Growing up I'd often heard the old saying, "Cleanliness is next to godliness." For
my freshman-year roommate Renee, cleanliness was next to impossible.
I assumed everyone felt obligated to make their beds in the morning. Renee
thought it was a waste of time.
My dirty laundry went straight to the laundry basket, while Renee's was spread
in little piles all over the room: a heap of socks by the bed, shirts and
jeans draped over the backs of chairs, pajamas covering the closet floor.
I kept my papers in notebooks or files; Renee's were scattered all over the
place, from the chemistry lab notes stacked on the TV to the
junk mail she routinely stashed under the bed.
I expected to share cleaning duties. It took an act of Congress to get Renee
to take out the garbage (including the boxed remains of a five-day-old pizza
wedged among the junk under her desk). It was a nightmare. Classes had barely
started when I was on the phone to Mom, complaining, "Yeah, she's nice. She's
just kind of
I didn't think I had unreasonable ideas of cleanliness. I wasn't expecting
living quarters that could ace a white-glove inspection, but at the same
time, I didn't want to live on an obstacle course. I was, I thought, an average,
middle-of-the-road, clean kid. Renee thought I was a "neat freak." Ouch.
Obviously, Renee and I had different ideas about what cleanliness meant.
This led, of course, to a fair share of roomie tiffs about the state of the
dorm room. Eventually, we called a cease-fire by both agreeing to compromise
a little. And our room was transformed from a war zone into a pretty cozy
place to live.
If you, too, are yoked with a messier-than-thou roommate, take heart: It's
never too late to deal with the situation. Actually, even if you are
the messy one, the following tips may help you find a comfortable and successful
way to approach the subject with your roommate. However you decide to deal
with it, remember to be diplomatic. After all, you'll probably be living
with this person for a considerable amount of time, and you don't want a
relationship that's even messier than your room.
Define "clean." To some people, an unmade bed means the occupant
is disgusting, lazy, sloppy, etc. To others, it may be considered a sign
of genius ("I hear Einstein never made his bed," they'll say). When it comes
to defining "clean" and "neat," not everyone has the same standards.
The "How clean is clean enough?" question was a big problem for Renee and
me. We simply had different ideas about what constituted basic standards
of cleanliness. It would have made things much easier for both of us if we
had known from the get-go what one another's expectations were. I was way
off base when I assumed that my definition of neatness would jibe with Renee's
In the best-case scenario, roommates will find common ground and then stick
to their shared standards. You both have to live there, so you should both
be comfortable there. Decide early on what's OK and what's not, then stick
Share the work. If you're the only one doing the dirty work, there's
a good chance you'll start to bear a grudge against your slacker roomie.
Believe me. I basically did all the chores myself for two months, silently
resenting Renee for not helping me out. Make it clear to your roommate that,
even though you're the one who's always spiffing up the place, you want and
One suggestion that some friends shared with me was the chore chart idea.
Make a list of housekeeping duties and then divvy them up. Post it on the
wall so you know who's got which duty each week. You can even set up a reward
system if you wantjust like Mom and Dad used to do.
Needless to say, this is something that you and your roommate should plan
out together. Don't try writing a note that says "Hey, Chris, I've assigned
you to clean the toilet for the rest of the semester. Also, please mop the
floor every other day and scrub the tile grout with a toothbrush (yours,
not mine) three times a week. I'll be in charge of watering the plants. See
ya." I really doubt that arrangement will fly.
Of course, if your roommate wants absolutely nothing to do with housekeeping
("Why should I clean off my desk? I'll only be living here for three more
months!") then you've got a tougher problem to solve. That brings us to point
Choose your battles. Going ballistic every time your roomie misfires
a candy wrapper at the wastebasket is probably not going to help your situation.
You'll get your point across much better if you focus on major problems instead
of nagging your roommate about his or her every messy flaw. This means you
might have to let some things slide. If that sounds like a call for compromise,
well, you're hearing me right.
Even though I was horrified every time Renee carelessly crammed a paper or
smelly sock under her bed, I soon realized that I'd rather have things growing
under her bed than, say, under mine. We both got tired of my lectures on
mold development, so after a while, I skipped the lecture and told myself,
"At least that junk is out of my sight."
I'm not saying, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Stick to your standards,
but don't hit the ceiling when your roommate falls short. Be firm, but kind.
Try being subtle before launching into a major confrontation. (Storming across
the room, throwing the misfired candy wrapper at your roommate's head and
shouting, "You couldn't hit the broad side of a barn! You make my life
miserable!" is neither subtle nor kind.)
Even though you may think you're making a great sacrifice by "compromising,"
bear in mind that your roommate may feel that agreeing to vacuum both sides
of the room is an even greater sacrifice. So try to look at the situation
from your roommate's perspective before you start a discussion. Chances are
you'll both need to take several steps before meeting on a happy middle
Bring in reinforcements. This is the last resort, to be explored
only if the situation does not improve or if you think a confrontation could
get truly nasty. That said, it's not a bad idea to let someone else know
that you and your roommate are having housekeeping trouble. If you live in
a dorm, tell your RA or hall director about your problem. If you live off
campus, tell a neutral third partythat is, someone other than your best
friend. Then, if you feel the need to have someone back you up when you talk
to your roommate, the outsider can be there for you.
I think it's worthwhile to emphasize the "last resort" aspect of this tip.
Do all you can to work this out with your roommate before you involve other
people. You don't want your roomie to feel as if you're tattling. ("I'm going
to tell the Dean that you don't put your shoes on a shoe tree. You'll probably
be expelled.") But if a roommate conflict is ruining your semester or making
your room unsuitable for human habitation, call for backup.
Fortunately for me, Renee felt that my requests for dorm improvements were
reasonable, and I didn't need to involve anyone else. However, if Renee had
refused to work things out with me, I would not have hesitated to ask our
RA to mediate the problem. It's better to deal with the issue and move on
than to let your anger/disgust/whatever smolder.
Renee, who seemed like such a slob the first few months I knew her, turned out to be
a wonderful person and not a totally incompetent housekeeper. Once I made
her aware that I valued a neat, clean living environment and needed her to
pitch in on the cleaning, she did her best to keep things up to snuff. By
the same token, once I realized that people who don't color-code their underwear
drawer aren't necessarily evil, the little things that once drove me crazy
didn't seem all-important anymore.
By the time our freshman year ended, Renee was one of my best friends. I
simply accepted the fact that she wasn't ever going to be the "neat freak"
I was. I appreciated her as a person instead of judging her because she was
Your roommate may not go from world's-biggest-slob to Martha-Stewart-fan
over the course of your relationship. Even so, don't let your personal hang-ups
about domestic disorder keep you from seeing him or her as a person of worth.
You may not want to live with your roommate again (ever, ever, ever, even
if they promise to hire a maid), but at the very least, you should come away
from the experience with some new insights. Maybe someday you can write a
book about it: "101 Uses for Stale Pizza Crusts," "Building the Remote-Controlled
Clothes Hamper," or "There's a Fungus Among Us." Be creative and think of
your own. Those three are mine.