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Learning to get along

During her freshman year of college, Ms. Harbin roomed with a girl named Colleen. Their pairing was random. Colleen liked to party, stay up late. Ms. Harbin was more studious, an earlier riser. The two butted heads.

They became great friends.

“Living together helped us both grow,” Ms. Harbin said. “We stretched our boundaries. You learn what you can live with. You learn what you like.

“I used to be that bad person who let the dishes pile up. As a kid, I never had to think about them. But with roommates, at some point they say, ‘Hey, surprise, one of us had to wash your cereal bowl before it started to mold.’ “

Such is the secret value of roommates. They teach compromise. Provide perspective. Maybe, just maybe, make you both a better dishwasher and a better citizen. As Canadian writer Katrina Onstad once observed, there is “a kind of self-awareness that can occur only by living with people who don’t love you.”

In a culture of like-minded self-selection - of personalized social networks, hyperpartisan politics, niche cable programming and Google searches just for you - friction-producing human difference isn’t just another blip to be avoided, like a cellphone dead zone. It’s to be embraced.

Really, isn’t that the whole point of “The Real World?” Besides the drunken hot-tub scenes?

“The end of serendipity is a general phenomenon of our digital age, but I think it’s particularly tragic for an age group that is supposed to be trying on new hats and exposed to different ideas,” said New York University sociologist Dalton Conley, a proponent of random college roommate assignments. “Other than jail or the military, there aren’t many institutions other than a college dorm room that shove two folks into a 10-by-10 space and expect them to get along for nine months.

“Besides the new social networks it opens up and the cultural tastes it exposes one to, it’s a basic lesson in how to get along with others.”

As for the alternative? Mr. McLaughlin once spent a year in Japan, teaching English, residing alone. He didn’t speak Japanese. Couldn’t communicate with his neighbors. He felt depressed. Started talking to himself, then singing in his car, the radio turned off.

Anything to hear a voice besides the one in his head.

“I’d catch myself and feel embarrassed,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “You feel like you’re going crazy. I was living in a bubble. When I got back to America, I knew immediately I would have a roommate, one way or another.”

Good roommates do more than dishes. They do connection. Because contrary to Sartre’s famous assertion, hell isn’t always other people. Without a roommate, it can be you. Living with a sink as full as you like. Living in an empty room.