Students express difficulties with roommates in new ways

University Park, Pa. -- When two complete strangers are picked to live together in a residence hall room for a year, some conflict is likely to ensue. It's not the premise for the latest reality show, it's been reality for thousands of college students year after year. And while timeless arguments or fights might break out over tidiness, noisiness, study habits and guests, everyday technology such as cell phones, instant messaging (IM) and personal comments posted online are just some new ways to add to the agitations.

Ryan Steinberg, an area coordinator for residence life at Penn State, has been working in the field for about 13 years. He said within the past few years he has witnessed contemporary tensions among residence hall roommates. Social networking sites such as Facebook, for instance, allow first-year students a unique look at their roommates' lives before they've even met in person.

"It's unfortunate because Facebook is just a snapshot of the person, just a moment in time captured on their pages," Steinberg said. "We have parents calling in saying their son or daughter can't live with this person because he likes country music or she is too conservative, or of a different religion or different sexual orientation. They don't give the other person a chance."

Steinberg said for the most part, they won't reassign roommates because of their differences.

"Getting to know someone who is different is a great thing," he said. "If you only make friends with people like you, it's boring." It can be a learning opportunity for students from different cultures and backgrounds to live together.

Steinberg added that e-mailing and text-messaging future roommates isn't the best form of initial communication. A lot of context can be read into these messages without knowing the mood the person was in while sending them or being certain of the intent of their words. If students can't meet with their new roommates face-to-face before going to school, talking on the phone is second-best, Steinberg said.

Mary Anne Knapp, a clinical social worker for the University's Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), explained that many of the roommate conflicts she has witnessed deal with the fact that roommates have different sensitive issues and preferences. One roommate may be more easily hurt while another may be oblivious to social cues. She and Steinberg both focus on the importance of setting guidelines about borrowing food, clothes, quiet hours and housekeeping issues before moving in.

Steinberg said he's seen strife between roommates dealt with in more passive-aggressive ways in recent years. For instance, when one roommate keeps the other roommate up late talking on his or her cell phone or typing on the computer, the other roommate retaliates by getting up early and doing the same thing. But today's students also use the Internet to express their anger at their roommate.

"We've seen blogs, Facebook statuses and away messages on IM that can be interpreted to say, 'I'm mad at someone and I don't know how to talk about it any other way,' " he said.

Knapp said she has seen the same thing, where students don't want to confront their roommates in person so they release their anger online.

"It's an additional technological way that things can be seen and overheard," she explained. "In the past a roommate might have overheard a phone conversation or read a journal entry, but now they see pictures of their roommate kissing their boyfriend at a party on someone's Facebook page."

Despite all this, Steinberg said it's not an issue for everyone.

"We really have very few roommate problems overall," he said. "We tell horror stories of a few but also remind the staff that there are 4,200 students in the residence halls to make 2,100 pairs of roommates. We may hear from 100 pairs. Keep in mind that 500 pairs will become best friends, and no matter what, you're only dealing with a small percentage who are fighting."

Contacts: 
Last Updated November 18, 2010