Identical twins Katie and Sarah Monahan arrived at Pennsylvania's Gettysburg College last year determined to strike out on independent paths. Although the 18-year-old sisters had requested rooms in different dorms, the housing office placed them on the eighth floor of the same building, across the hall from each other. While Katie got along with her roommate, Sarah was miserable. She and her roommate silently warred over matters ranging from when the lights should be turned off to how the furniture should be arranged. Finally, they divided the room in two and gave up on oral communication, communicating primarily through short notes.
During this time, Sarah kept running across the hall to seek comfort from Katie. Before long, the two wanted to live together again. Sarah's roommate eventually agreed to move out. “From the first night we lived together again, we felt so comfortable,” says Sarah. “We felt like we were back home.”
Sarah's ability to solve her dilemma by rooming with her identical twin is unusual, but the conflict she faced is not. Despite extensive efforts by many schools to make good roommate matches, unsatisfactory outcomes are common. One roommate is always cold, while the other never wants to turn up the furnace, even though the thermometer says it's minus five outside. One person likes quiet, while the other person spends two hours a day practicing the trumpet, or turns up his sound system to the point where the whole room vibrates. One eats only organically produced vegetables and believes all living things are holy, even ants and mosquitoes, while the other likes wearing fur and enjoys cutting up frogs in biology class.
When personalities don't mix, the excitement of being away at college can quickly grow stale. Moreover, roommates can affect each other's psychological health. A recent study reports that depression in college roommates is often passed from one person to another.
Learning to tolerate a stranger's habits may teach undergraduates flexibility and the art of compromise, but the learning process is often painful. Julie Noel, a 21-year-old senior, recalls that she and her freshman year roommate didn't communicate and were uncomfortable throughout the year. “I kept playing the same disk in my CD player for a whole day once just to test her because she was so timid,” says Noel. “It took her until dinner time to finally change it.” Although they didn't saw the room in half, near year's end, the two did end up in a screaming fight. “Looking back, I wish I had talked to her more about how I was feeling,” says Noel.
Most roommate conflicts spring from such small, irritating differences rather than from grand disputes over abstract philosophical principles. “It's the specifics that tear roommates apart,” says the assistant director of residential programs at a university in Ohio.
In extreme cases, roommate conflict can lead to serious violence, as it did at Harvard last spring: One student killed her roommate before committing suicide. Many schools have started conflict resolution programs to calm tensions that otherwise can build up like a volcano preparing to explode, ultimately resulting in physical violence. Some colleges have resorted to “roommate contracts” that all new students fill out and sign after attending a seminar on roommate relations. Students detail behavioral guidelines for their room, including acceptable hours for study and sleep, a policy for use of each other's possessions and how messages will be handled. Although the contracts are not binding and will never go to a jury, copies are given to the floor's residential adviser in case conflicts later arise. “The contract gives us permission to talk about issues which students forget or are afraid to talk about,” says the director of residential programs.
Some schools try to head off feuding before it begins by using computerized matching, a process that nevertheless remains more of a guessing game than a science. Students are put together on the basis of their responses to housing form questions about smoking tolerance, preferred hours of study and sleep, and self-described tendencies toward tidiness or disorder. Parents sometimes weaken the process by taking the forms and filling in false and wishful data about their children's habits, especially on the smoking question. The matching process is also complicated by a philosophical debate among housing managers concerning the flavor of university life: “Do you put together people who are similar — or different, so they can learn about each other?” A cartoon sums up the way many students feel the process works: Surrounded by a mass of papers, a housing worker picks up two selection forms and exclaims, “Likes chess, likes football; they're perfect together!”
Alan Sussman, a second-year student, says, “I think they must have known each of our personalities and picked the opposite,” he recalls. While Sussman was neat and serious about studying, his roommate was messy and liked to party into the early hours of the morning. “I would come into the room and find him pawing through my desk, looking for postage for a letter. Another time, I arrived to find him chewing the last of a batch of chocolate chip cookies my mother had sent me. People in the hall were putting up bets as to when we were going to start slapping each other around,” he says. Against all odds, the two ended up being friends. Says Sussman: “We taught each other a lot — but I would never do it again.”