because "wow, you're a terrible person" won't make me many friends
February 8, 2014 2:27 PM   Subscribe

Getting to know your new roommates when a problematic roommate dominates it all

So I finally moved out of my old, terrible roommate situation and into a place that is an improvement in almost every respect (same rent, much nicer/more central neighborhood, bigger room, the kind of place that seems too good to be true but so far miraculously isn't) It's a wing-style walkup apartment with five bedrooms and a small-to-medium kitchen/common area, and I live with four roommates I'll call A, B, C and D. It really isn't as crowded as it might seem. A and B are both guys and rarely home -- like, I've seen them maybe a total of five minutes combined. C is a graduate student and also rarely home, and seems OK, but again I've only seen her for about half an hour total.

The problem is D. I really don't dislike too many people, but D is a terrible person. That seems really harsh, I know, and from what I know about her it seems like she's had a hard life, but she's constantly negative -- I don't think I've ever heard her say something that wasn't a complaint -- privileged in the sense that she looks down on everyone, and bizarrely judgmental about anything and everything. (Some of the many things she's said she can't stand: people who shop sales, people who live below their means, editors, bloggers, judges, people who don't wear makeup, people with large ankles, people who "aren't at least somewhat racist," people who give her gifts under $50 ["I need more than $50!"], this could go on for ages.) She's also almost always home, because she's unemployed (which isn't an issue in and of itself but does maximize the time I have to deal with her), and the kind of person who will corner you into conversations, which would be fine if those conversations didn't consist of her complaining and me smiling and nodding and trying not to look too horrified when she inevitably says something horrifying. I've spent enough time talking to her that I don't think it's a matter of a bad first impression, I really think she is just like this. This comes off kind of bitchy, I guess, and I wish it didn't, but I promise it's not exaggerating at all. She's in her 30s, so it's probably too late for major personality changes.

The upshot to all this is that D is moving out at the end of the month for financial reasons. (The landlord's handling finding a new roommate, and even if I could tell people I know who are looking there's no way this place will last more than an hour, it's that good a deal.) Until then, I have to put up with her. Fine, whatever, it's a short month. The thing is, I'd like to get to know my other roommates better, because I think that makes a healthy living situation, and I know the first month is the most important for people forming their opinions about you, but I can't see a way to do that without D being involved -- she is literally always around, so I've never had a one-on-one conversation with anyone but her. I also don't want to get on D's bad side, both because it seems incredibly possible and because I'm the newest person in the apartment, which makes the dynamic weird. (D's been there longest, C moved in mid-January, and I don't know when the other guys did but it was after her.) Basically, I don't want to look like that creepy person who's always in her room and never social, but I also want to avoid having to hang out with D and smile and nod and pretend I'm not aghast and look like I'm the one who's being rude. And I definitely don't want to get on D's bad side (which seems extremely possible for a person to do) and be made into the scapegoat roommate or the object of drama. Is this even doable? Maybe on March 1 someone will broach the subject of "wow, D was kind of awful" and everyone will laugh, but I don't see that happening.

(It was an issue with my last place, obviously, so I'll just mention it here: cleanliness is probably not going to be an issue here. D is really particular about her things but not neat, if that makes sense -- like, I'm the one usually telling her to do the dishes that've been in the sink for three days, not vice versa.)

is it possible to even have a normal, friendly roommate situation with people who actually like each other in NYC?
posted by dekathelon to Human Relations (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
So what exactly is the question? Like, if you have to deal with D when you hang out with the other roommates, it'll only be for another 3 weeks, and if they like her just fine, then you can let them chat with her while you just kind of hang out and keep fairly quiet. It's pretty usual for the "new guy/gal" to be the quiet one, at first.
posted by xingcat at 2:36 PM on February 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

It's a month, just be really nice to her and deal with it. Showing that you can be kind even when someone is difficult might even impress your other new roommates who are forming an opinion of you.
posted by needs more cowbell at 2:39 PM on February 8, 2014 [14 favorites]

You are making this out to be much more problematic than it really is. A, B, and C are barely around as it is. D is out of there in 3 weeks. You bide your time pleasantly, and in 3 weeks the dynamic will have changed. There's not some super-tiny window of opportunity to bond with your roommates that's going to close between now and then.
posted by scody at 2:42 PM on February 8, 2014 [49 favorites]

Plan your getting-to-know-you whatever for after D moves out, do not spring it on the other roommates until after she's gone, and don't worry about it between then and now.

You could also try not just nodding when she says shit, but for a month it probably isn't worth it.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:45 PM on February 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hooray, you have a new place! This internet stranger remembers your other questions and is glad something is going better!

One thing I've learned about people that is probably also true in NYC: they like things to be easy and comfortable, and they're willing to forget a lot in order to be comfortable. I think that if you keep to yourself a lot the first few weeks but then get more social with everyone, people will forget any "ooh, she always keeps to herself" business, especially if you're cheerful and friendly when you do make an appearance.

Also, people like food - if you can plausibly make it seem that you just happened to get something shareable and delicious, and leave it out in the kitchen with a note, like "I [just happened to get these], help yourselves!" it will boost your friend cred. Or if you can cook something simple yet shareable, like cookies - the kind of thing where it's really plausible that you would make a big batch and still have enough over to share.

Also, this woman sounds bizarre! It's possible that after she's gone you can have all those "so what was up with her and that thing about the ankles? And the racism?" And that these conversations will be a bonding situation.

It seems frustrating and lonely to have to go through three weeks - which I think can seem pretty long, especially in winter - not being able to chat with your other roommates. And I can see why you don't want to seem weird. But I suspect that in a situation like this, you can regain a lot of ground in a few weeks if you're friendly and nice even if a bit reserved now.
posted by Frowner at 2:45 PM on February 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


This girl is not your friend. She's your roommate. You don't have to hang out with her, enjoy her company, respect her, or even participate in conversations with her if you don't want to.

Practice disengaging from conversations when she drops a judge-bomb.

D: ... and that's why I hate people who don't moisturize their elbows!

You: Oh. That's... interesting. Welp, these old episodes of Community ain't gonna watch themselves!

It's a month. You can do this.

In terms of getting to know your other roommates, what about inviting them to have dinner at the apartment? Or some other cheap easy at home activity, like a movie night, cocktail time, etc. Keep it light and fun and "let's get to know each other better". Nearby popular/easy destinations like the neighborhood coffee shop or bar are also good roommate bonding experiences. I've also had good luck asking if folks wanted to go in on takeout, though that's easier for one or two than four.
posted by Sara C. at 2:46 PM on February 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

I know the first month is the most important for people forming their opinions about you

Where does this come from? I think you are imposing a completely unnecessary deadline on yourself. I have grown to like many people despite not getting to know them within the first month after introductions.

However: do you have their phone numbers or email? If not, get them. Get D's too if she is there, just to be polite. Then text or email to ask (one at time) if they would like to get coffee. Boom. Done.

Be prepared for the possibility that they might prefer to maintain some emotional distance and not be friends with their roommates, and see the apartment as a place to sleep and shower and not much else. If they don't want to be pals, let it go and don't take it personally.

For the rest of the month, try spending less time at home.
posted by bunderful at 2:47 PM on February 8, 2014 [9 favorites]

I didn't see that you want to get to know your other roommates while disinviting D. I would not do this. Instead, I would wait till next month to start your Roommate Bonding project.

Maybe invite folks to do stuff one on one in the meantime, but I really don't think "let's all hang out and not invite D" is a great plan, for various reasons.
posted by Sara C. at 2:48 PM on February 8, 2014

Quite possibly, your other roommates are never at home because of D. They're probably biding their time until she's gone before starting any bonding stuff and so should you. It's a short time.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:53 PM on February 8, 2014 [23 favorites]

Step way back. These are roommates. Spend whatever time in public areas, and be cordial but distant with D. Consider that perhaps D is terribly depressed and the negativity stems from that. People can be really annoying, but annoying isn't actually terrible. You may find that reducing your level of judgment will help you see the better side of people.
posted by theora55 at 2:58 PM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Once, in the days before smart phones, I managed to disengage from someone who was difficult to get away from by hitting the redial button on my phone which was in my pocket. My friend called me back to figure out what was going on, the ringing interrupted the difficult person, and I "had to go to take this important phone call."

But really, just avoid the common areas until she's gone.
posted by bunderful at 3:11 PM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's a month. Spend your time elsewhere when possible. D's behaviors are her own problem. Your problem is not getting sucked into her negativity. Best solution to your problem is to give her plenty of space.

If she's out at the end of the month, then in 20 days this problem is fixed by her absence. For the next 20 days fix it with your absence.
posted by 26.2 at 3:14 PM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know the first month is the most important for people forming their opinions about you, but I can't see a way to do that without D being involved -- she is literally always around, so I've never had a one-on-one conversation with anyone but her. I also don't want to get on D's bad side, both because it seems incredibly possible and because I'm the newest person in the apartment, which makes the dynamic weird.

I remember your previous questions, so I want to congratulate you on getting into a better living situation! That is awesome.

However, as with the previous question, I think sometimes it's hard for you to judge what you should have to put up with from other people. I'll just lay it out: you don't need D to like you; since she's unlikely to change and she isn't there for much longer, your best course of action is to be civil and pleasant BUT ALSO avoid her as much as you can until she's gone. It's not incumbent on you to put up with her for this month to "prove" you're an easygoing roommate or something.

I totally agree with Omnomnom and MoonOrb's comments that D is probably why A, B, and C are making themselves so scarce at the moment. Take a page from their book! You're the only person right now who feels some kind of responsibility to do anything but avoid her. They won't think you're weird for it--they'll understand and think you are very reasonably trying to preserve your own sanity!

If, after D is gone, you feel comfortable making more social overtures, then do that. There's no time limit on it. And don't take it personally if they are friendly but not really into being friends with their other roommates. That's just how some people prefer to keep their living situations.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:19 PM on February 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Frankly, it's quite possible that A, B, and C are never home just so they can avoid D.

Everyone else has given you great advice. Just ride through the rest of the month and worry about socializing with the rest of them after D moved out (and maybe E, another new and hopefully awesome roommate, moves in).

And yeah, congrats on getting yourself out of your previous situation!
posted by Zelos at 4:06 PM on February 8, 2014

The dynamics in small groups can change a surprising amount when one person joins or leaves. Sure, first impressions go a long way, but it's highly unlikely roommate relations will have permanently crystallized in the few weeks between your arrival and D's departure. Work on being a good roommate to the other three, and just do the best you can to shrug D off for now. You don't have to be super social with your other roommates, just say hi when you see them and don't hide out in your room for hours when they're home.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:09 PM on February 8, 2014

You are way overthinking this.

Spend as much time away from your new place for the next 20 days as is feasible for you and get to know your new roommates when D is gone. When you are home, spend as much time as you can in your room without being antisocial with the other roommates.

Life's too short! Don't waste your time with D, spend it at a coffee shop, the library, out for a walk, visiting friends,volunteering or whatever floats your boat.
posted by Snazzy67 at 7:59 PM on February 8, 2014

Response by poster: update: she's not moving out at least for the next few months. goddamnit. (what she's going to tell the landlord, I have no idea.) I'm just mainly concerned about social dynamics -- in every situation with multiple roommates there's always one person who picks out a scapegoat and another person who becomes that scapegoat.

I really don't think everyone else being scarce is because of her, though... one's a chef, one's a grad student as I said, and I don't know what the other does yet but they all have reasons to be massively busy.

And yes, it would be amazing to be friends with my roommates - everyone I know is in a situation like that, and I'm jealous and it makes me feel like shit about myself that I don't have it - but obviously rent/etc are bigger priorities and I'm not moving again if I don't have to because that sucked.
posted by dekathelon at 6:11 PM on February 9, 2014

I'm just mainly concerned about social dynamics -- in every situation with multiple roommates there's always one person who picks out a scapegoat and another person who becomes that scapegoat.

In my experience, this is a flawed assumption. There's no need to jockey for position to avoid being the scapegoat. None of my roommate situations had that dynamic.

You're coming out of a bad roommate situation. Don't carry that trash into your new home.
posted by 26.2 at 6:19 PM on February 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm just mainly concerned about social dynamics -- in every situation with multiple roommates there's always one person who picks out a scapegoat and another person who becomes that scapegoat.

I can see why this might worry you. I don't think it's inevitable - both because it's a relatively uncommon situation and because I think you can take steps to minimize the likelihood of it happening.

I have lived in group houses for years and I've observed that there often is mild and shifting scapegoating - two people will grump over a third who broke a bowl and didn't tell anyone, etc. But I have observed this to shift - it isn't always the same two grumping. I have seen situations where there was one odd-person-out in the house, but this was always because there was something genuinely problematic going on with that person:

Things to avoid, if at all possible, when living with people you don't know well:
1. Leaving huge messes or rotting food - if you tend to be untidy or to forget stuff in the common areas, work to stop.
2. Not doing shares of chores, not buying household stuff when this is expected, putting things back empty instead of tossing or replacing them.
3. Loud dramatic yelling phonecalls in your room, loud crying in your room on a repeat basis. (Obviously, if something really bad happens, that's different - but when it is chronic it gives the wrong impression if you don't know other people well. If you do, that's different.)
4. Always having rent drama. If you are having trouble making rent, be up front as soon as you know what's going on. Present a plan you know you can follow through on - not a plan that sounds good but is likely to fail. It's better to be reliable than promise big. I have had many housemates have rent problems. I have a current housemate who has rent problems. The ones where it was destructive was the ones where people lied, hid or over-promised. Current housemate is upfront and realistic about deadlines and although it's not my favorite situation ever, I still like him.
5. Inappropriate intimacy - this is harder to manage, but a good guide is not to bring up a kind of thing that your housemates don't bring up first. If they want to talk about sex or getting drunk or their terrible childhoods, you can participate in the conversation, but don't escalate it. They talk about getting smashed and insulting their boss, you talk about getting lightly buzzed and losing your phone. They talk about having sex in the park with strangers, you talk about....something less dramatic. This may feel like you're walking on eggshells if you are not socially gifted, but it's also something that you can drop after you know everyone better.
6. Trying to control common spaces and shared things. If other people want to arrange the silverware a certain way, or if they like the TV against the west wall and not the north wall, just let it alone, even if that's not the way you'd do things. Sometimes this means putting up with some moderate annoyance, especially with kitchen stuff, but just let it ride unless it's a health hazard or the kitchen is always so messy that you can't cook. I have known two people to sink their housing arrangements because they were always trying to control little tiny aspects of other people's lives and cooking habits, always nagging and picking at people over stuff that they really should have let go.

Also, spend time away from the apartment - don't be The Person Who Is Always There. (I have a very dear housemate who is Always Here - but that's actually good, because I know him. All this stuff changes once you know people a little.) One year a long time ago when I was very lonely and in a shared living situation, I got in the habit of going for a long bike ride every evening. I also took a long daytime ride on one weekend day. This was good for me (partly because I was in really good shape) because it got me out of the house and gave me a sense that I had something going on, and it was good for the people I shared the housing with because it created a feeling that I had things to do, places to be, etc. This all came about, by the way, after I was very obviously rejected for a Big Fun Thing that they were all doing together - they just didn't want me along. I felt really bad about that and decided that if they didn't want me to go on the Big Fun Thing, I would find things to amuse myself thank you very much. The thing is, over that year, I gradually became a happier and more socially skilled person and in the end, we were all good friends, to the point where when I left to do something else, they really regretted it and found my replacement disappointing. I think that what happened was that the bike rides helped me achieve a sense of purpose on my own - I came to feel that I didn't need other people as much, that my life wasn't going to be a crushing tragedy if I didn't get invited on stuff. And I came to develop more confidence in my ability to take care of myself. Also, exploring on my bike was fun and helped me to do some safe problem-solving (when I got lost or got a flat far from home - if things had gone totally wrong, I could always have taken a bus or taxi back home, so I never felt scared.)

My point in this is that if there's something routine you can do that is a kind of self-care and that gets you out of the apartment regularly, that might be good too. It doesn't need to be expensive - I started going for the bike rides because they were cheap and I could take them any time. Go to the library and read a different magazine for thirty minutes a few nights a week? Take the subway or something (you can tell I know so much about New York, right?) to a pretty neighborhood or a park and take a walk.

For me, a big problem has always been that I feel really helpless and I feel that other people are going to hate me because they are terrible and because I am terrible. And if people actually do end up hating me, I feel like all my worst fears have come true and the world is collapsing. Those times when I've been able to get into a good habit of self-care, where I can say "I like myself, I'm okay, I can amuse myself and as long as people aren't actually poking me with sticks, I can deal if they don't like me" have been some of the best times of my life.

I'm very much a "I'm going to bake cookies and eat some myself and leave a big tub of them in the kitchen for everyone to share" person. That's friendly, low-key and not a Big Dramatic Gesture.

Also, this woman you're talking about sounds really strange. It is possible that even if she does start loathing you and try to blame you for stuff, it won't work because she is always popping out with "and I hate people who have wide ankles".

Another thing I have noticed: I've had a couple of friends pull themselves out of the kind of multi-variable really shitty situation you've been in. Sometimes it has taken lots of small steps, but each step has been a steady improvement. My one friend, in fact, struggled with housing for more than a year and has finally - finally - moved into a tiny, perfect, cheap studio owned by a friend of a friend. It was a long slog with some setbacks, but it was also a steady upward trajectory. I think you've gotten yourself out of a really bad situation and into one that looks a lot better even if it's not perfect - so what I'm saying is that even if things go wrong a little bit, that doesn't mean everything is going to just slide back to Unbearably Awful.

Anyway, I wish you well. I hope you can relax and start to heal from your crappy and stressful recent experiences.
posted by Frowner at 6:52 AM on February 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: way, way after the fact update: she finally moved out and as it turns out everyone WAS secretly avoiding her, so, um, congratulations to me?
posted by dekathelon at 1:01 PM on April 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

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