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The Mass Media

Bad roommates or neighbors? Here’s what you can do about it

Amanda+enters+her+apartment+in+Peninsula+after+a+day+of+classes.
Olivia Reid
Amanda enters her apartment in Peninsula after a day of classes. Photo by Olivia Reid / Mass Media Staff

We’re a bit past the halfway point of the semester, and many of you—especially freshmen—are finally getting properly settled in your new homes. Whether it’s a dorm, a flat in an apartment complex, or a duplex or triplex townhouse, being responsible for your own place can be stressful and even intimidating. One of the scariest things is that you never know what kind of people you’re going to get for roommates and neighbors. And if you are moving in with friends, even they can be bad roommates.

I’m in my second year at my Boston apartment and my partner has about six months more experience than me renting on her own, so we both understand the stresses of being newly on our own and have encountered many of the unexpected issues that come with renting. We’ve had to deal with bad roommates and neighbors a few times now, and it’s never fun. In fact, it can be extremely corrosive to your mental health and well-being—even your physical health if you’re frequently kept up at night with noise. Needing to confront people you’d like to have an amicable relationship with is always anxiety-provoking, particularly if you have to live with them and around them.

So, what can you do? Admittedly, I’m no expert and have made many mistakes. But I have gotten a lot of advice, and some valuable learning experiences which I think are worth sharing. Plus, I very much trust what I’ve learned from my excellent communication professors over the years, and I’d like to extend that knowledge to you.

There are two options: Handle the situation between you and the other party, or get the landlord, management company or other authorities involved. I always suggest trying the former option first unless the situation seems potentially dangerous.

If you do decide to handle things personally, the first recommendation is probably going to sound a little weak-chinned, but it’s important; don’t come out swinging. Especially if you’re being kept up at night or forced to clean up messes, you might reflexively snap at the culprits. It’s easier than ever to do this nowadays since texting and instant messaging are impersonal and tend to encourage aggression. However, this usually triggers the other party to go into defense mode and swipe back with claws, which is not what you want. Placing them on the defensive immediately pretty much guarantees that they will not agree to anything you suggest. Plus, you don’t want to falsely blame them without hearing their side first; it might be a totally honest mistake, and they may be completely sympathetic. If it turns out that they are going to continue to cause problems or are mean and rude in response, you will at least have proof that you were not the aggressor.

Yet at the same time, you’ve got to be firm. Don’t apologize for no reason; I know, this is a hard one for many of us, but it really undermines the respect people have for you if you’re constantly apologizing. This is especially true if it is obvious that you are completely in the right. Lay out in clear terms exactly what the issue is, and how you think it should be dealt with without blaming or apologizing. Texting or writing a note is certainly okay if it’s a neighbor, but if a roommate is the source of the issue, it’s best to talk to them face-to-face. Leaving confrontational notes for roommates can come off as passive-aggressive.

If it begins to go beyond a simple solution—for example, if a compromise is required—be open to it. I actually suggest that you come up with possible compromises before you even confront your roommate or neighbor, just in case. Why? Because if they prove rude or uncaring, you will immediately be able to suggest some sort of compromise, if it’s appropriate, and remain on the high ground. If an unsympathetic roommate or neighbor is allowed to start suggesting that you change your ways in response to their bad behavior, they have already put you on the defensive. Get ahead of that. With that being said, be careful about giving away too much. Sometimes it really is entirely on the other party to change their ways, and you don’t want to seem like a pushover if this is the case. Stay firm and strong.

If your first encounter doesn’t go so well, or if it simply doesn’t cause things to change, try to schedule a time to meet in person if you haven’t already. Finding a mediator can be a really good idea, as well as writing down a list of points you want to make; I find that I forget points I want to bring up when I’m anxious. If you do invite a moderator, let the other person know and make sure to invite everybody to your place so they cannot kick the mediator out. Having friends or family there as support can be helpful for some people, but you want to weigh the benefit against the risk of the other party feeling outnumbered and backing out of the confrontation. It’s also a great idea to type up a form for a written agreement, both for posterity and so you have some sort of concrete evidence of such an agreement.

One of the best ways to ameliorate a situation when the other party is being unreasonable is to make them believe they are getting more out of the deal than they really are. A great way to do this is called the “door-in-the-face” technique. It’s not as aggressive as it sounds—in fact, you’ve probably done it many times before. It’s when you suggest something you know the other person won’t accept, seem disappointed or annoyed at their refusal, then suggest a less extreme solution instead—which was what you really wanted all along. It plays on an automatic mental shortcut, or heuristic, called “reciprocity”, where social conventions dictate that once someone suggests a compromise, you should compromise in return to come to a friendly agreement.

This is probably the best way to get what you want when faced with uncooperative, selfish or uncaring people. They walk away believing that they have won, and you walk away receiving exactly what you want. There is one downside—you run the risk of them thinking that they can walk over you in the future. But if they try, you can either use the door-in-the-face technique again or take the more aggressive route and reveal that you were able to play them for fools before and are not to be messed with. Of course, the latter can be risky so it’s up to you what you think is best in that particular situation.

If all else fails, or if confronting them seems dangerous at all, you should contact your management agency or landlord. In some cases, you may even have stipulations in your lease that they are breaking, such as a “quiet enjoyment” section. If so, you could bring this up during talks with the person directly. But if you do go over their heads, be prepared to send the landlord or management documents such as texts, voice messages, notes, emails or written agreements. This will help your case and show how serious the situation is. Also, be prepared with a list of solutions; you don’t want to place it entirely on the landlord to decide what to do about the situation because you may not get what you really want or need. Obviously, higher authorities and police would be the last resort. But if you do feel like it’s necessary, don’t feel bad about it.

I know all of this can seem intimidating, but trust me, you will feel much better about yourself and the situation if you take steps like these rather than trying to ignore the problem. And, as with anything, the more you practice the easier it will get. Take some deep breaths, meditate or do whatever helps you stay calm and confident, then take the situation by its horns. Nipping problems in the bud is always the best course of action.

About the Contributors
James Cerone, Opinions Editor
Olivia Reid, Photo Editor