Before entering college I had heard it all. My cousin’s freshman year roommate welcomed her, my conservative aunt, and grandmother by giving them a free show to her intimate moments with a boy she had just met. No joke, the girl never even stopped. My other friend had a roommate who was home-schooled. The girl’s mother told her that they wouldn’t tolerate drinking, drugs, or sex in the room. Within days, the girl lost her innocence to all of the above—in their room. I heard about a girl whose roommate threw up on her comforter and never offered to pay for it. All these ideas swirled around in my mind as I ventured into my hall freshman year to meet my roommate.
Let’s call my roommate Cruella de Vil. Cruella came from halfway around the world to be my college roommate. When I met Cruella she was fine, fairly unremarkable. But that may have just been because our parents were present.
In the beginning Cruella was manageable. It wasn’t like we were skipping off to the dining halls together, but we were not at each other’s throats either.
By the end of the first week of school, during an (in my opinion) silly argument, I learned that Cruella had a pretty open prejudice to Caucasians—something I never fathomed. This put a dark cloud over any of our other fights because it was always in the back of my mind.
Insert expert Susan Fee, licensed professional counselor and author of My Roommate’s Driving Me Crazy! Her advice? “Know that it’s not going to be your job to go in there and change somebody else’s mind.”
“College is just a microcosm of what’s there in society,” Fee explained, “and there are racist people in society.” Learning to deal with racist people was unfortunately something that could be unavoidable in the future. Great. Little did I know that this would only be the beginning of our problems.
Cruella and I engaged in a series of passive aggressive annoyances in the fall semester including…
- The basics: playing loud and annoying music, being rude to each other’s friends, and generally just snapping at each other. Then it got worse…
- Cruella liked to paint with oil paints in our room as opposed to the studio, which she knew gave me a headache. She would shine her lamp directly into my eyes, necessitating a sleep mask when she painted until 3 a.m.
- Because Cruella once accused me of locking her out, she would lock the door when I went to the bathroom next door to our room. If I forgot the key, I was screwed. There was no way she’d let me back in.
- Cruella always had class earlier than I did. She’d always set multiple alarms, even though she’d usually wake up to the first one. When she’d shower, the rest would continue to purposely go off just to wake me up.
- Cruella liked to make a very unpleasantly smelly brand of soup. She’d make it in the kitchen in our residence hall, and then bring the pot down to our room and leave it on our one communal table for days until it stunk up the whole room.
These escalating steps are what Fee discusses in her book—what lead to the explosion of a fight, or one roommate moving out. Had I read Fee’s book I wouldn’t have ignored Cruella’s behavior or passively tried to annoy her back.
“Ignoring behavior is an option but then how do you decide if it’s working? It works if the behavior stops. It’s not working if the behavior continues or intensifies,” advises Fee. Fee recommended that I should have tried to talk to Cruella, sit her down and focus directly on the problem at hand, not attack her personally.
In terms of the pot of soup repeated incident, Fee advises: “That could be approached by talking to her about how she’s a problem or she’s being nasty and gross and leaving it out. Or it could be a conversation focused not on her personality but really how you would like the food being handled. By what’s sanitary and what affects the smell of the room […]. If we get on attack mode and attack the person it just never goes well. They get defensive and it just escalates their behavior.”
And had the behavior failed to stop then, that would be the time to talk to an RA. Fee emphasizes that RA’s are trained in all these problem-solving techniques, but they never even know there is a problem until one roommate wants to move out. Utilizing RA’s as a resource is a simple way to try to reduce roommate issues. At the end of the semester, there seemed to be some promise. Cruella left me a note (and a present from her mom) on my bed, saying that she had not been very nice to me all semester and we should work on getting along next semester. Sigh of relief, maybe I would come back in January to a better environment.
While Cruella’s note was a nice gesture, Fee points out that it was extremely unclear. “That’s just an opening to conversation because the word nice is very subjective. It was never qualified. So you might agree […] but what would have been helpful is to get an understanding; like what does she think is not being nice? What specific behaviors and what specific things are you doing to her that she doesn’t like. And what does nicer mean? What did that mean to her? Those are all much deeper conversations,” Fee said.
By February I moved out. Cruella had gone through my computer, found a conversation on instant messenger with my friend about how much I hated Cruella that included some angry empty threat I never even told Cruella. She went to the head of housing, and after much debate, I got fed up with the way residential living handled it and moved out.
For Fee and for all college roommates, a violation of privacy should always be a bottom line. Learning to cope with difficult people, Fee explained, is an important life skill that colleges try to impart on their students, but sometimes you can only cope with so much.
SOURCES: Cara Sprunk, HerCampus.com Contributing Writer and student at Cornell University Susan Fee, Author of My Roommate’s Driving Me Crazy