housemate, who's only been there a month longer than she has? Where are the rest of your housemates in this? Co-operative rules mean co-operative enforcement. I think that you should step back and let other people communicate non-violently with Grumpily Loud New Roomie for a while. When she's mad about having to clean up after people, and you know those people aren't you, just let it lie. Not your business. It's not your job to calm her down or ungrumpify her, and if you've survived without the stovetop for three days, you can wait another fifteen minutes until she's done sweeping.
posted by gingerest at 9:32 PM on September 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's scary to live with someone who seems to turn hostile over arbitrary issues. However, I think you're focusing on the form of her hostility (ie, speaking directly or speaking loudly) instead of focusing on its function, and that's leaving you at an impasse.

Is she being hostile because this is her communication style? Is she venting at you because she feels safest with you? Is she trying to establish herself as alpha dog? Seeing as she reacted worst to the chore schedule/assignment and being thanked for doing chores, it sounds to me like she needs to feel more control over her environment than she's feeling now, and to get that control she's being extra aggressive.

If the problem is that she needs to feel more control over her environment, what kinds of solutions would be acceptable to you (and the other housemates)? It sounds like she might want more flexibility than the house currently offers (in terms of how things are scheduled, how people express themselves, etc) -- is being more flexible, as a household, an option? I would brainstorm (as a household) to nail down the problem, to make up a list of possible solutions, and to see if any of those solutions would be tenable.

If not, she may have to leave -- the house may be too rigid and rule-bound for her, and it might be making her feel stressed in the same way that the chaos of getting yelled at or having her express whatever mood she happens to be in makes you feel stressed. To be fair to her, I would also be frantic for a feeling of control and autonomy if I were living under house rules that dictated which emotions to have when, and how to express them.
posted by rue72 at 9:33 PM on September 29, 2013

Mph. On further thought... I'm still not seeing that anyone has to move, or 100% change their ways. I think it might be helpful to think a little more deeply about what your "rules" are, what these values are, and what is the actual purpose behind it. It doesn't seem from the reading like this house was intentionally set up as some sort of explicitly NVC cult-commune, but more a set of artsy/mindful/intellectual-type people who generally embrace personal growth and improvement and positivity, or something more general like that. On that note, this roommate may feel like on a basic level, you ARE on the same page. Perhaps she sees herself as having similar core values but a different flavor of expression, whereas you are seeing the expression itself as the core value. Think about that maybe. Is "nonviolent communication" a divine instruction? Or is it a tool to go about interacting with other equally valuable human beings in a way that will be most beneficial and healthy to everyone? And is your way of communicating with your roommate (in the same way you might communicate with someone who has a similar conversation-style to you) as respectful and valuing of her as a human being as it is to yourself or someone else similar to you? A couple other thoughts - sorry if this is scattered - when she said nothing good happened that week, did (the rest of) you care to understand why she genuinely felt it was just a solidly crappy week? Or were you solely offended that she didn't follow the rules? Does it genuinely bother you if someone is not able to focus on one randomly-chosen happy thing when they may have preoccupying concerns as a human being that are, to them, more significant? In terms of your conversation after the cleaning incident - it seems to me like she is genuinely open to dialogue with you, and trying to be communicative and straightforward. As I said before, I think this is not a quality to snif at, and perhaps something you might even be able to learn from. I would think that instead of trying to avoid this roommate or continuing to use hippie-therapist lingo to definite your (plural) interactions, which frankly IS patronizing, it would be beneficial to try to put the ego down for a bit and think about how she is seeing the situation and - not necessarily acquiesce to her paradigm, but understand it so you can find a compromise that is *actually* a compromise, and not a twisting of words to make her look wrong.
posted by celtalitha at 10:30 PM on September 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

We worked it out, through an email exchange started by her where she apologized for raising her voice and asked that I just remind her about it in the future. She's going to try to not raise her voice, and I'm going to try to not thank her for doing her chores (and various other little things like calling her talented, which she doesn't like), and we will just keep working to better communicate.

I am not being sarcastic when I say it's been interesting to learn, through the answers to this post, of the myriad ways I could be pissing people off when I'm trying to be nice. Not pleasant, but interesting. Let's all celebrate that we don't have to live together.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 10:36 PM on September 29, 2013 [14 favorites]

Lol- nice follow up. Glad you worked it out!
posted by jojobobo at 11:42 PM on September 29, 2013

she feels being asked to lower her voice is frustrating and disrespectful

Fuck that noise. She's wrong.
posted by flabdablet at 12:36 AM on September 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

You do not need to respect anybody's feeling of entitlement to shout at you. If they're shouting, they lose the argument. Period.
posted by flabdablet at 12:39 AM on September 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

I am not being sarcastic when I say it's been interesting to learn, through the answers to this post, of the myriad ways I could be pissing people off when I'm trying to be nice.

Some people - myself included - feel that it is very disrespectful to leave shared living spaces, particularly the kitchen, less tidy than they were before I used them. That attitude means I try hard not to create unnecessary work for the people I live with, and I do resent being required to do chores made necessary only because others are less careful.

Others feel that it's disrespectful to express resentment about chores, particularly if there's an imbalance in the way jobs are distributed within the household. For example, by this reckoning the person who does most of the cooking shouldn't have to clean the kitchen afterwards.

I've never heard before of anybody who gets pissed off by being thanked for doing necessary work. That's borderline nuts, in my view. Vive le difference.

Having said all that: in general, none of us have any control at all over how other people will react to us. It's healthy to have a very clear idea of what you will and will not put up with from other people, but that's probably about as far as an overall Theory of Living Together should go. All the rest is completely situation-specific and can only be learned "on the job".

Whenever a new housemate moves in, there's going to be a settling-in period. Typically there will be a honeymoon phase where everybody's pleased with the new arrangements and stoked about having somebody new and interesting to relate to; then comes the petty resentment phase as people are forced to come to terms with the fact that new arrivals come with new expectations.

What happens next is what makes the difference between somewhere I want to live and somewhere I want to leave. A house full of adults will take those petty resentments seriously as impediments to household harmony, and explore them and learn from them and negotiate ways to avoid triggering them. A house full of kids will use them as opportunities to make endless Holy House Rules and bung on endless drama for the amusement of their Facebook audience, and occasionally turn them into best selling books.

Sounds like your household is full of adults. So I'm sure you'll all work it out.
posted by flabdablet at 1:07 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had to quit, because having to do fucking twinkle fingers to be supportive of other people was making me actively angry at people I had previously liked. And I lost respect for friends who insisted that everyone needed to be praised constantly for doing totally normal things, like keeping their commitments and refraining from yelling. It made me feel like a bad person, because everyone was constantly so ridiculously, patronizingly nice, but it was all fake, because it was mandated by the process. It was infuriating, and participating in it made me feel more angry and less nonviolent than I did before. And when I quit, and when I told them why I was quitting, none of my former friends in the group could understand, and I didn't get any twinkle fingers.

This is the vital difference between a house full of people doing NVC because that's who they are and a house full of people doing NVC because they've read about it and think imposing it as a Holy House Rule will somehow make resentment and interpersonal conflict magically go away.

Resentment and interpersonal conflict should be taken as givens. People who want to deal with their own resentments in an NVC way should surely do so, because NVC is indeed a good thing when it comes from a place of security and sincerity. Requiring NVC of other people, though? NVC happens when people are ready to try it for their own peace of mind. It can't, in and of itself, create peace of mind.
posted by flabdablet at 1:16 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

> the myriad ways I could be pissing people off when I'm trying to be nice
Yeah, that's a really interesting thing. In case you're interested – and I'm just guessing that you might, since you live in a hippie coop – here's my take, from a sort of Zen perspective.

There's a tension between you and you're worried because it seemed to be tightening. One way to look at this tension is in terms of "good and bad," "right and wrong," or "for and against."

In Zen, this is a constant theme, for example in Seng-tsan's famous verses:
The Supreme Way is not difficult
If only you do not pick and choose.

For and against opposing each other—
This is the mind’s disease.

As soon as there is right and wrong
The mind is scattered and lost.
And so on. Reading your post with this in mind, it seems likely that subconsciously, you're building up a "right and wrong" situation, and trying to align yourself with the good – sharing feelings, NVC, gratitude, kindness, etc – and your adversary with the bad – terseness, annoyance, loudness, anger, Germanness, etc. This is a recipe for confusion and unclarity.

I realize that's kind of presumptive of me to say, so if I'm wrong or beside the point, which very well may be the case, just ignore me or tell me about it.

I know from my own experience that it's very easy, in situations of "personal conflict," to start fixating on ideas of right and wrong, and especially trying to frame the situation so that "I'm right and they're wrong." Even when that is clearly the case from any number of objective perspectives and accepted norms, it's still not a thought that leads to reconciliation or (gulp) forgiveness.

There was a Korean Zen teacher who liked to ask his students, "What do you do if someone comes into the zendo and puts his cigarette out on the Buddha statue?" Whatever answer anyone came up with, he would pretty much always just hit them with a stick. There's no formula for how to handle situations.

Don't even go back and think about what you did and said and evaluate that as right or wrong, ruminating over what you should have said and done, and so on. That's just making the situation into an abstract ethical "trolley problem." Just don't harbor resentment and do the best you can.

P.S. This comment itself is probably kind of annoying. Hell is other people. Sorry.
posted by mbrock at 1:29 AM on September 30, 2013 [13 favorites]

Pardon me for saying this, but you yourself come across as a bit patronizing and superior: things like you've been there two months to her one month (as if a whole extra MONTH makes a real difference, or means you have what, a right to instruct her on house rules?), how you are always the cool, calm voice of reason (but *she* flies off the handle frequently), and the "thanking her for sweeping" (that sounds like something the lady of the manor would say to her maid, rather than something appropriate from one roommate to another).
posted by easily confused at 1:55 AM on September 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

It's nice that you're so open to seeing her style as legitimate-but-different, but I wouldn't be so eager to accommodate her if I were you. She has the right to dislike the idea of communal chores; she does not have the right to make a big epic sulky production out of it. She has the right to be in a bad mood about someone leaving the kitchen messy; she does not have the right to be angry at you about it, just because you happened to be walking past. It's good of you to respect her "legitimate desire to express her anger", but she's not three years old here.

Likewise, you have the right to say "Don't speak to me that way," or walk away from being yelled at. You don't have to make it about your preferred communication style, like it's just some odd quirk about you that you don't like being angrily told off for things you didn't do. Nobody likes that! Nobody is obliged to put up with that! That isn't even about NVC, that's about basic respect and decency. If she's direct and forthright, she won't have a problem with you being direct and forthright in return.

And I say this as someone who would be driven to the point of madness in your house, and who would haaaaaaaate regular house meetings where we all had to share one good thing. She is allowed to hate that; she is not allowed to get all "well my preferred method of communicating is being irrationally angry at people and demanding they listen to me, so deal with it!" I do think you need to watch for coming across as condescending ("let's try to think of a way we can talk about cleaning and stressful things in a better way", as mentioned above - not the best approach), but don't let her walk all over you, either.

(also, I don't know how many communal living arrangements you've been in before, but in my experience: housemates who make a big thing about not following the chore schedule because they shouldn't have to be forced to, and they'd totally do their fair share of their own free will anyway so why do we need this system? Without exception, they won't do their fair share.)
posted by Catseye at 2:22 AM on September 30, 2013 [7 favorites]

The one thing - so many people seem to be listing things about this arrangement that they'd hate and would drive them crazy and using that to excuse and justify this woman's behavior. She chose to live there, it's not a barracks assignment. She knew about all this stuff in advance and agreed to it, so for her now to get all eye-rolly and huffy is ridiculous. This is the house culture, chosen by the inhabitants because it's the lifestyle they prefer. If she doesn't like it, she needs to find another situation.

And raising her voice at you? Screw that. You say, "Don't yell at me." and turn away and leave the situation. Yelling is not communicating and it's like teaching a kid not to whine; you "can't hear them" if they do it. I have the same reaction to being yelled at, and at the same time I get sought out for venting too, and it just sucks. You need distance from this woman.
posted by lemniskate at 4:46 AM on September 30, 2013 [9 favorites]

I have a few German friends and some German family by marriage, and one thing they all don't seem to mind is voices being raised in argument. I wouldn't say they are combative, just forceful, but for a person like myself who doesn't like conflict, it can be tough, even if we're just discussing an issue of small importance.
posted by feste at 11:34 AM on September 30, 2013

What you, me or anyone else thinks about the house rules, policies and norms is irrelevant.

There will always be some give and take when it comes to human beings, none of whom are perfect, but she signed up for this, comes across as fundamentally unhappy with its realities and a poor fit for the house.
posted by ambient2 at 1:14 PM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'd speak to the other house mates about asking her to move out.

Having people be on the same page, and follow the house rules is an important part of share house living.

Her behviour is already effecting you.
posted by Burgatron at 1:30 PM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ha. I've been your roommate, sort of -- I tried the hippie co-op living style because it sounded awesome! And I'm sure it is awesome for some people. Within a week I had concluded that it is so very much not my style and that living there was grating on me 24/7. My housemates were all fine people and I remain friends with one of them, I just couldn't live there. But of course, I did all my chores and did my best to remain as pleasant as I could until I moved out. Which happened as quickly as I could manage.

Your update is promising and I hope your shared understanding of each other continues to improve. As that process happens, please remember this: she is doing her best.
posted by nicodine at 1:51 PM on September 30, 2013

You do have to deal with community rules, i.e., having people over. Otherwise, I'd avoid her a lot, not initiate any contact other than basic civility - Good morning, hello, etc. And I'd develop some toughness about people who are disapproving and bitchy. It's not your job to over-accommodate her. If she's unpleasant, ignore her if possible, and if you must respond do so at a the basic civility level, not being extra-friendly. You don't like to be thanked for doing a chore? Got it. Don't personalize her attitude towards you. I think she'll end up being pissy and getting herself asked to leave.
posted by Mom at 12:16 PM on October 1, 2013

In my recent question, I had a roommate yell at me. It is not OK. Some people were saying that it was OK. It's not OK. You don't yell at people you live with, it's not cool.
posted by eq21 at 11:22 AM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

picked this home specifically because the people in it valued non-violent communication

You might be assuming that other people mean the same thing by "non-violent communication" as you do. As you can see by some of the earlier answers, people who aren't familiar with it might assume that it literally means communication that isn't violent, rather than the system which goes by that name.

It's possible that you have studied non-violent communication more than others in the house, and have a different sense of how to go about that.
posted by yohko at 2:29 PM on October 8, 2013

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