University challenges: how to live in harmony with your housemates | The Guardian clearing hub

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Flatmates who refused to take the bins out or wash the dishes, rotting fruit and veg left in the fridge – it’s fair to say Marie Davidson* didn’t have the best halls of residence experience in her first year at the University of Edinburgh. “I was staying with four other girls but from the start it was obvious we weren’t going to get along,” she says. “It began with basic things like not taking the bins out and petty fights. I spent every weekend travelling up to my parents or staying with friends in other cities.”

Luckily, Davidson didn’t let the experience put her off. “I went into halls again in my second year and it was the best thing I ever did. I met one of my best friends there,” she says.

Heading to university is exciting. But it’s also normal to feel a bit anxious about whether or not you’ll get on with the people you’ll be living alongside. Dr Dominique Thompson, student mental health expert, author of the Student Wellbeing series and Mystudenthalls.com wellbeing guide, says it’s one of the top stressors for students, along with academic work, financial worries and homesickness. Common issues are messy flatmates, frequent overnight guests who aren’t paying their way, and just general thoughtlessness. “[Problems] often stem from poor understanding and communication breakdown,” she says. “People just don’t always think about what they’re doing and how it impacts others.”

When houseshares go right, you can make lifelong friends. Photograph: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

In Bristol, 22-year-old Robert Kivits was so worried about sharing with others, he decided to move into an apartment on his own for his first year. “I found it incredibly boring and lonely,” says the student, who is now in the second year of a degree in sound for film and digital media at the dBs Sound and Music Institute. “Midway through that year, I moved into a house share with a group of guys I knew [from home]. And that was great, even though they were quite messy.”

A survey of 60,000 UK students by Knight Frank and Ucas found 86% of first-year students and 70% of second-year and above students, said community or living with friends was important to their overall wellbeing. In a separate poll by Student.com, 38% of respondents would advise students not to be afraid to live with people they don’t know.

Psychotherapist and mediation expert, Dr Mike Talbot, who has worked with universities for more than 20 years, says the main thing students fall out about is mess. “Leaving the washing up, not taking the bin out, leaving the bathroom messy, not removing hair from the plughole. And then not replenishing soap or toilet rolls, etc. Then it’s pinching each other’s food, or using each other’s things. There can also be rivalries and issues with boyfriends or girlfriends as well. Those can get quite sticky because they tend to get publicised on social media, which makes everything worse.”

Set priorities early on
His advice to new students would be to set priorities early and to share chores. “Maybe someone doesn’t mind if the kitchen floor isn’t mopped more than once a fortnight but they’re fussy about there being no mess on the worktops,” he says. “Be aware that you’re going to be moving into a house with people whose needs, values and priorities are different to yours. Be prepared to accommodate people.”

At the University of Nottingham, Lizzie Elkin lived with seven girls before she graduated with a history and politics degree in 2018. She admits there was “a lot of drama” with so many girls in the house, but they found a tally system in the kitchen helped to distribute the chores fairly, as opposed to a rota. “We’d mark down every time we did a task, such as buying the milk, so it’s easy to see if one person is carrying the load.”

Woman Washing Dishes
Use rotas or tally systems to distribute chores fairly. Photograph: BONNINSTUDIO/Stocksy United

Have frank conversations
Her advice would be to tackle problems early so they don’t escalate and to keep things in perspective. “If you do find something annoying, have a frank conversation with your housemates with everyone in the same room, rather than going behind people’s backs.” Making time to hang out socially can also help, she adds. “Talk to people and put yourself out there a little bit. It’s an adjustment for everyone.”

Another recent graduate, Charlie Metcalfe, found that tactic worked for him at Loughborough University. Having lived with prolific partiers for the first two years, he decided to move in with two PhD students, who he hoped would be quieter. “They worked hard but they were extremely dirty,” he says. “We got rats.”

He found the best way to get them onside was to invest time in building a bond. “Although the [cleaning] situation was never perfect, I did find inviting them to go out to the pub every so often and being extremely nice really helped. I almost guilt tripped them into doing stuff.”

Share responsibility for making the situation better
When issues do arise, Talbot says the best thing to do is to look forwards, rather than continue to bicker about what’s happened. “Often these battles worsen because someone thinks the other person is refusing to see it their way. Try to share the responsibility for making the situation better and make a future agreement about how to avoid it happening again. And if you do have a disagreement, speak face-to-face, not on the WhatsApp group. Conflict over social media is just impossible.”

If you’re not able to sort the issue out yourself, there are people at university who will be able to help, says Ruki Heritage, director of student experience at the University of Bedfordshire. “We try to help [students] empower themselves and think about the best way around [a problem].” Above all, it’s a very normal period of adjustment, particularly in the first six weeks. “This doesn’t just happen naturally. Learning to live with people is a skill and it’s part of going to university – it’s not just about the academic experience, it’s about developing yourself as an individual.”

Davidson, who is now studying for a master’s at another university, advises new students not to worry if they don’t click with the people they’re living with. “There can be a lot of pressure to become close with the people you meet in halls, but it’s completely normal if that doesn’t happen. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get on. You will meet other people.”

*Name has been changed

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