Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The roommate who makes a mess and never cleans it up, communicates via mean little sticky notes or sings soprano during sleeping hours can drive the others crazy.

Roommates, whether doubling up in a dorm room or sharing a six-bedroom house, can follow the basic principles of etiquette to improve any less-than-desirable living situations and get on respectfully while enjoying sharing their living space.

“Roommate etiquette is trying to maintain a working relationship … so you’re not driving yourself crazy,” says Lesley Carlin, co-author with Honore McDonough Ervin of the Etiquette Grrls’ books “Things You Need to Be Told” and “More Things You Need to Be Told.” They created an interactive Web site on etiquette (www.etiquettegrrls.com).

Etiquette is more than rules, manners and customs for proper behavior, says Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and author of “How Do You Work This Life Thing? Advice for the Newly Independent on Roommates, Jobs, Sex, and Everything That Counts,” a how-to-deal guide for 18-to-25-year-olds scheduled to be published in March.

Etiquette is about personal relationships and the attitudes and actions a person chooses to handle everyday situations at home, work and out and about in the real world, while realizing how one person’s actions can affect others, Ms. Post says.

It is grounded in the principles of consideration, respect and honesty promoted by the Emily Post Institute Inc. in Burlington, Vt., Ms. Post says. Emily Post founded the institute in 1946 to provide advice about manners and etiquette concerns.

Consideration involves taking into account other points of view with tact and diplomacy, Lizzie Post says. Respect is a matter of accepting others for who they are, taking actions that show them positive regard, and speaking up honestly about issues of concern, not letting them fester and build up into a grudge, she says.

“You learn so much about yourself when you live with other people. You learn about yourself and your habits and how to handle other people’s habits,” Ms. Post says.

When roommates disagree or find themselves in a difficult situation, they can put the principles of etiquette into action with the three C’s — communication, compromise and commitment — Ms. Post says.

For instance, they can establish a system of communication by setting aside time to discuss problems without becoming defensive or accusatory or by scheduling a regular meeting night in larger households, she says.

“Once you start talking about issues in the apartment, you are going to come up with ways to solve them,” Ms. Post says.

Once a solution is agreed upon, the roommates commit to it by carrying it out, she says.

Roommates can discuss expectations and agree on some ground rules before they sign a lease and may want to put their agreement in writing, Ms. Carlin says.

“Try to keep communication open, and try to do it in person, not with Post-its or a white board,” Ms. Carlin says, adding that using notes can come across as bossy.

Roommates can follow some basic ground rules of etiquette around the home to maintain a respectful living space.

Some ground rules mentioned in the chapter “Roommates: The Necessary Evil” of “Things You Need to Be Told” include equally sharing cleaning duties, avoiding hogging the common areas or any appliances, and asking before borrowing food or other personal items, then replacing them or returning them in the same condition.

“For common areas, it’s everybody’s responsibility to keep them as neat and clean as possible. Even if your own room is messy, you shouldn’t leave crumbs in the kitchen, and don’t let the mess spill out into the living room,” Ms. Carlin says.

As for guests, a few ground rules include asking roommates beforehand if they are comfortable with the timing of the visit, setting start and end dates for the visit, and showing the guests what foods and items in the house are off limits, Ms. Post says.

“While this is your home and your space, it’s somebody else’s all those things, too,” she says.

Students living in the residence halls at Howard University in Northwest have to sign a roommate contract that outlines the cleaning duties and different chores that will be their responsibility in their rooms.

“The contract is a way of keeping people honest in that 225 square feet of space,” says Charles J. Gibbs, dean of residence life at Howard University. “They have to live and coexist in that space.”

A roommate agreement is used at George Washington University in Northwest to set standards of behavior in a shared room or apartment about such things as cleanliness, sleep, study time, common spaces, and guests and visitors.

The agreement helps students learn negotiating skills and gives them permission to talk about their concerns while providing a set of guidelines they can agree to and follow, says James Kohl, director of GW Housing Programs for House Life.

“First-year students don’t want to be the bad guy. They don’t want to be seen as strict or not fun,” Mr. Kohl says. “It gives people a sense of how to speak up for themselves in a respectful way and get the best outcome.”

The University of Maryland has four community-living principles for the residence halls, which are to be safe, civil, cooperative and involved, says Jessica Welty, resident director for the College Park campus.

“We want students to recognize that they live in community, not in a vacuum,” Ms. Welty says.

Students sign a unit agreement if they live in a dorm-style room or sign a community and living guide if they live in suites or apartments, Ms. Welty says. The agreement or guide gives students a chance to think about different scenarios that could occur and to outline their expectations for their living arrangements, she says.

“It helps students understand how you share a space and compromise so everyone has a rightful place in that unit,” Ms. Welty says.

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