Real Simple’s etiquette expert offers her best advice for when you (really) wish you could afford your own place.
I’ve been wanting to apologize to a former roommate I treated unfairly when I was younger. But that was almost 10 years ago, and I’m afraid she’ll think it’s silly to reach out to her after such a long time over something she has probably forgotten about. — L. M.
Do apologize. On the one hand, you’ll be giving yourself a rare opportunity to take responsibility for something bad that you did and to strengthen your character in the process. On the other hand, you’ll give your former roommate the validation that she might need—It wasn’t me; I wasn’t crazy—to put the incident to rest. Ideally, she hasn’t been losing sleep over it, but that’s not really for you to guess at. And either way, it’s right to make amends. The only caveat I would offer is that you might pour your heart out and get back crickets (or worse) rather than forgiveness. She might respond gratefully, stingingly, or not at all. A girl who bullied me in high school reached out in a letter when we were young adults, and while I was happy for her that she had grown up and grown kinder, I never wrote her back. For better or worse, I simply didn’t want to expend any more energy on this person. But I bet that it helped to lighten her load a little, to relieve her of the heavy burdens of her past. At least, I hope that it did. And I hope that it does for you, too.
I have a roommate who leaves hair all over the bathroom floor. I always make sure to wipe the floor and swipe clean any of my fallen hairs, and then I get home later that day to find hers everywhere. I’m not sure how to approach this. She is very sensitive and shy, so I don’t want to make her feel uncomfortable.— M. G.
I think that many housemate issues fall into the category of “pet peeves” and should be approached as such. If this is a battle that you’re picking (and I think you can pick only one or two in this genre), then put a dustpan and broom in the bathroom and approach your roommate. Or if you think that she would be less embarrassed, post a note: “Hair on the bathroom floor turns out to be a pet peeve of mine. Who knew? But if you would please sweep yours up, I would be so grateful!” Use this as an opportunity to find out what, if anything, you’re doing that drives her crazy. She might be grateful for the chance to speak up. Even 20 years later, my old housemates like to tease me about how revolted I was—cough, am—by a sopping sponge left in the sink. “Guys, please, can we all try to remember to wring out the sponge?” But I'm still glad that I told them.
My two roommates tend to clutter the counters in our kitchen with their junk. I’ve talked to them about clearing the detritus and made room in the cabinets for their things, but they still don’t change their messy behaviors. What can I do to make them keep the counters neater? Or should I throw in the towel and just clean up after them myself? — D.K.
Maddening as this may be to you, it’s a valuable learning experience: For the future, you’ll know that neatness really matters to you in roommates and that you should choose your living situation accordingly.
In the meantime, no, you can’t make your roommates be neater, but there are a couple of stopgap measures that you could try. Get a large basket and ask your housemates if stuff left on the counters could be tossed (by you) into the basket. (They can sort their own items out later, as they please.) Or give each person a labeled bucket and ask them to please corral their own things. “I’m sorry to focus on this issue,” you might say, to mitigate any potential friction. “But having less cluttered surroundings would help me feel more at home.”
One thing that I learned from living with the world’s sloppiest person, who went on to become one of my dearest friends: Some of the most fun, easygoing people are also, well, messy. However, they can also provide balance in the lives of those of us who are more tightly wound and particular. If there might be a silver lining in your situation, by all means, look for it.
My roommate and I have been sharing an apartment for about nine months. Not long ago, she installed a lock on her bedroom door. She now locks her room whenever she leaves the apartment, even for short periods of time. I’m offended by this behavior because it seems as if she doesn't trust me. Should I bring up the matter with her? — C.G.
Yes, you and your roommate should talk. You’re assuming that her behavior is a veiled accusation, but in actuality there are several other possible reasons why she has taken to locking up when she leaves.
A bedroom is often the only private space in a communal living situation, and it’s not unusual or unreasonable for someone to want to reinforce that boundary. Perhaps you have friends over to the apartment whom your roommate doesn’t know well enough to trust. Or she may have a history of bad experiences with former roommates.
Whatever the reason for her caution, you won’t know unless you talk to her about it. “I’ve noticed that you’ve started locking your room,” you can say. “I would hate to think that I've done anything to betray your trust.” Chances are, she will tell you something that puts your mind at ease. Or, more awkwardly, she’ll express a concern—maybe she’s been missing her iPad or some jewelry—and you’ll have the opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding.