In any relationship, clear communication is paramount to making it work. Even the most insightful and empathetic person cannot be expected to predict their roommate’s every thought and whim. Whether you’re best friends or total strangers, living with someone is distinctly different from interacting with them in any other context, and it’s easy to be surprised by the reality of sharing a living space with someone else. Especially if one or more of you has never done this dance before.
1. Be Clear About Expectations
If you only take one thing away from this article, then know this: most roommate problems – and relationship problems in general – stem from uneven expectations. It really is that simple, though simple shouldn’t be misconstrued as meaning easy.
In communication science, there’s a model called Expectancy Violations Theory, or EVT. We’re not going to get too into the details, but the important takeaway is that a lot of conflicts, hurt feelings, and other problems essentially stem from unmet expectations.
Think about it. If you were promised that you’d go out for a nice dinner, and that never happened, you’d be rightly upset about it. But if you never had the promise in the first place, you wouldn’t exactly be losing sleep over it, right? It’s all about expectations, and how they’re met…or not.
So when it comes to roommate communication, it pays to be clear about what everybody expects, and to do so up front. One of you might be thinking of weekly parties and late nights, while the other sees the home as a quiet sanctuary, away from commotion. If neither brings it up, this dynamic can get awkward, quick. But if everybody agrees to designate certain nights for parties, and others for quiet, everybody can plan their schedules accordingly.
You might not always get everything that you want, and that’s okay. Sometimes the answer is to find like-minded souls to share your home with. Other times, it’s best to view it as a growth opportunity, learning how to coexist with someone different. But what it should never be, is a surprise.
2. Talk About Handling Things (Before They Come Up)
To be clear, this isn’t about punishment, or roommate contracts, or anything like that. Really, it’s an extension of the above point: you need to properly set expectations for what it’s like to live with each other. And not just when everything is great, either. Too many roommates never go into how they handle stressful situations, largely because they aren’t doing so when these conversations take place. Do yourselves a favor, and go over the basics with each other before it comes up in real life.
Let’s say that you’ve had a really stressful day at work. Maybe you want to be left alone. Perhaps you want somebody to listen to you rant. Maybe you want a night out to take your mind off of things, or maybe you just need a hug. But whatever it is, there is no guarantee that your roommate will have the slightest clue as to what’s going on. If someone is cranky from things that happened outside of the home, it’s all too easy to assume that it’s an issue based on something inside it. Additionally, even the most compassionate, understanding roommate in the world can make a bad situation worse by trying to help in an unhelpful way.
So take the time to go into it before it comes up. It might seem like nothing now, but on a bad day, it can make a world of difference.
3. Make it Okay to Express Frustration
So many roommate issues stem from small things that spiral out of control. Whether they manifest as passive-aggressive behavior or outright confrontation, once things reach a boiling point, they have a tendency to, well, boil. Don’t let it come to that.
Easier said than done, right? Absolutely. But that makes it all the more important. If you or your roommate is frustrated about noise issues, late nights, cleanliness, chores, or anything else, the worst thing that you can do is foster an environment where they don’t feel comfortable bringing it up. Make it your personal mission to have the courage to talk about some of the more pressing issues that you have been internalizing.
4. Figure Out What You Will (and Won’t) Share
Roommates share a lot. Space, expenses, time. The list goes on and on. But it’s up to you to figure out what exactly goes on it. This is another expectation situation: if one roommate intends to buy separate groceries, and another expects that everything in the house is fair game, you’re going to butt heads sooner rather than later. Utilities, toiletries, groceries, and everything else that goes into the household is going to be someone’s responsibility, and it’s best to figure that out ahead of time. There is no one right answer for how to do this, and your solution doesn’t have to be perfect – but you do need one.
Many roommates start a monthly shared pooling fund that they contribute to x amount of dollars to so that common things can be bought for the apartment so that everyone wins. Even it is just 20-30 dollars per month, it can help with people not complaining that they are always buying the common things that everyone uses. The other matter that should be discussed is big ticket items such as buying a large TV set. If you have four roommates and you want to buy a nice $1200 TV and everyone throws in money; what happens if you only live together for one year? Who gets the tv; what is a fair depreciation price for the unit? Work through it from a fair pricing perspective.
5. Be Upfront and Honest About Household Tasks
Even if you have a maintenance crew and a professional cleaning service, there always remains household duties that need taken care of. Not everyone is going to have the same standards of cleanliness, and that’s okay. What is not okay, however, is putting off housework because someone else will eventually do it. Again, there is no one right answer here. Some roommates prefer a perfectly even split, while others find that altering the balance between expenses and household chores works for them. But the one thing that never works is ignoring it, and hoping that everything works out for the best. So figure out a system that everyone can live with, and be honest about what you want that to look like.
Some students like to get cheaper apartments with more roommates and pay for cleaner that comes every two weeks. This can be a good cleaning strategy for people with higher budgets but hate or don’t have the time to chores. Worth through your strategy; sometimes figuring out your best roommates before you move in can be the best thing you do.
6. When in Doubt, Talk it Out
Communication is not a magic wand, or one neat trick that somehow makes everything perfect. It’s a lifestyle commitment more than anything else. Much like working out, or learning a new skill, you might not get the results that you want straight away. The important thing is to keep at it, and realize that even the best communicators will still get things wrong occasionally. And that’s to be expected. Make it a point to do a team building or roommate sharing activity once per month so that you can get on the same page. Often times just being in a car for a long ride to a shared activity gives you the concentrated time to talk through small nagging matters. Make it a point to step outside your common mundane setting as this can help to open up conversations at the right time in a different environment.
If you foster an environment where roommates can freely talk about issues, then you can deal with those issues when they come up. With any luck, you’ll avoid the issues that can cause roommate relationships to turn toxic, and hit upon an arrangement that makes everybody comfortable in your shared home.
What are some of your roommate’s communication musts? Any glaring omissions from our list? We’d be hypocritical not to be open to feedback on this, so please, let us know in the comments. And feel free to share your roommate’s stories: good, bad, or ugly.
Published October 17, 2019
Demetrios has pulled together the largest apartment leasing team in the Greater Boston Area and is responsible for procuring more apartment rentals than anyone in New England – with over 130k people finding their housing through his services. Demetrios is an avid real estate developer, peak performance trainer, educator, guest lecturer and motivational speaker.