These days, colleges and social media do a lot to assure that compatible freshman can find each other when it comes time to pick a roommate. While it's certainly less anxiety producing than random assignments, it is still a stressful process with no guarantees and we, as parents, worry!
I teach interpersonal communication which is focused on "dyads" or two people communicating and how relationships develop. I thought I could share a few things our kids can do over the summer to smooth the road. There are also two great communication techniques they can use if they hit any bumps in the road. I'm hoping students read this, so when I write "you" below, I'm referring to the student.
1. The "Presenting" self on social media. Keep in mind that what a person puts up on social media is not the sum total of who they are, so keep expectations realistic. There is still a lot more to get to know about this person so don't be disappointed or make any assumptions if they aren't "exactly" who you thought they would be. Also if you are following each other on social media, try not to read too much into their posts.
2. Start getting to know each other now. In the communication world, we call this "uncertainty reduction," lol. This might be a bit harder for guys and many girls also get shy about reaching out to each other but this is where the "virtual" hang out can be great. Try texting each other or commenting on each other's posts more often, just to get an exchange going. You can talk about what you might be bringing for the room, etc. If that goes well, you can move on to FaceTime calls and other ways to spend time together. My daughter and her roommate liked some of the same films, so they decided to FaceTime while watching a movie together. If you live near each other, maybe you can meet half way for a lunch or dinner.
3. The "Less Stress" Roommate Contract. This is a great concept where you and your roommate have an honest talk about what your "living" expectations are - things that you need and things that make you uncomfortable. Then you agree on how you will manage these things when you are sharing a space. Topics can include neatness, guests, food in the room, quiet versus noisy, sleeping schedules etc. Even if it's awkward, establishing these things ahead of time will pave the way for a smooth transition.
3. Self Disclosure is at the heart of all relationship formation. Social media does allow you to find out more about each other through a specific channel, but real self disclosure should follow a few guidelines. First, it should be reciprocal, which means if you are sharing "lower level" information (your siblings, your career goal, activities you like), the other person will typically share the same "level" information. It's a bit like crossing a new bridge, where you put your foot out and tap a bit to make sure it's sturdy before moving forward. Keep in mind that to truly understand a story or a secret, you sometimes have to know a person enough to have the "context" around the situation. As you go, you can share deeper information but just make sure that your roommate is sharing on a similar level. If they are, then you are both establishing trust and that will build your relationship.
3. The Exposure Effect. It turns out that we end up liking people who we see a lot, which is why it's not surprising so many friendships and romances begin where we work! When you move into your room, expect to feel a bit awkward. That's normal, so don't let it discourage you from doing things together. There should be a lot of "welcome" events you can go to as well as exploring the campus, hitting the bookstore, and getting meals. If you already have friends attending your school, still focus on your roommate or include them in your plans. Hopefully they will do the same.
4. The Looking Glass Self. One of the "opportunities to grow" in college is when you see yourself through someone else's eyes. Sometimes it will be your roommate who points something out about you and it can be jarring. As a New York girl, my neighbor's daughter had a sarcastic sense of humor very common in her high school friend group. Her roommate from a small rural town interpreted it as kind of "mean."
Her daughter called her sobbing from a shower stall, and once she calmed down, her mom asked her if she thought there was any truth in it or if she understood why her roommate saw it that way. Ultimately, her daughter learned from that, let her guard down and has returned a kinder, gentler person.
5. Bumps in the Road. There are two techniques that are probably the most helpful ones I teach my students: perception checking and "I" language. I joke with them that these fall under the category of "How to Stay Married 101."
So many times the way we interpret something someone says or does is not how they intended it. We all filter everything through our own past experiences and react accordingly. With a new roommate, perception checking is a great tool. My niece is an extrovert and while she and her roommate had a lot in common, her roomie was on the quiet side. My niece assumed maybe her roommate was mad at her or upset.
A perception check is basically describing the situation in a neutral way (don't label it as good or bad), sharing your interpretation, and asking for clarification. So for this example, rather than saying "God, you're so quiet it's freaking me out," you would say "I noticed you've been kind of quiet lately and I was wondering if you were upset about something and wanted to talk?"
The perception check accomplishes two things: it lets the other person know that you are concerned about something, and it lets them off the hook by offering a possible explanation. It OPENS the door to a discussion because it lowers defensiveness. Turns out the roomie was fine, enjoyed my niece's company, and just liked sharing comfortable "downtime" when they were together in the room.
"I" language is also a way to reduce defensiveness and improve communication. You language causes defensiveness but is often our natural "go to" style, especially if we are upset. For example, "You left the room a mess again and it's really getting ridiculous." If what you really want is to agree on a certain level of neatness in the room, it would be better to not put your roommate on the defensiveness. I language is this simple formula: I feel (blank) when (neutral description) because (how it impacts you). Using this same example, it would be: "Hey, I'm a little concerned. I've noticed you've been really busy and the room is getting super messy, which makes it hard for me to invite friends in or find stuff that I need." This will hopefully open the door to a discussion and solution.
6. When it's just "meh." Not every roommate relationship results in a tight friendship, but if the two people generally get along in all the ways that involve sharing a space, that isn't a bad thing. The roommate relationship can take many forms and sometimes even individuals who aren't best friends still choose to live together the next year because they are compatible and it works.
7. It's just not working. It's critical to give things time, but if you've tried all the above and you're further into the semester and having problems, you have options. Depending on the "disconnect" between the two roommates, there are other options that the resident assistants are trained to handle. You can go to your dorm's RA if you are having issues and a few different things can happen - maybe some mediation and you can reach an agreement or if that doesn't work, you can request a switch. No one should be forced to live with a roommate who is engaging in unhealthy behavior, is controlling, abusive, or inconsiderate in the extreme.