A Call for a Roommate Revolution at CMU

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Orientation offers first-year Carnegie Mellon students many programs ? Playfair; library tours; Sexual Signals; academic advising; even After Hours: Beer, Booze, and Hasty Hookups ? yet I believe it is missing one mandatory workshop that we desperately need: How to Be a Roommate.
Now, as much as I?d like to believe that college-age people are able to figure out how to live with another person amiably, that is simply untrue. It has been proven to me repeatedly, both in my own experience and from listening to others? stories, that many (if not most) kids just can?t handle it. It?s understandable; unless you grew up sharing a bedroom with a sibling or you lived in a one-room cabin straight out of Little House on the Prairie, it?s a bit of an adjustment for everybody.
Based on what I?ve observed, roommate disasters stem from two sources: roommate issues and interpersonal issues. Roommate issues include noise level in the room, number of friends in the room, and things of that nature. Housing has roommate issues fairly well covered with their roommate agreement form and the RAs. When I was a first-year, my RA made it mandatory for every roommate pair to complete a form and keep carbon copies.
The thing was, the roommate agreement form couldn?t make my first-year roommate understand that sometimes she needed to balance her needs with mine. We had informally agreed to use the phone out in the hallway when the other person was in the room; I stuck to it, spending many hours in the hallway on the phone with my family and boyfriend. Strangely, that didn?t stop her from repeatedly pressing buttons on the phone at 10 o?clock one Saturday morning while I was trying to sleep. Dazed, I sat up in bed and said, ?I thought we agreed not to use the phone in the room?? She retorted, ?I?m just dialing.? I explained to her that the buttons? beeping was preventing me from sleeping, but she just gave me a stare and continued her activity. I didn?t understand it: I had upheld my end of the bargain and been polite, yet it wasn?t enough.
This leads me to interpersonal issues. I firmly believe that there is a sickness in our society that makes people afraid of confrontation and leaves them unable to compromise. With both of my two roommates, when I told them I was having a problem with something they were doing and asked them to compromise with me on it, they would turn their backs and walk away from me. My first-year roommate gave me the silent treatment for a full week for asking her not to watch TV while I was trying to sleep.
In contrast, it was two months before I found out that the light from my computer monitor was keeping my other roommate awake, and I even heard it from a mutual friend instead of her. ?Why didn?t you tell me?? I asked her. ?I would have been glad to find a solution.? She had no answer. I suggested that when she went to bed, I would turn off my monitor and go to bed also, then get up early in the morning to finish any work I had left. She happily agreed.
What was I doing wrong with my roommates? I made it plain that I wanted to fix problems as they arose. I didn?t raise my voice, didn?t call names, didn?t scold: My crime, it seems to me, was being businesslike about confrontations. I treated them like problems that needed to be solved. Beforehand I composed myself and planned out a polite way to approach the matter. I used ?I-statements,? which, if you read women?s magazines, you?ll find are considered the correct way to confront somebody. You don?t tell them ?You?re doing this thing that?s bothering me,? you phrase it this way: ?I?m having a problem with this thing you?re doing.? I tried to employ all the correct techniques, said nothing with hurtful intentions, and I even suggested possible solutions, but no success. They still got offended and refused to compromise.
I don?t want to believe that my roommates were upset because anything other than ?their way? was unacceptable. Maybe that?s how it was, but whatever the case, I firmly believe that CMU should provide a mandatory workshop for students to learn how to confront each other politely and to compromise. If you live with somebody (or several somebodies), you need to accept that they have different living styles than you do, that you may bother them in ways you would never have expected, and that they have just as much right as you do to have a restful place to return to after a day of classes and activities.
A combination of factors causes our students? present impoverished capacity for negotiation. Most of us are used to having our own bedrooms. Society seems to condone walking away from problems if you cannot get your way; after all, we even have a phrase for ?the silent treatment.? These are factors which injure the roommate relationship, but they can be fixed, and I think CMU can start the healing.
There is a big problem with the CMU roommate situation from the beginning: The list of questions for choosing a roommate is extremely limited. When I was filling out Housing forms three years ago, I remember there being three questions: ?Do you smoke? Are you a night person or a morning person? How often do you clean your room??
I understand that Housing also makes an effort to place students with similar majors together, as well as pairing kids whose answers to those three magic questions match somewhat. Yet as a result of this quiz, I, a procrastinating, artsy pack-rat, was paired with a psychology major who was extremely neat and only stayed up late when she had friends in the room to socialize with, which was every night. There was a huge disparity in how we did our work, the noise levels we were comfortable with, our sleeping schedules, and our weekday social lives, which caused a great deal of (silent) conflict. At least we were both nonsmokers.
More elements need to be taken into consideration when pairing up roommates. To have such a limited number is absolutely ridiculous. Even Brown University does a better job with its eight-question survey. Ideally, there should be 20 to 30 questions. Brown includes some important ones that CMU overlooks: ?Can you sleep with background noise (music, TV, computer, roommate?s guests, etc.) or a light in the room? Where do you prefer to study?? It?s not that great, but it?s a start.
In planning next year?s Orientation, the Office of Orientation & First-Year Programs should seriously consider my proposal: Teach kids how to be good roommates. The skills they learn will help them with relationships for the rest of their lives.