Oh Captain My Captain;
I rent a room in a house with a pretty nice family, and for the most part it’s pretty cool. They’re very friendly and open, their eldest son and I share a lot of interests, and they aren’t really judgmental, though they are very vocal about their political views and beliefs, they know I don’t get involved in that sort of stuff and seem to respect my space as far as that’s concerned.
The problem is respecting space as far as everything else – I do my part around the house, cleaning bathrooms, mopping, vacuuming, doing dishes, laundry, helping care for their 19 year old cat and doing pretty much anything I can to make myself useful. My landlords, a married couple, also have two of their adult children living with them because finances suck for everyone except the elderly rich, which we are not among. Their kids, even though they are adults, are still very close to their parents and depend on them for a lot, and basically come off as young teens in a lot of ways. The main problem seems to stem from the fact that, although I am not one of their kids, because I’m younger than their kids they seem to feel the need to parent me.
Whenever I get anything in the mail, they want to know what it is, who it’s from, if it’s a package they want to hover over me and see what it is, who I ordered it from, how much did it cost, was it made in the USA? They have come in my room without permission several times, always ask me when I will be at work, how many hours I’m getting, what I’m paid, if I go out somewhere that isn’t work related where did I go, did I buy anything there? I can’t bring home so much as a single shopping bag without being interrogated or having it pawed through and my purchases commented on, along with how I dress, where I work, basically everything I do. They do it more to me than they do it to their own children!
I’m a very private person, and I hate discussing money with anyone, particularly when it’s really none of their business, and I really don’t want my every purchase judged and pawed through. I am one of those people that doesn’t want to talk about my day, I don’t want to talk about what happened at work or if I got a raise or if I bought lunch or something. I don’t like talking to people in general, but I try my best to at least be nice. It’s started creeping me out a lot that I can’t walk anywhere near the door with my keys without getting an interrogation on where I’m going, who I’m going with if anyone, what I’m buying, et cetera. If they had to drive me places, yeah, fine, I could understand them needing to know my work schedule or if I needed to go buy stuff or something, but I have my own car and drive myself everywhere so there is no reason they need to know any of this stuff. They also try to include me in their family events, even big holiday stuff like Christmas or Thanksgiving, even when they’re super loud and generally not the kind of thing I’d go within a hundred miles of if I didn’t live here, but when I live in the same house it’s kind of hard to avoid without it being painfully obvious that I’m avoiding it, particularly since I’m not social and generally don’t go anywhere other than work.
They seem to have semi-adopted me as one of their own kids, which is kind of problematic on it’s own, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish. Do you have a way for me to politely tell them to back off and stop questioning me about everything I do? I intend to move out soon, so I’ll have my privacy again eventually, but until then I’d like to get back at least a bit of privacy while I live here, without making things tense or possibly making them angry. They are a very close-knit, openly affectionate, rather loud kind of family, so I’m not sure they can even understand that no, I don’t really want to take part in all the loud, boisterous family stuff they do because I’m just not that kind of person. I like my quiet and privacy, and I would like to get some of that back.
Not Their Kid
Dear Not Their Kid,
I am glad you are moving out soon, and that plan is by far your best plan for having the life you want. The culture of this house is not your culture, and that’s okay, so get out ASAP. In the meantime, you can set some boundaries and get a little privacy back, but you probably can’t do it “without making things tense” or without potentially “making” your housemates/landlords angry. This is because:
- Things are already tense, because they are tense for you. Your shoulders are up around your ears from the tension of feeling constantly monitored. Setting boundaries with them won’t “make things tense,” it will redistribute tension that is already happening.
- Who knows how they will react? We can anticipate possible reactions but we can’t control how other people will feel or what they will do. If they get angry, that doesn’t automatically mean that you have fewer rights.You can’t control what they will do, but you can try changing how you respond to them and see if it alters the dynamic.
Insisting on seeing the contents of someone else’s mail, prying into their shopping and every financial transaction, wanting to know all the details of their day, including what food they ate, following them uninvited into their room, etc. are pretty extreme behaviors (and would be even if you were their offspring), so I can see the challenge you have in unpicking what is a normal, routine question from people you live with (“Hey, how was your day?”) and what is not normal (“What’s in the bag?WHAT IS IT REALLY, THO”) and why you feel some trepidation about speaking up. Like, what else are these people capable of? You’ve also go the dynamic where they see themselves as very open, chill people when really they are not at all chill if they are doing this stuff.
When you’re about to deal with a roommate conflict, it’s always a good move to pull out whatever agreement people signed and review it. What’s in there that protects you? Is there something in there that you would like amended or spelled out better, or something that they need to be gently reminded about? Do you feel afraid for your safety? And what is your worst-case scenario plan if it all goes to shit? Arming yourself with a little bit of information can give you more confidence going forward, since I think the most likely scenario here is that you set some boundaries and the landlords act a little miffed for a while and then settle down.
I also think that it’s important to pick your battles, so let’s sort this into battles worth picking and the ones that are not really worth picking. There are some unequal power balances here (your roommates are your landlords, they are parents of children your age and feel and act entitled to certain deference in a way that a peer roommate might not) that make it tricker than some roommate situations, so some of the strategies for carving out what you need are going to be about paying lip service to a form while preserving your autonomy.
For instance, “Hi, nice to see you! How was your day?” is not a weird or inappropriate question coming from someone you live with. If you answered that with “I AM A VERY QUIET AND PRIVATE PERSON, CAN’T YOU SEE THAT?” you would be the weird one. The fastest way to run this particular dungeon is to complete the social circuit with “It was good/busy/slow/tiring/long, thanks. Howabout yours?” Listen for a few minutes and then excuse yourself to visit the bathroom/check your email/make a phone call/collapse with a book, i.e. “Well, I’m going to shut my eyes and put on some headphones for a little while, talk to you later” and then go to your room and shut the door. There’s a lot of good stuff in this recent thread, especially in the comments, about applying more structure in roommate social interactions.
Also, they will always invite you to celebrations, and that’s okay. An invitation is not a command (they may act like it is, but it isn’t), and inviting someone to a thing in itself is not really doing anything wrong. They think it’s the correct and polite thing to do to invite everyone who lives in the house, and the battle of “stop inviting me to your stupid stuff I know I will hate” is probably not worth picking. This is a thing you’d run into with any roommates who want to have a party when you don’t. But you still have choices about how you respond, and the battle of whether you go to the stuff is worth picking. You could say “No thank you!” or “Thanks I prefer not to” without explanation and let them deal with the resulting awkwardness. Your “reason” when asked could be “My reason is that I prefer not to, but thanks!“
If that seems too hard or scary, you could decline politely and then go to the movies (a holiday tradition for a reason) or somewhere that is else for a couple of hours. “Thank you but I have other plans!” (You don’t have to already have set plans, or explain what they are to have “other plans” for RSVP purposes, btw). You shouldn’t have to leave the house if you don’t want to, but you are an adult with a car and you can get quiet and solitude in a lot of places, so if you are looking for an option with fairly little friction it will save you from being annoyed that the house is full of loud people and them from worrying that you’re missing the fun (or, uh, “fun”).
If you don’t want to be elsewhere, and you don’t think you can pull off the “No thank you!” and then walk away, then I honestly suggest that you go, eat a plate of food, talk to them for one hour, and then excuse yourself to your room. “Thanks, it was nice to see everyone, I’m gonna go get some quiet and let y’all catch up with family.” If your housemates get up in your business about it, one script is: “Thank you so much for wanting to include me, but my holiday traditions are very quiet, private ones and I’d prefer to be alone now.” “Please excuse me, I have some phone calls to make to far-off friends and family.” “For me, holidays are a very quiet, reflective thing, and while your family is so kind, it’s just not my scene.” Repeat like a broken record until they go away. Lots of people fall into Automatic Holiday Coercion Mode, as if “But it’s Christmas!” is a trump card that justifies any acts of emotional manipulation, and you have to sometimes remind them that not everyone even celebrates Christmas, never mind celebrating it in some magical TV-family sort of way with someone else’s family. I’ve had some solitary, quiet Christmases that rank as among the best of my life because it was so great to have a day completely to myself.
Another battle that’s not really worth picking (thought I see why the interrogation rankles and is part of a pattern of other boundary stuff) is the one of telling them about your work schedule. You don’t owe them this information, but when you live with other people it can be considerate to give people a basic idea of when you’ll be around, and, even better, NOT around. Should they expect you back by mealtime, and plan on including you (if that is a thing that happens in this household)? Will they have the house to themselves for a certain period of time, good for having the TV to oneself or having less furtive sex than usual? Are you staying out all night somewhere and want them to know so they don’t worry? While you would never pry into a roommates’ business, can you see how this would be good stuff to know about people you share space with, right? If you get in the habit of saying “Heading to work, back after 10, have a good day!” without be asked on your way out the door, you can head off some of the interrogation stuff at the pass. Treat it as a kindness you are doing them rather than a toll that you pay. As for the full interrogation about where you will be, who with, etc., that IS a battle worth picking, though a general “I’m heading out for a bit, bye!” if you pass them on your way out the door is again, not a bad idea in basic human interaction terms.
In both of these cases, it’s possible that you can harness momentum in your favor. If you’re dreading an interrogation, do what you can to have shoes on, coat on, keys ready, bag packed, etc. so that when it’s time to leave you can GO. Once you start leaving, never stop moving. Be moving as you say goodbye. Don’t stop moving as they ask you questions. If they want to keep asking you questions, make them physically get up and follow you out of the house to ask them. You’re late, you’re late, for a very important date and you simply can’t stop to talk, sorry!
If they do follow you, you could keep repeating the vague answer with increasing degrees of “Duh, I just said that. Out with friends” in your tone (my older brother as a teenager was the master of this) or use the grownup version of “Heading out for a bit with friends. Do you need me to pick up anything while I’m out?” which may distract them for a second as they consider the toilet paper situation. Or you could try a script that messes with their sense of entitlement to certain information, which is: “Huh. Why do you ask?”
“Where are you going?”
“Out for a bit with friends. I’ll be back late, so see you tomorrow morning!”
“Where? What friends? What exactly will you be doing?”
“Huh. Why do you ask?”
“Oooh, what’s in your package?”
“Stuff I ordered.”
“Huh. Why do you ask?”
“What’s in the bag?”
“Some stuff I got at the store.”
“What stuff? How much did it cost?”
“Huh. Why do you ask?”
Keep your tone as conversational as you can, mirror theirs as much as possible. And, especially at the start, it’s perfectly fine to listen to what they say in response to the question and then say, “Ok, well, that’s private” or “It’s just some stuff I got at the store” or “Thanks for telling me” and then go on with your day without answering their questions if you don’t feel like engaging deeply at the moment. Over time, here’s what this short phrase can potentially do in changing up your interactions:
- It interrupts the expected flow of this conversation, which, if they stop and think about it, may be enough to make them catch themselves and the absurdity of what they are doing. In a perfect world they catch themselves and then go “Hahaha, sorry, mistook you for one of my kids there for a second. Enjoy your evening!“
- If they don’t catch themselves, and they double down on their inquiries, it opens up the floor to have the bigger conversation that you need to have. If you say “Why do you ask?” and they say “Can’t I be curious?” “Jeez, I’m just asking!” “I’m just concerned about you” or “Are you hiding something, you are acting very defensive!” etc., it gives you an opening to say, “With all due respect, it’s very kind how you’ve welcomed me into your home, but we aren’t actually family and some things are private. I don’t want to be rude when you make what seems like a simple request, but what’s in my mail, or the contents of my shopping, or the exact details of my finances and social life are actually more information than I am comfortable sharing with roommates. I’m sure you don’t mean to be intrusive, but these requests actually make me very, very uncomfortable, and I need you to take the hint when I don’t answer a question the first time.“
Give yourself permission to have the argument, Letter Writer, and free yourself from the mindset that you owe them parental-style deference. You won’t be saying anything unreasonable, or mean, or unkind. They may have a very sharp, offended reaction at first, and you can’t really prevent that from happening, so just know that it’s coming and that it will also probably pass just as quickly. Get ready for “Why didn’t you say anything before?” (Answer: “It just sort of came to a head today but it has been somewhat ongoing. I like you all so much I didn’t want to make a thing about it, but it’s time to figure out some good boundaries since we are all adults.“) or “Do you really think we’re that intrusive?” (Answer: “Sometimes, yes. It’s like you treat me like one of your kids, which has nice aspects, but sometimes it’s good to remember that I’m not actually your child and was raised in a family with different expectations around privacy.” Give them a little space and time to react. The worst will most likely die down in a few days. You may have to occasionally correct them or reset a boundary, but you should see things change for the better after a few attempts.
Other battles worth picking and scripts for picking them:
- When they come to your room, “I’m going to shut the door, I’d like to be alone now.”
- When they won’t drop a subject, “That’s not up for discussion.” “I don’t really discuss money with other people.”
- When they ask intrusive questions, “I’m not comfortable sharing that. Good night!” “Ha, I wouldn’t even share that with my own parents!”
- “I’m very uncomfortable right now, can we change the subject?” Then repeat, “I’m just not comfortable” as many times as you need to until they get it.
- “I’m not feeling very social right now, so I’m gonna go to my room and get a little quiet time.”
- “It’s also probably a big adjustment for you to have someone who isn’t family living with you, I get it! But we’re all adults, and adult relationships work better if there are some rules, and one rule I have is that I don’t discuss certain things that I like to keep private.”
- “I’ve asked you as nicely as I can to back off. I’m sorry you feel excluded or hurt, but I’m still not going to show you my mail or talk through every purchase with you.”
- “We talked about this – my room is actually off-limits without an express invitation. Please don’t follow me.”
You say you’ve been trying to be nice, and you should keep being nice. Nice is keeping up with household chores, saying hello/good morning/goodbye/good night, please and thank you, being a quiet and considerate roommate who does their share of the chores. Nice is rewarding your landlords with kindness if you see them making an effort to respect your privacy after you’ve readjusted some things. Nice is NOT hiding how uncomfortable you feel and putting up with intrusive behavior without protest. These people presumably have to interact with other adult humans who are not their kids, and unless they are also asking their coworkers and the librarian and the dry cleaner incredibly personal questions, they can learn to mentally re-categorize you into someone deserving of the same autonomy. Go slow, give yourself a lot of time and attempts to get the words out, but know that standing up for yourself is a habit that can be learned. It’s self-reinforcing the more you practice it!
I hope you can get a little peace and quiet, and I’m excited for your future in your own space where the holidays can be silent, silent nights.