Graduate School Student Blog

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How to create a good communal environment

Interior of a kitchen

By: Kelsey Danks
Social Studies of Gender, 2018 Cohort

To follow up on my previous post, I felt it would be good to create a post about how to set up a good environment for communal living, so here are my tips!

First of all, reflect on yourself.

What kind of person are you? What are your motivations for doing communal living? Are you doing it for financial reasons? Do you want to be able to talk to people at any time of day? Are you able to handle close conflict? Are you able to take criticism? Do you know when to put your foot down and how to communicate boundaries? ​Do you know how to take care of yourself?​This might seem a little patronising but I don’t recommend communal living for people who have just moved out from their childhood home. Those who have moved out for the first time often don’t think about how much effort goes into the maintenance of a household. It’s a very good option available for people who have lived by themselves for a year, learnt to wash up often, clean the bathroom every time it gets dirty, hoover on a weekly basis etc.

Okay, so you think you’re ready to live communally?

The next thing (if you are able to) would be to choose who to live with. Previously, I’ve stated that we often end up not living with friends because we don’t want to ruin our friendships and that I think this stems from our negative stigma towards communal living. Thus, it could be seen that I am advocating to move in with your friends. ​Not exactly. ​Some of your friends (though they are lovely, I’m sure) are going to be the worst people for you to live with. They might be interesting and fun but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be what you want from a living arrangement.

My best advice would be to “​Live with people that you want to be like.”​ This is a simple concept that I think more people should adopt. Our behaviours affect those around us, and in such close quarters it can either influence, inspire or annoy. There is nothing wrong with wanting to experience student life through socialising and going out to parties but if that is what you want, live with people who are living that life, don’t move in with introverts who want to go to bed at 23:00 every night! Conversely, if you’re ready to act like “a real adultTM”, move in with the people who are already working a 9-5 or seem to have their lives in order; you’ll only get increasingly frustrated by moving in with people who sleep until 12:00 and complain that they’re doing their essay at the last minute. Friction will occur when a social butterfly is hosting yet another get together in a household full of quiet wallflowers but that same social butterfly will thrive in a household of fellow extroverts.

Alright, you’ve gathered your small group of like-minded individuals.

Next comes the “expectations conversation”. This is important to have but also take it with a grain of salt. Everyone will be downplaying their expectations and needs and everyone will be subtly selling themselves as a tolerable person to live with. This happens for several reasons. One, no one wants to be seen as ‘high maintenance’ (unless you all are), this often leads to the famous “I don’t mind clutter, but I don’t like dirty.” line people use when they talk about cleaning. (The person who says this is also usually the first person to complain that there’s too many bags on the sofa while the floor of the bathroom is covered in grime). Two, the rental market in Lund is FIERCE and no one wants to risk their chance at reasonable accommodation because they are bad at remembering to pick up their laundry.

Is this conversation useless? No, but discuss your expectations as specifically as you can. What chores do you hate? What chores don’t you mind? Do you want to put food shopping money into a fund, who would you like to use that fund? Are you happy to just buy groceries as needed and trust that people won’t abuse that system? Is your sleep schedule liable to move about? Is keeping a strict schedule important to you? Do you want to live communally (i.e. share dinner together, share resources) or do you just want to share living spaces (i.e. want to use the kitchen at separate times and have more individual responsibility). Be as upfront as you can about these things and discuss in as much detail as possible but also be flexible on what the final outcome will be.

Moved in with everyone?

Now for the real fun! Always someone around to watch a film with, people around for you to share your signature dish with (or to try theirs), and when they’re out you can appreciate peace and quiet in a whole new way! Remember to be invested in other people “How was your day?” “Did the interview go well?” and remember to thank people “Thank you for washing up.” “Thank you for grabbing the rubbish the other day.” It goes a long way in making sure that people in the house feel like their efforts are visible and appreciated even if they shrug the praise off.

But alas, there’s even trouble in paradise.

There will come a time when the rent is late or the milk wasn’t replaced or towels have been left all over the bathroom. How is the best way to handle conflict? I would assert that the worst way is the commonly adopted passive aggressive note. The note does not solve the issue but instead frames the issue of the mouldy cup into one of moral superiority and surveillance, it shames the person in a way that is not effective as there is no real accountability to a post stick note. This tends to become an option for people who want to avoid direct conflict but in not confronting the issue it oftentimes creates more conflict.

What is the solution? Be BLUNT and UPFRONT. “Please don’t leave your cup to get dirty.” Said out loud, to the offender. No need to add “I noticed the other day that-” or “It’s really annoying to have to clean up when you-” or anything which almost inevitably leads into shaming the other person. If you state the simple fact of what is annoying you, it will mortify the individual into doing the correct thing. If you are very conflict avoidant, bring it up in a funny way, like in an ultra whiny voice or laugh your way through the sentence, let the person defend themselves (which they will often try to do) and say “no problem, but next time.” Some people are concerned that being this blunt can antagonise themselves to other people but I have found the opposite to be true. If you are always honest about when something is wrong and able to adequately explain what is upsetting you, it puts the rest of the household at ease because they know your boundaries and know that you’re not harbouring any resentment.

This leads into my favourite aphorism: Hanlon’s Razor. “​Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. I’ve seen a lot of living arrangements (and even professional relationships) break down once one person starts to suspect another of acting in spite or hostility when oftentimes, the offending person has no knowledge of the problem, no knowledge of how to solve the problem or forgot the problem existed. I’d been told off for putting milk cartons into the plastic bin (because that’s where it goes in the UK) instead of the cardboard bin (as apparently it goes in Sweden), but this was not corrected until the Swedes sat me down and showed me exactly where on the carton that it stated it was for the cardboard recycling (I had been skeptical). But it had turned out that my ignorance had infuriated them for a while because they thought I wasn’t doing the recycling on purpose. Nope, I’m just stupid. But luckily we can often fix stupid.

Lastly, I think it is important to frame your living situation as permanent.

Six months is a significant amount of time to spend with the same people and if you or they are all passing it off as ​only ​six months to have to tolerate living communally, you’re going to have a bad time! Don’t treat it as if it’s temporary, even if it is. Act as though you’re going to all live together forever and then put in the effort required to make that work. If you go into it wanting to make it work, it will work!

September 9, 2020

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