An etiquette expert helps us navigate the many gray areas of living with another person.

By Catherine Newman
Updated July 22, 2019
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The formula for being a good roommate might seem obvious and intuitive: Pick up your dirty socks, don’t leave dishes in the sink, pay your share of the rent on time. But even the most courteous, compatible roommates can run into murky situations where how they choose to react could make or break the delicate symbiosis of living together (so imagine the tension that can bloom between not-so-compatible roommates).

But how is anyone supposed to know which battles are worth fighting—and how to fight them with a balance of firmness and fairness? National etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, the author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life and founder of The Protocol School of Texas, is here to walk through the nuances of modern roommate etiquette—especially concerning those tricky-to-handle situations no one preps you for in school.

According to a Pro, a Good Roommate Is Someone Who…

“A good roommate is someone who respects your personal property, lifestyle, and boundaries,” Gottsman says. You don’t need to be best friends with your roommate; you don’t need to like the exact same things or operate on the same schedule. Whether you’re close or practically strangers, a rooming situation will “work [if] you communicate your needs and they respect them.”

These are the telltale habits of a great roommate, according to Gottsman: “Keep your space clean—bathroom, bedroom, and beyond—and pick up after yourself; don’t eat each other’s food (or use each other’s products) without permission; and no surprise sleepovers without a heads up first.”

Set Expectations and Boundaries Early

Speaking of, you should both communicate your needs from the start. That’s not to say you should nitpick and lay down ridiculous demands: It means expressing personal preferences and establishing reasonable guidelines to help you cohabit the same (probably small) space.

Determine who will pay for what and when. Have a safety talk (for example, make it clear if you’d like the last person to get home at night to deadbolt the door). Talk about how comfortable you both are with company (are you open hosting parties every weekend? Are you okay letting their boyfriend or girlfriend come over all the time? Would you prefer a text warning that there’s company coming over?). Create cleaning expectations: Who’ll clean the bathroom on which days (or maybe you’d both rather split the bill for a cleaning service)? Who gets which portion of the fridge, the pantry, the coat closet?

Your Roommate Is Causing Problems—What Should You Do?

Remember that not everything is worth stewing over or even bringing up: “Like a parent, you must pick your battles,” Gottsman says. “You may not like the way your roommate folds the towels in the bathroom, but it’s not a life or death situation.” In some cases, pointing out grievances can actually make things worse. If your roommate plays her music loudly every once in a while in a way that bothers you, but doesn't truly affect your lifestyle, an official confrontation might not be in order; but if they blast music every night, or at odd or late hours, in a way that's starting to affect your sleep, mood, and health, it might be time to knock on the door and politely ask them to turn the volume down or wear headphones.

If your roommate is constantly taking your snacks (hey, you paid for those!), leaving food out (which attracts pests), inviting strangers home (invading your privacy and exploiting your easy-going nature), or leaving the hair straightener on before heading out the door, it’s time to say something. “If the situation is causing distress, a polite conversation is in order,” Gottsman says. “You shouldn’t wait until things build up and you blow up in anger.” Anytime their behavior starts costing you your money, safety, health, or overall peace of mind, you're justified in speaking up.

How to Confront Problem Roommates

Yes, having a polite, yet confrontational conversation is probably easier said than done. There’s a fine line between trying to be tactful and coming across as passive aggressive.

“Speak honestly, but watch your tone of voice and body language,” Gottsman says. “Speak directly to the concern and don’t get accusatory (or attack their character). For example, you can say, ‘I know we talked about keeping the AC at 78 degrees when we both leave, but I’ve come home several times and found it on 68. I’m concerned our electric bill will be high if we don’t monitor our usage. Would you mind making sure to change it back to 78 when you leave? I’ll try to be better about it too.’”

A few things you shouldn’t do? Gossip behind your roommates back instead of approaching them directly; leave petty sticky notes on the fridge; or give them the silent treatment when you’re both home. For the most part, unless you really need advice from a friend, “Speak directly to your roommate and keep your business private.”

And What If You’re the Problem Roommate From Their Perspective?

Plot twist—something you’ve done or have been doing is irking your roommate to no end, and they confront you about it. As hard as it may be, don’t get defensive or start making accusations. “Open communication is the main ingredient to a good roommate relationship, so diffuse the tension by listening to the other person and trying to see it from their point of view,” Gottsman says. “Ask them to sit down and consider some steps you can both take to handle the problem.”

Have an etiquette question of your own? Ask it here.