Starting college is a double-edged sword. You’re living on your own for the first time—meaning you can do whatever you want—while also meeting new people and “learning." But there are also numerous downsides: living on your own for the first time means coping with an empty fridge and a full laundry hamper, not to mention the all-nighters and frat bros.
Roommates can fall in either category. It’s certainly possible to hit the jackpot and get paired with someone who is actually bearable to share space with and who you actually like. I wouldn’t count on it though, especially if you let your school pair you off based on a too-vague survey. Even if you don’t leave your fate in the hands of your college’s residential office, choosing your own roommate is also a gamble.
This happened to me: I chose my freshman year roommate after chatting with her over Facebook Messenger for half an hour. I can’t remember what we talked about now, but it was probably bonding over Tumblr blogs and almond milk and other mundane stuff all white 17-year-old girls from the tri-state area care about, and I decided that was enough. It turned out to be a nightmare. This person would leave open jars of peanut butter and unwashed bowls on her desk. Partway through the year, she brought a life-sized cut-out of One Direction’s Niall Horan into our cramped room. She would face it toward the window so passersby would look up and see the soulless eyes of a boy band member staring back at them. When she drank too many Four Lokos, she would kiss “Niall” on the mouth.
“This person” was me, but I digress. Hell is other people, and living with them in the same room is like the tenth circle. “Living with someone else is going to have its challenges, no matter how alike you are,” Anne Brackett, who worked in student housing for 20 years and now is chief engagement officer of Strengths University, told VICE. “Yes, there are definitely easier roommates than others, but there are a few key issues that determine how successful you and your roommate will be.” Brackett identified having respect for one another, setting expectations early, and communicating as essential practices if you want to have a positive roommate experience.
But no matter how much respect and communication you have, your living situation may blow. Here are warning signs your roommate is just creepy AF and you need to leave.
Dorm decor and belongings
In the flurry of moving into your dorm room for the first time and dealing with the all-too cringey parent tears, you may not notice the Terry Richardson posters or the MAGA hat. But when the dust settles, you will start to notice what your roommate keeps on their side of the room.
There is a difference between having opposite tastes and being in a potentially unsafe situation. That Pulp Fiction poster on the wall? Listen, we all went through that phase—myself included—and we (hopefully) grow out of it. If your roommate is an 18-year-old film major, I’d let that slide. That copy of The Art of the Deal, however? That may be cause for alarm.
What they say and wear
There are a ton of explainers out there on the dog-whistle language of racists and incel subcultures. It may be worth familiarizing yourself with them. If your new roomie is calling people “Chads” and “Stacys,” for example, they are not innocuous nicknames. If they use “us versus them” language when speaking about people of different races and genders, that’s even worse. And it goes without saying: if they use actual slurs, they are definitely an asshole and you should leave.
In addition to how they speak, your roommate’s fashion will say a lot about them. The fashion choices groups like white supremacists tend to make are subtle, but noticeable—such as New Balance sneakers or a Lonsdale shirt. They don’t have to look like an 80s skinhead to be a neo-Nazi (but if they do dress like a skinhead, that’s probably not a great sign either).
There will be things your roommate does that annoy you. That is just life, and you just have to deal with it. While living in such close quarters can be demoralizing, it also teaches you everyone in the world is: a) weird and boring and b) Idiosyncratic in their own hyper-specific way. Honestly, they’re probably thinking the same thing about you. Do they hit snooze several times every morning instead of just setting the alarm for a later time and getting the fuck up? Do they drink Diet Coke for breakfast? Sorry, you will not change them fundamentally as a human in the months you live together. It’s best not to let it get to you.
Some habits, however, are inexcusable and distasteful. This will vary from person to person and you need to know your boundaries. For me, a roommate having sex or masturbating when I am in the room is not fucking cool and I will call you out ASAP (yes, this happened). But you, dear reader, may not give a shit. Know what triggers you and what you will not tolerate. Set these boundaries with your roommate early; you may think something is an obvious no-go, but they might not.
“You and your roommate need to be on the same page about the rules of the room,” said Brackett. “The distance between expectations and reality is disappointment. So, if you’re assuming the other person knows what you want but you’ve never discussed it, you’re bound to be disappointed—and then probably angry. If you’re not on the same page and you or your roommate are unwilling to talk about these things, you’re bound for trouble.”
OK, no one’s going around hacking their roommate’s laptop (unless you are, in which case you are the creepy roommate). But seeing as everyone lives on the internet these days, there are some ways for you to gain insight on your roommate. It may not be a bad idea to check what their “likes” on Facebook are or who they follow on Instagram. Perhaps this practice seems over-the-top, but it can be illuminating. If they like every photo Tomi Lahren posts on Instagram, wouldn’t you want to know that? And if all they follow is accounts like @ifyouhigh, you may have found a winner—just make sure you have rules about smoking weed in the room.
If you see them browsing classically horrible subreddits like r/redpill, r/TheDonald, or on 4chan, that’s a huge red flag. Sites like InfoWars and Breitbart, same thing.
Being really gross and smelling bad can actually be a cry for help. If your roommate hasn’t showered in days or weeks, they may not be taking care of themselves mentally or physically in other ways either (such as eating well, taking their meds, or keeping up with their classes). You’re not expected to be their keeper, but if you suspect something is up, tell your RA.
Or, they might just be some Leonardo Dicaprio motherfucker who abhors soap and refuses to wear deodorant. They probably don’t brush their teeth either. Still tell your RA, and maybe buy a bar of soap for them as a hint.
What to do to GTFO
Even if you try your best to be respectful, set expectations, and communicate, sometimes a roommate just doesn’t care. Brackett said it may be “tempting to start behaving badly as well, but that just escalates the situation.” Petty shit like “talking behind your roommate’s back, leaving notes, sending texts, posting things on social media, being passive-aggressive,” as Brackett mentioned, can make it even worse.
There comes a point, however, when you can no longer handle the situation yourself. According to Brackett, “if you’ve tried all of these things (respect, expectation, and communication) several times and in different ways and there’s still problems, it’s time to get the appropriate staff members involved. That’s especially true if your roommate is violating school policy or even the law. You don’t want to get in trouble for something they’re doing!”
First: go to your RA, or whatever they call your school’s peer leader. The RA has a neutral perspective, so it may be worth it to hear what they have to say (you will have to be honest, though).
“Depending on your school and their policies, you may be able to change rooms right away or you might need to go through steps like meditation before that can happen,” Brackett told VICE.
“People usually think moving rooms or changing roommates will be the magic solution to all their problems and want to bypass any steps other than that, but those steps are there for a reason," Brackett said. "Learning how to deal with situations like this productively can benefit you your entire life. In my experience, nine times out of ten roommate problems are caused by miscommunications and the problem(s) can be solved just by sitting down with a neutral staff member and talking things out,”
If your RA can’t resolve the situation and you still want out, then they can help you through next steps. Alternatively, you may be in an unsafe situation (such as if you are a person of color, a woman, a non-binary person, or a queer person and your roommate is being hostile). A heart-to-heart with your RA won’t cut it in that case. It may take time, and you may not get the outcome you want (aka the creep getting expelled), but you will be able to change rooms at some point. Should your roommate do something illegal or abusive, you can absolutely get a lawyer or other members of the administration involved in order to get legal protection such as a No Contact Order.
Living with someone for the first time is an experiment in finding out what you can deal with and it may blow up in your face. Sometimes it’s your fault and sometimes it’s not. But hopefully your roommate isn’t the next Jason Kessler—and if they are, maybe just live off campus next year.
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