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Heavy Meddle: How Do I Confront My Slob Roommates?

What's a neatnik with a chore chart to do? (Christopher Cotrell/flickr)
What's a neatnik with a chore chart to do? (Christopher Cotrell/flickr)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to advice@wbur.org. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,
I have dirty roommates. They spill potting soil, they leave their dishes in the sink, and they completely ignore my chore chart. How do I confront them without making them defensive or creating roommate conflict? Please help.

PHOTO

Sincerely,
Neat Freak

Dear Neat Freak,

You’ve got two problems here.

First: it sounds like your roommates are kind of slobs.

Second (and more fundamentally): people have different standards of cleanliness.

For instance, my wife really and truly feels disturbed if there are dirty dishes left overnight in the sink. I, on the other hand, can go whole weeks without thinking about the dishes in the sink, or even remembering that we have a sink. So we have had to work together on this.

And that’s the spirit in which I would approach this issue with your roommates. I would not think of them as “dirty,” per se. I would think of them as having a different way of moving through the world, probably a somewhat more bacterial and relaxed way. I mention this, in particular, because of the phrase, “they completely ignore my chore chart.” My hunch is that your roomies don’t like the chore chart, which they consider something imposed by you (the word “my” is the tip-off here), rather than collectively devised.

So step one is to call a meeting in which you can share your feelings. You’re wise to be concerned about defensiveness and conflict, especially because you’re clearly already frustrated with them. If you don’t approach this issue with respect, it could turn into one of those simmering, passive-aggressive nightmare scenarios. Don’t let it.

The key is to start with the premise that everyone in the apartment has to work together and listen to one another, and that you all have a right to pursue your own forms of happiness, though not at one another’s expense. So the overarching goal isn’t to criticize or impose rules, but to find solutions that work for everyone.

After all, roommates have all kinds of conflicting agendas—about the food in the fridge and how loud music gets played and when guests can stay over—and the only way to find the solutions that work for everyone is to hash these issues out respectfully. It’s not your job to clean up after your roommates, and they need to know that. But you may also have to bend a little when it comes to your standards of cleanliness.

One thing that might help in this instance would be for you to acknowledge that you take the whole cleanliness thing pretty seriously (e.g., the nickname Neat Freak), but that you don’t want to have to police their behaviors or, worse, compensate for them. Instead, the goal should be to establish reasonable expectations for all parties.

Your roomies are much more likely to respond to this approach. Unless, of course, they are not just slobs, but inconsiderate slobs. If this is the case, it seems to me you have two choices: you can either begin the process of finding new roommates, or you can resign yourself to the fact that you live with inconsiderate slobs and make the necessary adjustments. (For instance, insisting that they help keep all common spaces clean.)

This brings to mind one of my old roommates, a guy we called Jersey Dave. He was, even by my somewhat relaxed standards, a disgustingly sloppy person. After a few months of cohabitation I said, “Look, you can let your room get as gross as you want, but you have to keep the kitchen and living room clean.” By the end of our time together, bugs had besieged his room. I finally opted to move out. I did this because it was clear that he was incapable of living in a different way. And because I realized that life is too short to cohabitate with people who make you miserable.

But again: the problem wasn’t that Dave was a slob. He was a jerk.

I hope your roommates prove more considerate.

Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

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