How to choose your housemates
By Francois Xallemand
Having lived with “a disproportionate share of charming sociopaths and self-involved, neurotic messes”, Francois shares his watch-outs when it comes to potential housemates.
"ARE YOU SERIOUSLY SUGGESTING THAT I’M BEING RIDICULOUS!?” Sarah screamed at me from across the kitchen, whilst cold, crocodile tears squeezed their way out of her tear ducts and wriggled down her face before dropping onto the floor. I stood aghast, part-stunned by the impressive ease with which Sarah (yet again) seemed to be able to cry on cue, and part-bemused at how a discussion over the fact that my housemate Dean and I had eaten one of the truffles Sarah had made (for Dean’s birthday) could have led to an argument of this scale. I never saw it coming…
Transitioning into the world of work in a new city post-uni, whilst also trying to find a new home, is a trying time for any sane person. This is made even more complex to navigate by the fact that, often, we are forced to move in with total strangers or mere acquaintances. You want and need your focus to be on your work during this time, not on drying the tears of Soppy Sarah because she’s found one of her ex-boyfriend’s pubes on her hairbrush and it’s “all she has left of him”. Most people will experience the odd argument, the occasional moment of tension, and sometimes just the desperate need for some time alone when living with housemates. This is all perfectly normal. And in truth, no matter how close you are with someone, they’re going to piss you off at some point if you decide to live together, and you’re going to piss them off too. That’s all a pretty standard part of the experience of house-sharing, both at uni and in our first jobs during our 20s. And a key learning of our 20s: everyone is a little bit annoying in some way or another, including you.
But I don’t think I’ve spoken to anyone who hasn’t said, after going into shared housing for the first time, that they “thought everyone was just nice and normal and well-brought-up” until moving in with strangers.
Having lived in shared houses in both Bristol and Leeds since starting my job as a junior doctor, I can say with some confidence that life is much happier when you live with the right people. Whilst it can be difficult to predict how well you’re going to get on living with someone, I can share a few of my own key learnings and some of what were, looking back, crucial warning signs, having lived with what feels like a disproportionate share of charming sociopaths and self-involved, neurotic messes.
Warning Sign #1: Odd obsessions with pseudo-intellectual self-help books.
If you see ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ on a potential flatmate’s bookshelf, quietly excuse yourself and leave. Eyal (I wish that was his real name) had this book, and many more books about self-improvement, which he regularly mused over and offered up his thoughts on, whether I was listening and offering any engagement at all. He had a strange girlfriend too, who once cried and refused to come into our house for a month because she saw a single piece of dried pasta on our kitchen floor and thought it was “disgusting”. Eyal explained to me one day, at great length, without blinking, that he had learnt that to convince another person to do something they don’t want to do, you must first acknowledge that their time is valuable, and then set out clear time parameters for the task you want them to complete. I pretended I had to go the toilet and left the house.
Two days later, as I was about to leave for work, he asked me to mop the kitchen floor because his girlfriend was coming over (despite the fact that I’d mopped it two days earlier). When I told him this, he replied calmly that she was still upset about the pasta-on-the-floor incident, before acknowledging that I was a busy man, again without blinking, and setting a timer for 15 minutes on his phone. I told him to fuck off and left for work out of principle.
Warning Sign #2: Incredibly nice to people that are useful to them, and horrible to those that are not.
Charlie will only have love or hate relationships with people, very little in between. He will at first be charming, and you will want to live with him. You may notice off-hand comments about previous housemates that you choose ignore, and you agree with Charlie that they were probably arseholes despite never having met them. He may show you the world on a night out, popping bottles of champagne, chatting up strangers and regularly being the centre of attention in a room. Dig a little deeper though, and you’ll find that if someone wrongs him in the slightest, they are then an enemy, with no way back from that, and he’ll expect you to also be their enemy til death (or him turning on you too) do you part. Anything less than this is a betrayal, and you will eventually face the same fate as the rest. If you grow close to him, this process may be delayed, but if you keep him at arm’s length, you will very quickly be an enemy. We went from him texting me every day and adding my whole family on Facebook to no contact whatsoever (to this day) in the space of a few days.
Warning Sign #3: Obsessed with their ex-partner, exaggerated responses to minor dramas in their own life, combined with incongruent responses to major sadness in other’s lives.
Sarah was crying as she looked at the bottle of vodka on the top of our fridge, because she’d shared it with a guy she’d been on one date with, but who’d then ignored her requests to meet up again. My other housemate Lucy, that same morning, received a text informing her that her best friend’s mum had just had a stroke and was in hospital. When Lucy told us the news, Sarah, through her tears, acknowledged that this was sad, paused for a few seconds, then continued to wonder out loud why Max had never texted her back.
We weren’t allowed to go to a certain bar if Sarah was with us, as an ex-boyfriend (they’d broken up five years ago) worked behind the bar. The one night we did go as a flat to meet a group of people who were already there ended with a drunken Sarah grinding on me whenever her ex appeared to be looking our way – a dance move which caused a new physical state in myself which I can only describe as an anti-reaction. I told her I’d just found out my grandma was ill to put her off, but to no avail. I eventually managed to extricate myself from her flailing limbs and leave the dancefloor, before getting into an Uber and, feeling guilty about the excuse I’d used about my grandma, making a note on my phone to call home tomorrow to check my grandma was ok.
These are just three of the housemate experiences I have to offer, and I’m sure each and every person who has lived with housemates will have their own stories to tell and struggles to relate. I wonder if anyone has any about me. The key is to look for qualities in potential housemates you know won’t be incompatible with your own traits, and to always exercise empathy, compassion and consideration for the people you live with, even, and especially, when they forget to do this themselves.
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