How do I cope with my offensive roommates?
December 27, 2014 8:54 AM   Subscribe

I'm a woman who is living with two straight cismen who routinely have loud, offensive, misogynistic/racist/queerphobic conversations in the apartment's common areas. I'd like them to stop doing this in shared spaces because it makes me and my guests uncomfortable. I need tips for talking to them.

I'm a 28 year old American woman who recently moved to Taipei. I work as an English teacher and so do the roommates (both mid thirties, one American, one Brit.) I found this apartment out of desperation after my first roommate situation fell through. I'm renting my room month-to-month but for financial and logistical reasons, I'd rather not move for another 3 months or so.

The roommates regularly use slurs and other derogatory language for women, gay, and trans people. A lot of it is couched as "jokes" but it makes me extremely uncomfortable and triggered.

The worst offender is "John," the American who hold the lease. I have no other complaints about him as a roommate - he's friendly, keeps me informed of relevant household info, does his fair share of cleaning, etc. About three weeks ago, after listening to him discuss his experiences with sex tourism in the Phillipines/SE Asia with the other roommate (using really derogatory and disturbing language,) I told him that conversations in public areas can be heard throughout the apartment and I was considering moving out because I was uncomfortable with some of those conversations. I was not very specific about what made me uncomfortable but I'm assuming he figured it out because things got a little better after that for a while.

However, last night, during a Christmas celebration at our apartment, John, the other roommate, and John's visiting friend spent the evening using offensive slurs, graphically discussing their sexual "conquests," making gay jokes, and putting pornographic frosting "decorations" on gingerbread men I had baked for everyone. I had invited a female friend to our apartment and she was really uncomfortable. I was embarrassed at my roommates' lack of consideration for others and furious that they put my friend and I through that on Christmas day.

This isn't a permanent living situation, but I'd like to be more comfortable living here and not embarrassed to invite my friends over. John has told me he thinks I'm a great roommate. He's stressed about money now and I think I have a bit of leverage because he doesn't want me to move out for another few months.

I'm having a hard time figuring out if I should talk to them or what I should say. To complicate things a little more, I've experienced multiple incidents of assault and abuse from other men in the last year. I don't feel like these guys are dangerous, just pigs, but the idea of bringing this up and having them possibly be angry with me is really stressful for me at this particular time. However, having to listen to this type of language in my home is also really upsetting.

These guys are well into adulthood and I don't realistically expect their attitudes to change, but it would be great if they could at least STFU about the worst of it in common areas. Should I talk to them? How? And how do I survive the next few months of living here if nothing really changes?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You cannot change their behavior - you asked once and it was not important enough to prioritize, and at this point is probably deliberate to make you feel uncomfortable.

You could try, one more time, if you think John is just exceptionally clueless, but you probably won't get any traction unless you really spread on the "save me" very thick, and also being incredibly detailed about what is bothering you (expect him to take advantage of anything you don't list). Do not expect him to figure it out, or give a fuck about figuring it out. He doesn't care, but like a little boy he may behave if you call him out on specific things.

But realistically, probably you'll need to switch gears so this place is simply a place where you sleep and store your things, do not bring friends over, do not socialize with them, at best keep him scared that you'll bolt with no warning.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:11 AM on December 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

Calling them out while it was happening would have been the best option. This makes it clear to them exactly what the problem is, especially if you have someone there to back you up. You said things did get better the last time you talked to him about it. Have that talk again, and let him know that if it happens again you will call him out on it publicly... and follow through. If that doesn't work then you may need to invest in some good headphones.

It might help to explain to him during the conversation why it bothers you. He is probably more likely to be considerate if he understands how it makes you feel, instead of believing you just enjoy being the PC police or something.
posted by metasarah at 9:26 AM on December 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your top priority should be protecting yourself from further harm. You can't change what your roommates say, but you can change what you hear. Don't be around to listen to them. I suggest that you retreat to your room as much as possible and don't bring friends over. Use headphones when necessary.
posted by workerant at 9:28 AM on December 27, 2014

Sounds like they're pretty far down the rabbit hole. They're not in a place to get it and might never be. I agree it would be easier to avoid them as much as possible. If they're curious about why, explain.

Actually, if you just want them to reduce the behaviour (and I think this might be your best hope), maybe you could get them to quiet down a little bit around you at least (but sadly, not change their thinking in a real way) by appealing to benevolent sexism. "Look, if it's not clear to you why this might be bothersome, could you at least tone it down for courtesy's sake? Would you talk like this around your mother or sister? I'm not one of the guys. It's upsetting. I'd like to feel comfortable in my home. I'd appreciate more respectful behaviour." It risks reinforcing their noxious thinking, but really, they seem committed to not growing up.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:49 AM on December 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Rather than be all timid and tiptoe around it, be jokey, but firm. "Dude, I'm right here! Do that caveman shit out of earshot." When they started doodling on your cookies, "Hey! What are you, 13? Knock it off."

Some of these douche-bro guys will respond better to someone who stands up for herself in no uncertain terms, than someone who's trying to all nicey-nice about it.

They may be doing it to get a rise out of you, or they may be clueless, what you don't want is a pay off. So no getting all upset and weepy about it (not that you are) but just act like you're one of the guys, and call them on their douchiness.

Basically treat them like your backwards little brothers. I'm serious as death eating crackers.

Some helpful phrases:

"Every time you talk about your conquests, I divide by 2. As much as you run on about it, I think it's time for me to start dividing by 3."

"Do you actually KNOW any gay people? It may shock you to discover that you'd strike out in that arena too."

"Dude, that routine is worn out, why don't you do five minutes on airplane food?"

Basically, knock them down a peg, take the piss out of them. I promise, they'll be more respectful and the tension will go down significantly.

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:49 AM on December 27, 2014 [27 favorites]

I agree with metasarah (and on preview, also Ruthless Bunny); I think calling it out immediately will have the best results. In my experience, conversations that go this way usually start with one party testing the waters with something just slightly over the line, and once it's been established that that was socially acceptable, things rapidly escalate until you're in the middle of a full-on gross-out fest. A raised eyebrow, rolled eyes, or a pointed look of disapproval or disgust directed towards the instigator may embarrass them enough to shut things like this down before they get out of control. Some other key phrases if that isn't enough: "Seriously?" "Dude, gross." "So, do you actually know any women other than me?" "Is that how your mother taught you to behave?" "With an attitude like that, it's no wonder you have to pay for sex."
posted by jordemort at 10:01 AM on December 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think your chances of getting traction on this are slim to none. I'd save my breath, bide my time and aim to leave as soon as a new situation was available.
posted by Middlemarch at 10:15 AM on December 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

"Do not use that language around me, or anywhere I can hear it." Repeat and repeat and repeat. Do not get sucked into any arguments about "But you know they really are like that" or "PC police" or "It's just a joke." Just "Do not use that language around me, or anywhere I can hear it," every single time they start, and after every single sentence they say if they continue.

If you want to talk to him or them before they start up, I'd keep it similarly simple. "Your language was embarrassing last night. Do not use that language around me, or anywhere I can hear it, ever again."
posted by jaguar at 10:35 AM on December 27, 2014

To complicate things a little more, I've experienced multiple incidents of assault and abuse from other men in the last year. I don't feel like these guys are dangerous, just pigs, but the idea of bringing this up and having them possibly be angry with me is really stressful for me at this particular time. ...And how do I survive the next few months of living here if nothing really changes?

It can be helpful to remind yourself that your roommates are not your abusers and that you have power in this situation, because you can leave, even if just for a few hours to get away from them if they start behaving like three-year-olds.
posted by jaguar at 10:39 AM on December 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm in the camp that says you should call these guys out when this shit is happening. It may not, in fact, change their behavior, but I still think it's important for women to learn to have courage to speak truth to douchebaggery.
posted by drlith at 10:42 AM on December 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

You're having trouble standing up for yourself. Perhaps you can feel less conflicted about standing up for specific other people? Not because these people necessarily need your protection, but to assist the world at poking holes in your roommates' suffocating bubble of smugness, which has also been suffocating you.

Use Ruthless Bunny's scorned exasperation ("Do you actually KNOW any gay people? It may shock you to discover that you'd strike out in that arena too"), and make it about a specific gay friend of yours, in Taipei or elsewhere. Adapt cotton dress sock's reference to mothers and sisters: "Oh, all women are whores, are they? Does that include your sister Adrienne?" If your roommate says it does, switch to your sister Beatrice, illustrated (if the topic continues) with anecdotes of exactly why she has dumped men she found wanting in exactly what respects (preferably the rich assholes), and of her current marriage built on mutual support, respect, attraction and communication (so different from the tawdry relationships that are the only ones your roommates seem capable of imagining). Talk about people who have dealt with racist or transphobic slurs, and with specific forms of economic and/or violent oppression supported by such slurs. Note that your goal here is not to convince your roommates, or to directly win an argument. The goal is to change the mood of the conversation, and hopefully induce in them some shamed sense that the world is larger than their tiny worldviews, and that the people they're talking about would despise them for revealing such ignorance.

Right now they feel they can participate in this bullshit because they're in their home, and no such critical eyes are upon them. Make it clear that they're wrong, at least when you're around, because you are part of this larger mature and historically grounded critique/movement/struggle. The trouble with treating your roommates as crass little boys is that this can actually play into their self-image, and encourage them to see their banter with you as a game. It's not.
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:29 AM on December 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

It sounds like John is not a horrible person who is going to do something to you if you mention it -- just a guy who happens to be sexist scum bag. I'd pull him aside and mention that you may need to move out soon because you don't feel like you're fitting in there and they may need a guy as a roommate instead. He will ask why, and you can mention that you overhear conversations that are casually demeaning toward women and gay people and it really upsets you, and that when you've brought female friends over, it's made them uncomfortable too. He won't want you to move out and it will put him on notice to stop alienating you.

In the mean time, keep looking around for affordable living situations with females. Given your own personal history, it may be best to find a way to live in a safe space of women where strange men won't be coming in and out. I don't have any history of abuse to speak of, but I just feel safer and more respected in environments with women.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:59 PM on December 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

I lived with a guy like this. I've posted about it before in other people's ask threads.

The short answer is that calling them out will likely result in an "ooook mom *eye roll*" sort of response, you'll probably get rules lawyering or "explanations", and if you do it when both of them are around they'll likely gang up on you.

My roommate, the only lady in the house at the time, called him out on it over and over and over. We did too. His response to us was always to the effect of "why do you care?" His response to her was always to argue or act like she was being a "butthurt" spoilsport.

We still talk shit about this guy years later. It was amazing when he moved out.

I really doubt you can change them though. The best you could possibly get would be them to do it a bit less when you're around, but speaking from that and other experiences I bet they'd just do it more to get a rise out of you, or want to fight with you about being a stoooopid feminazi or whatever.

It's fucked up, but the options are basically listen to it or move from what I've seen.
posted by emptythought at 1:47 PM on December 27, 2014

Sincere explanations probably won't help much. Just slap them down every. single time.

Dude(s), seriously, so uncool to have that conversation here, now, well anywhere, anytime, but shut it.
Take your sexist garbage elsewhere. Right now. go on, go.
I can hear you. it's tacky, childish and vile. Cut it out.
You're kidding right? I have human friends visiting. Make an attempt to be marginally civilized.

posted by theora55 at 2:18 PM on December 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

How much of the problem is you being able to hear their conversations in your room, rather than then being offensive in front of you? Could you get a white noise machine for your room to mitigate the problem some?
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 2:25 PM on December 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've had many experiences over the years with manbabies like these two. The dynamic of 2 dudes, one woman plays into their behaviour because if it was just you and one of these dudes, this shit wouldn't be happening. They're doing it to compare dicks with each other about who is the dudeliest dudebro in the house because they have an audience - you.

I wouldn't waste my time or breath trying to educate these assholes. Spend as little time as you can there and try to change living situations as soon as possible.

On your way out the door on your last day there, tell them (if you feel like it) that they have no business teaching anything to anyone, especially not young girls/women because they are sexist, racist, homophobic bigots and their attitudes are completely at odds with the openmindedness and compassion required of a good teacher and they lack integrity and professionalism.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 3:09 PM on December 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

This is when I wish everybody had Crucial Conversations training, because I think it'd really help. I'll try to apply some of its principles here, because I think it's worth making another attempt at approaching this with "John."

1) Assume innocence on his part -- just a little bit. Consider the question, "Why would an otherwise decent, rational person behave this way?" (Not to excuse the behavior, just to get to a place where you view the behavior as human -- flawed, instead of evil or monstrous.) Give the benefit of a doubt and assume he's not trying to make you feel terrible. You say that you don't think he's being dangerous or abusive, just a pig, so probably his behavior is little-to-none about you. You also say that apart from this, he's been a decent roommate, and when you alluded to the problem before, the behavior improved somewhat. People don't generally learn new habits with one lesson -- assume that he doesn't realize the magnitude of this problem and make an attempt to make him aware.

2) Approach him individually at a time that's a little removed from the trash-talking incidents (to minimize embarrassment, allow you to feel calm about it, and eliminate the chance that two dudes together will get defensive/team up against you), and ask if it's okay to talk to him about something. Out of the context of trying to impress his buddies, and knowing that he'd like to retain you as a roommate, he may be fairly receptive to feedback. If you think it would help, mention that it's a tough topic for you to bring up, and you feel anxious mentioning it, but it's too important to you to not say something.

3) This time, be very specific about what's bothering you. Include a caveat about "You probably don't realize this" or "You may not know this about me, but..." Say as much as you are comfortable with about why it upsets you -- include why it's triggering if it feels safe to you, or just talk about how you felt embarrassed when you brought a friend by, and want your home to be a comfortable place where you don't have to hear that kind of talk or subject others to it unexpectedly.

4) Keep the discussion to facts about the pattern of behavior and how it made you feel, and don't impute motivations to him or the other guy. You don't want to be all "you're a sexist pig, you must hate me/not have any respect for me," etc. Instead go with "We talked about these types of things (use of slurs, graphic discussion of sexual topics) before, although I recall that I may not have been very specific. But it seemed like you toned things down for a while, and it felt better around here and I appreciated that. Then, at our Christmas party, it happened again and it really upset me."

5) Ask for his take on what's going on. Everybody tells themselves stories about what's going on from their perspective, and you want to give them a chance to give their version. "So... maybe this seems out of nowhere to you, or maybe you have a different take on it. What do you think of what I've said so far?" And then listen. Your goal here is to get to mutual understanding -- a documentary, not a drama.

6) Once you get the sense that he understands or sympathizes somewhat with your perspective, talk about some goals you can each agree to. "Here's what I'd like to see happen -- I just need to have this kind of talk kept out of common areas when I'm home. Can you agree to that?" And as a follow-up (my husband's excellent suggestion), "If I hear you saying something that makes me uncomfortable, can I remind you to tone it down?"

I don't think there's a need to reinforce the threat of your moving out -- he'll have that in mind. And then, if he does violate the agreement you make, and doesn't immediately apologize/try to correct it, or reacts badly to reminders to cool it, you can remind him of what you discussed and then bring that leverage to bear.

If he reacts badly to the whole discussion, well, at least you tried to exert some influence, and you know where you stand.

Incidentally, I don't mean to imply that you're obligated to educate or civilize these oafs -- far from it. You can legitimately choose to just avoid being around them, say. But it seems like that punishes you, when you may have a legitimate chance at making your living situation better. I think it's worth a shot. And besides it helping you, both these guys and their future roommate(s) may benefit.
posted by Smells of Detroit at 7:25 PM on December 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

Find a new place. If you care about trying to change them, let them know this is the reason you're moving.
posted by the jam at 8:24 PM on December 27, 2014

Lately I've been trying extremely concise interpersonal complaints. "Remember how I told you I was uncomfortable with the conversations in the house? I'm uncomfortable again." Then let him take it from there. Either he'll be conciliatory or he won't. You don't have to give him a long embroidered apologetic talk about how he might not realize he's being a creepy pig. If things don't change for the better, get some white noise and tell yourself that it will pass soon. Sorry you have to deal with this.
posted by feets at 12:46 AM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Lately I've been trying extremely concise interpersonal complaints... You don't have to give him a long embroidered apologetic talk about how he might not realize he's being a creepy pig.

Yeah, my general rule is the more offensive the comment, the shorter the objection. People know full well when they're being offensive; they don't need handholding and education and "I know you didn't mean it"s when they very well did mean it. "Knock it off" keeps them from having anything to argue or react against.
posted by jaguar at 8:47 AM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Feminine, but stern- can you do teacher voice? "Boys, that is enough!" Is probably all this will take to nip in the bud.
posted by windykites at 6:53 PM on January 1, 2015

Mod note: From the OP:
I have a (terrible) update to this situation that might be useful to those who come across this question in the future.

On New Year's Eve, about 6 days after I posted this question, "John" was in a common area of the apartment, mocking and graphically describing a sexual encounter he recently had with a woman who had been severely sexually abused as a child. I asked him to keep it down, he accused me of "censoring" him and having a problem with sex, and I told him he was offensive and sexist and I'm tired of it. He blew up at me, told me to move out, then waved a knife at me and told me he would stab me if he wanted to. I spent the night locked in my room, terrified, listening to him rant about what a bitch I am and how he's going to throw everything I own on the street as soon as I leave the apartment.

After he finally left the building the next morning I was able to go to the police (not super helpful, insanely enough, restraining orders in Taiwan can only be issued against family members or romantic partners) and contact a crisis hotline in the city that was able to find me a place to stay and help me move out later that day. I'm in a safe living situation now.

Anyways, in hindsight, I would definitely NOT recommend trying to discuss behavior like this. Just move ASAP.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 7:09 AM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh, my goodness, I'm so glad you're out of there. That's terrifying.
posted by jaguar at 7:12 AM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Jesus, how awful. I'm glad you're safe. That guy's a ticking time bomb, obviously. I hope you find lots of comfort and peace at your new place.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 12:31 PM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't know if you work at the same school as "John" or not, but once you move out, I think I would warn my fellow expat teachers (especially new arrivals) to steer clear of this guy (and definitely not to share a house with this violent, racist, mysogonystic sex-tourist). Honestly, I feel that people like this should have their passports revoked.
posted by blueberry at 8:54 PM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

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