Living together

Image Credit: Ellen Nugent

At least two sides

A lot of you will have moved into student accommodation for the first time recently or are planning to do so as soon as this pandemic passes. I just wanted to take the time to think about the stresses of living with people and what strategies we can use to make the experience more comfortable for everyone.

People come with baggage. That can be literal; the gym gear or the shoe collection, emotional; college and life can be difficult, or cultural; food or practices you find strange or uncomfortable. But that stuff is mostly obvious and can be dealt with in a macro way by choosing who you share with, if that’s an option, or being aware that it’s something you have to accept at least for the duration and thus you make a direct effort to accommodate it. It’s a known, you might not like it, but you can accept it and you have to deal with it.

I want to talk about the stuff that can cause the real conflagrations - expectations. You come into a new accommodation situation with a whole rake of expectations set by your parents and siblings or whoever informed your previous experiences. That is true for your new roommates too, and they are going to be different.

There is research by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate in economics, and Amos Tversky, who died young (they don’t award Nobel prizes posthumously) that estimated that people were 2.25 times more sensitive to losses than gains. These were choices under uncertainty, but I contend that people are much more sensitive to the expectations not being met than they are to their expectations being exceeded. So, it is important to set expectations correctly.

In the course of researching this column (I know, you’d never believe it…), I spoke to some people far more knowledgeable than me on this subject and they recommend that within the first few days/weeks that you all sit down and create a Housemate Agreement. I know that this sounds a bit Sheldon Cooper, but I’m going to try and outline why this is such a spectacularly good idea.

Living with people has costs and benefits for everyone. Obvious benefits should hopefully involve not being cold and being able to get some comfortable sleep. Other benefits can be mental health-related if you enjoy company. Costs obviously include rent but also compromise and potentially some mental distress if you don’t enjoy company. This relationship will only continue to function well as long as all parties perceive that the benefits outweigh the costs.

What the Housemate Agreement allows people to do is to develop a set of agreed expectations. It’s important to be forthright on what you need for your benefits to exceed your costs and to listen to your roommates and seek to find areas of compromise so it works for them too.

But it’s not over at that point. Now that you have a set of agreements it is important that you live up to your side of the bargain and try to be aware of social norms that may not have been explicitly agreed upon. If you’re not sure of a social norm, ask some friends. If you are still unsure, then be cleaner, especially in group spaces, but be aware that if your area of the house is particularly bad that it will spill over into public areas or other people’s private spaces (in economics this is called a negative externality).

What do you do if others are not reaching the expectations that were set? Here communication and information are key. A lot of us want to be liked and so our gut instincts lead us to not wanting to rock the boat or cause any upset, but no two households are the same and adjusting expectations downwards on the fly is a recipe for stress and spiralling relationships. 

You can informally mention it, you can inquire if something has changed or you can ask others about it, but only in a fact-finding way, don’t just talk about the person behind their back and take satisfaction in that. What you are trying to do here is establish why they aren’t living up to the expectation set. If you are satisfied that the person still has the capacity to deliver on the expectations set and you are secure in terms of any power imbalance within the relationship you should then address it directly with the person. Privately, if you think that will work best, but most likely better to have a housemate meeting if there are more parties involved.

On power imbalances, it should also be noted that many students live in uncertain conditions with informal contracts for their accommodation leaving them open to eviction without any means of redress. There are supports for students who are fighting with their landlords but there are no supports for students who are fighting with each other. If you recognise that you are in that type of situation you should pay particular heed to this advice.