Are You Annoying Your Roommate Without Realizing It?

Annoying roommateSure, you don’t think you’re doing anything annoying. You wave a friendly hello to your roommate. You pay the bills on time and even covered whole utility bill when your roommate was between jobs. Heck, you even shared those cookies you baked last week. As far as you’re concerned, you’re a rock-star roomie. And you probably are. But the truth is, you’re probably also guilty of a wide range of roommate sins–things that might seem like no big deal to you but are slowly chipping away at the sanity of the people with whom you share a living space.

To get things off on the right track, before you move in, meet the person with whom you’ll be spending all that time and sharing all that space. Make sure there’s a baseline level of compatibility, a topic we’ve previously covered in other posts. If you’ve already moved in, though, your work isn’t done.

One major thing to think about: differences in your habits and attitudes. For example, if you smoke and your roommate doesn’t, your roommate may have said it was fine for you to smoke outside. But that doesn’t let you off the hook. It still means that you should shut any windows where smoke could possibly get back in, and that should be aware that you’ll be trailing a smell of tobacco for quite a while after you come inside, even if you yourself are used to it–so now would not be a good time to give your roommate a good-luck hug before a first date.

Cleaning Attitudes
Is your sink starting to resemble the Leaning Tower of Pisa, with glasses and plates piled precariously over the course of several days? (Confession: I’m writing this post in part as a way to avoid dealing with the stacks accumulating in my own kitchen sink.) Conversely, are you a compulsive cleaner, vacuuming at all hours, scrubbing down every surface with bleach on a daily basis, scolding your roommate for every scrap of errant paper?

We want our homes to feel cozy and welcoming, and anything that gets in the way of that can feel wrong in a visceral way, like it’s not really home. You and your roommate both need to be comfortable in your space, which means there needs to be an expectation that the apartment will be neither disgustingly dirty nor always smell of Soft Scrub and Windex.

The trick, of course, is that different people have widely varying expectations and standards of cleanliness, and specific methods for making things “right.”You and your roommate don’t have to agree on all of the specifics–one person’s artfully-arranged stack of books on a coffee table is another person’s unsightly clutter. But you should strive to find some common ground–three books, not thirty–to work to respect the fact that you do share space. Agree that there can be different standards for different parts of the house. If you have your own bedroom or bathroom, your rules apply there (within reason–if you’re attracting rats to the apartment, that’s a collective problem).

Private/public space and behavior
A friend recently told me the story of her sister’s roommate problem: they weren’t getting along, and the sister couldn’t figure out why. It turned out that the sister’s boyfriend, who lived elsewhere, slept over several days each week. And they often sat on the couch, making out, while the roommate was home. My friend gently pointed out that, well, that was probably part of the problem. The needs and comfort of those who live in a place should, generally speaking, be put before the needs and comfort of guests. (We covered the topic of roommates and overnight guests in greater detail back in January.)

You know the Golden Rule, the one your mom taught you when you were about three years old? Do unto others … ? Yep, it applies to apartment-living, too. Don’t hog the shower, especially in the mornings or other times when everyone else is trying to get ready, too. Don’t eat your roommate’s food unless you have verified that it’s okay this time–don’t assume you can finish off her orange juice just because she shared a glass with you that one time, a year ago. If you use up the toilet paper, replace it.

Also understand and respect differences in general attitude. You may be in the habit of walking around the apartment in your shoes, no matter how dirty they are, while your roommate follows a strict stocking-feet-only policy when indoors. Understand the reasons for the difference–e.g. your roommate likes clean floors, you feel naked without your designer kicks–and figure out how to make it work for both of you.

Sharing collective duties
When it comes to cleaning or shopping for shared items or paying shared bills, do you say, “I’ll do it next time!” or “That’s next on my list!” but then never quite follow through on your promises to your roommate? You may have the best intentions to do your part, but if the communal duties are always falling to someone else, that’s a problem. Do your part. Alex recently posted some tips for splitting the bills, and if chores are also proving to be a struggle and one of you is clearly doing more than the fair share of work, consider making a chore chart. It may seem like something out of a kindergarten classroom (although gold stars are optional in this case), but it’s an effective, visual way to keep everyone accountable.

Not communicating well
Your roommate isn’t your family, but it’s still important to talk to him or her now and then. If you’re going to spend the night–or a week–with a friend, a simple heads-up will ensure that your roommate doesn’t think you’ve fallen into the river or been thrown in jail. And even in day-to-day interactions, being aloof–or, for that matter, pryingly chatty–is a great way to make your roommate recoil every time you enter a room. Say hello. Be conversational while understanding the proper boundaries. And when any disagreements or tensions arise, as they inevitably will, do your best to talk them out. And, no, passive-aggressive notes don’t count.

Above all, be self-aware and considerate, trying to see things from your roommate’s perspective. And if you notice that something you do tends to elicit a cringe or an eye-roll, don’t be afraid to ask what’s up.

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Author My First Apartment

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Doug Mack is a writer based in Minneapolis and the author of the travel memoir Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day: One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide (Perigee Books/Penguin). He has lived in apartments large and small, historic and modern, in Minneapolis and Chicago. Visit his web site at or find him on Twitter @douglasmack.

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  1. Avatar Thomas

    I can say first hand that talking to your roommates in a kind manner will help. For example, one of my roommates likes to have every possible light in the house one whether in the room or not. That’s fine with me, so long as the hallway light is off. Simple compromise.