By Natalie Mechem
Planning on moving in with a brand-new roommate? Now more than ever, communication with the people you live with is key. Make it your priority to establish a list of house rules for during the pandemic.
Communication doesn’t come easy — especially with someone you just met — but opening up a dialogue from the beginning ensures that both you and your roommate can live comfortably and safely together.
Here are 10 tips for setting social distancing guidelines with roommates
1. Have a conversation
It seems simple but making the decision to have this conversation needs to happen before anything else. As uncomfortable as talking about COVID-19 can sometimes feel, it plays a significant role in our lives now. We need to open up discussions about the pandemic with the people we live with.
“Everybody should expect to have this conversation with somebody. I think more people are probably worried about it than actually express they are, especially among the college student population,” said Shane Owens, psychologist and assistant director of campus mental health at Farmingdale State College (SUNY) on Long Island. Make it your goal to keep yourself and others safe and move toward a healthy future for everyone by setting rules for social distancing with your roommates.
2. Ask them how they’re doing
You want to open a conversation, not an argument. Check in with your roommates. How do they feel about everything that’s going on? Once you start talking about the pandemic, it will feel more natural to move into a dialogue about setting some ground rules. “Say, ‘I was hoping we could set some guidelines and make sure that we’re both comfortable,’” psychologist and friendship expert Marisa G. Franco said. Show that you care about their needs and they’ll do the same for you.
3. Establish other rules
People who live together always need to set house rules. You need to establish guidelines regarding your health just like you would with chores, shower times and study schedules. “We’re focused on this thing because it’s right in our face and right in our minds, but it really is just going to be part of the conversation that you have with anyone you’re trying to live with,” psychologist Owens said. If it makes you more comfortable, set your basic rules about things like cleaning, showering and studying before bringing up COVID-19. Then, you can start to set boundaries regarding COVID-19 safety. Who can come over, if anyone? Which public spaces can you visit? How will you go about sanitizing the apartment?
4. Be open to compromise
Think of this conversation as a negotiation. “Your goal here is to work as a team. People who are very successful at handling conflict are thinking about how they can meet the other person’s interests and their own,” friendship expert Franco said. As important as it is to prioritize your own needs, you also want your roommate to live comfortably in your shared space. If you want the living situation to work out for both of you, you need to compromise on certain issues. You might try to compromise on the topic of significant others. Say you don’t want any outside guests visiting the apartment but your roommate wants to invite their boyfriend over. Can they hang out in your roommate’s room and wear masks in the common room? Maybe they can agree to spend time together mostly outdoors. Try to come up with a plan that works for both of you, even if it’s not your first choice.
5. State your non-negotiables
Finding a clean compromise on everything just doesn’t happen and that’s OK. Decide from the beginning what rules you deem absolutely necessary. “At a time like this, if there’s something that’s important to you with staying safe, you should be very adamant about expressing that,” University of Central Florida sophomore Natasha Miguelez said. If you need to establish a rule that you absolutely won’t compromise on, speak up and stand your ground. Of course, you’ll also want to ask your roommates to share their own non-negotiables.
6. Hear them out
You and your roommates will inevitably disagree on some rules. When you do, try to show empathy and make an effort to understand why they feel the way they do. “The more you can show care and consideration and the desire to see things from their perspective, the more you can get them to see things from your perspective,” Franco said. If you want your roommate to leave their shoes outside the door but they refuse, ask them why before getting angry. Most likely, they’ll open up to a compromise if you do your best to hear them out from the start.
7. Establish a protocol
In case someone violates a rule, you’ll want to establish a set course of action for how to handle it. “My suggestion is that you should be proactive rather than retroactive with all of this. Don’t wait for something to go wrong to be like, ‘This went wrong, let’s talk about it,’” said Franco. Say you and your roommates agree not to go to gatherings of more than three people, but one of them goes to a frat party. Whether you decide to put a strike system in place or ask your roommate to self-isolate in their room or both, you’ll want to create a plan before something actually happens. While you can’t force them to do anything, agreeing to a protocol for when something does go wrong prevents confusion and awkward tension when one of you does violate a rule.
8. Be open to change
Make flexibility a priority and accept that some of your rules will change. You and your roommate might agree to only leave your dorm room to go to class and quickly become too restless in your shared cinderblock cell. Check in with each other frequently and discuss what’s working and what’s not. “It really depends on how the school semester goes. [My roommates and I] will be as flexible as possible because our rules could change depending on how things go,” Truman State University senior Chelsey Jeans said. If you feel suppressed or uncomfortable with one of the set guidelines, don’t hesitate to speak up. You should also prepare yourself to listen if your roommate wants to bring up their own concerns.
9. Consider a written contract
It can never hurt to have your rules clearly written out. If you think a written contract might work for you, create a shared Google Doc or stick a printed copy to the fridge. In some situations, having a written reminder of the house rules can make them feel more meaningful. For others, it might not make much of a difference. Talk to your roommate, ask them what they think about having a hard copy of the house guidelines and decide what works best for you.
10. Be ready to walk away
If it turns out that you and your roommate’s values differ too much, you might need to consider finding a different living situation. “Try to compromise at first. If that doesn’t work out, then try to find a way to switch,” Florida State University sophomore Gabriella Torres said. “It might be hard to do at first, but at the end of the day, you need your safe space so keep on going forward if you can.” No matter how much you like your roommate, not everyone can live with each other. Even if it means you might face a few tough decisions in your future, you should always put safety first.
Natalie Mechem is a junior at Drake University majoring in journalism. This article was previously published on www.collegemagazine.com.