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    My Roommate's a Slob!

    by Liberty Lay

    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… a slob."

    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 definition.

    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 to it.

    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 need help.

    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 want—just 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 number three.

    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 ground.

    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 party—that 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 messy.

    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.