About that inexplicable, incorrigible roommate you ended up with


Here’s a quick tip: when you’re stuck in one of those conversation where the silence is growing ominously loud, open up the box of roommate horror stories. Everyone either has one such story or has heard one. Most of these stories have been brewing for months, becoming stronger and darker as time passes. In how many cases, I always wonder, are these horror stories exaggerated, whether for the sake of entertainment, or because 18-year-olds who just moved away from home are a fairly sensitive demographic?

“In Praise of the Rando Freshman Roommate,” an article by NY Mag, suggests that the girl you’re cohabitating with in 15C1 of the Herald Towers isn’t truly impossible to get along with. (This article got 2.3K shares; compare that to the 419 shares of last week’s “That Time I Totally Failed to Stand Up to a Street Harasser.”)

Studies do regularly list “incompatible roommates” as one of the top five reasons that students drop out of college during their freshman year. But here it’s important to distinguish between the two different types of incompatibility. A New York Times  article gave an example of the first kind, in which a girl’s roommate “woke up her first night of college and drunk people were poking her, asking where her roommate was.” Everyone can agree this is unacceptable behavior, especially the chamberlains at King's. Then the article recommended finding a hyper-compatible roommate. Using the website URoomSurf.com, Maddi Gilje found a fellow vegetarian and Regina-Spektor fan to dorm with her at NYU. The site is essentially EHarmony for roommates.

A randomly assigned roommate typically doesn't listen to your music or laugh at all your jokes. This is the most common type of incompatibility, and the reason that many freshman would rather self-select a roommate. But similar tastes don’t equal domestic bliss. Does being genetically similar to your siblings mean that you get along with them? Does having the same favorite sport as the other guys on your soccer team mean that you like them? Have you heard any of the “so I moved in with my best friend” horror stories? (Gilje, by the way, told NYU Local that she wanted to transfer to Mizzou at the end of her first semester, citing her dashed expectations of college life.)

Educational psychology professors at Indiana University at Indianapolis published a study on the effects of expectation: students with unrealistically high social or academic expectations about their upcoming college experience had lower GPA's their freshman year than students with average or below-average expectations. You've probably heard the saying that “happiness equals reality minus expectations.” Expecting a messy roommate goes a long way towards tolerating that roommate for a year.

What if there are virtues to a messy roommate? Dalton Conley, the dean of social sciences at NYU, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times. Although "the drive to tame randomness into controllable order is a noble impulse," Conley conceded, he believes that randomly-assigned roommates allow a different sort of nobility: the awkward, frustrating fusing of two different people, or "sets of background variables," as a sociologist might phrase it. (Back in the day, when Conley himself was asked to write down his preference for a smoking or non-smoking roommate, he scribbled the words “party animal.” He was paired with “a very quiet Republican son of a judge from Sacramento…who was like nobody else I had met before in New York City, where I grew up,” Conley  revealed in an interview with NPR.)

I wouldn’t blame you for thinking the costs of “working through differences” sound higher than the benefits. But sociologists can tell you exactly what those benefits are. You can become a measurably different person when you live with a dissimilar roommate, whether in terms of race, religion, personality, or study habits.

For instance, according the NY Mag, a study by MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab found that white students paired with African-American roommates became more comfortable with interracial interaction (this in light of fact that 75 percent of white Americans have social networks that exclude other races entirely). These white students showed less prejudice pertaining to issues of race.

Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter, in his widely-cited paper "The Strength of Weak Ties," argued that novel bits of information—the ones that shift your long-held assumptions or lead you to a job—tend to come not from your close friends, but from random acquaintances. Like a roommate.

Here’s the thing about King's students: we all arrive here with a certain set of strongly held beliefs, with arguments we’re so ready to make—why Shakespeare is overrated, or why Roe v. Wade was unconstitutional. Without exception, our convictions about the most important things were formed inside a cultural bubble. “So you might not think you have any interest in, say, reproductive rights”—this is NY Mag, keep in mind—“but when your roommate bugs you enough you go check out a meeting of a student organization dedicated to this issue, you find out it’s the most fascinating, important subject in the world, and it ends up launching your career.” To think that your random roommate doesn’t have anything to offer is arrogant.

This is why Conley worries about the growing number of colleges (including Boston College and Northeastern University) that allow students to self-select their roommates. “Very quickly, college students are able to form self-selected cliques where their views are reinforced,” he notes in his New York Times piece. “Getting rid of the random assignment of freshmen roommates is going to impoverish the experience of the residential college.”

For those who still don’t like their randomly assigned roommates, take hear: when the University of Michigan surveyed 300 college freshmen over the course of the first semester, it took 10 weeks for reports of “always or almost feeling lonely” to drop by half. By this time, two-thirds of students who originally reported that they “always or almost always avoided showing weakness in their friendships” had changed their minds. “Students,” the study concluded, “can be architects of their roommate relationships.”