Toeing the Line: Navigating roommate conflicts at the ‘U’
When Jack arrived and met his roommate his freshman year, things were going great.
The two, living in Northwood III on North Campus together, weren’t best friends, necessarily, but spoke regularly, played video games, and occasionally hung out. Then, upon returning from spring break, their friendly relationship changed suddenly.
“He refuses to respond to me and talk to me, and I have no idea why,” Jack recalled of the sudden shut out.
And that’s when Jack started noticing peculiar behaviors: His roommate would be drunk on weekdays, lock Jack out of the room — leaving Jack without a change of clothes for three to four days.
Jack’s whirlwind of a story isn’t a peculiar one. It’s something college roommates see increasingly across the country.
At an orientation session over the summer, incoming students and their parents were asked a simple question: “By a show of hands, how many of you shared a room growing up?”
The vast majority of the parents in the room raised their hands. Most of the incoming class of 2015 kept their hands down.
This generational gap is due in part to the modern cultural trend toward smaller families, a New York Times article reported. Room-sharing inexperience, along with other current societal factors, may be to blame for the rapid rise in roommate conflict on college campuses nationwide, according to the piece.
Additionally, texting and social media, cornerstones of the Millennial generation, both provide outlets for roommates to hide from direct confrontation behind the comfort of their cell phone screens.
However, Pamela Davis-Kean, a University professor specializing in developmental psychology, said there is no empirical evidence to support that social media and texting have directly increased roommate conflict. She added that a lack of communication is an issue affecting people of all ages.
“I don’t think college students are any better or any worse than people are at trying to figure out: how do you tell someone that they’re really annoying you?” Davis-Kean said. “There’s always been roommate conflict.”
She does, however, believe that texting and the convenience of communication have led to the “prolonged parenthood.” In the age of constant communication, parents are more connected to their children, and therefore more likely to continue parenting their child well beyond his or her twentieth birthday.
This extension of adolescence is a potential indication of college students’ increased dependence on their parents to solve their conflicts, especially their roommates.
Carrie Landrum, program manager at the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, said many cases of roommate conflict — in fact, the majority of cases OSCR sees — stem from a lack of direct communication.
“The anonymity that often comes with using some social media platforms contributes to people saying things in a different way than they might if they saw them in person,” Landrum said.
Landrum said this phenomenon is rooted in neuroscience. Mirror neurons in the brain are activated when we act and when we observe others performing those same actions, allowing humans to identify and recognize basic universal facial expressions, such as happiness, hurt and sadness.
But when electronic communication preclude face-to-face interaction, roommates can struggle to understand each other’s emotional responses.
“We can exacerbate conflict rather than make it better,” Landrum said.
Roommate relationships also suffer when students avoid communication altogether. Landrum said silent expectations, standards to which roommates hold each other but don’t express openly, can set students up for failure.
According to Amir Baghdadchi, University Housing spokesperson, roommates’ unwillingness to even address uncomfortable issues is a common occurrence.
“In housing, when we see a conflict arise, the first thing we're trying to do is understand ‘OK, have these roommates even talked about it,” Baghdadchi said.
Many times Housing officials find the answer is no.
University Housing requires all students sharing a room in a residence hall to fill out a “roommate contract” within the first week of school. Students fill out items such as what they feel comfortable with their roommate borrowing, how they feel about overnight guests, and any cultural identities or customs they want their roommates to respect.
Baghdadchi said the roommate contract works as a preventative measure, forcing students to have the uncomfortable conversations they might otherwise avoid.
“If you think about it, when you have two or more people who have never lived with someone before — certainly they haven’t lived with someone who they just met or is outside their family — neither of them wants to be the kind of roommate that brings up uncomfortable stuff,” Baghdadchi said.
Though these contracts may initiate communication between roommates, further conflicts naturally arise. In these situations, University Housing recommends students seek help from the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, which offers resources such as one-on-one conflict coaching sessions and mediation services to students living both on and off campus.
At first, Jack, who experienced sudden conflict with his roommate freshman year, didn’t want to escalate the problem further.
“I didn’t want to get the University involved if I didn’t have to,” Jack said.
Finally, Jack e-mailed his residential adviser that he was no longer comfortable living in his room. In response, the University organized a peer mediation session between Jack and his roommate.
However, Jack says his roommate denied everything at the session, saying he was a heavy sleeper and that sometimes he couldn’t open their door because he couldn’t hear Jack knocking.
The mediator wrote his story off as a simple case of miscommunication, Jack says, and Housing services eventually refused to grant Jack a room change, saying that because there were only two months left of school, he should “do his best to work it out.”
Immediately after, Jack moved into a friend’s off-campus apartment for the remainder of the year.
Reflecting on the situation, Jack said the University failed him, and he wished the issues could have been resolved in a more efficient manner.
On the topic of student health and academic success, Davis-Kean, the professor of developmental psychology, said from her perspective a University should never say a student has to stay with his or her roommate.
“If it’s getting in the way of somebody being academically successful at U-M or it’s hurting your mental health or physical health, then those are things that we should be doing something about,” Davis-Kean said.
While the University has a room swap program that allows students to post on the Housing website looking for others’ to trade rooms with, this system is dependent on other students’ requests and can be a time-sensitive process. This system also assumes that a student would be willing to live with the roommate another student is actively trying to avoid.
Despite the national rise in roommate conflict outlined in the New York Times article, the University Housing maintains that it has not seen a rise in roommate conflict.
Though many colleges and universities require students to take questionnaires, asking them basic questions like what time they generally go to sleep, their partying habits, among others, the University’s roommate matching process is currently random.
For the time being, it appears the system is here to stay.
“We did a pilot a number of years ago with a questionnaire,” Housing spokesperson Baghdadchi said. “It turned out to be no more successful than rooming blind.”
Mallory Martin, associate director for Housing Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution, works with residents, residential staff, and hall directors across campus to address conflict resolution.
In an e-mail to The Michigan Daily, Martin wrote because many roommate conflicts are inherently different in nature, each requires a different path to resolution.
“Conflict can show up in different ways so there is not one approach or pathway for all resolutions. It starts with listening, and trying to understand what’s underneath the conflict: part of the issue could be a health condition or stress, for example so we want to make sure we’re really helping in the right way.”
Correction appended: A previous version of this story included information about a roommate conflict in which certain parties were not given the opportunity to provide their own perspectives. In fairness to those involved, those sections have been removed.
Editor’s note: Measures were taken in the reporting and editing of this article to ensure the safety of students involved in roommate conflicts.