#205: The case of the nosy roommate.

Gustav Fring from Breaking Bad
I should write a book called "Silence is Golden: The Management Secrets of Gustavo Fring."

Hi Captain Awkward,

The background to this story is I moved away from the city I grew up to go to graduate school on the other coast. While I have been in the area a while I am currently living with roommates I did not know prior to living with them. This is fine and for the most part they are very nice. However one of my roommates, lets call her Reba, is very nosy.

Specifically, Reba constantly asks incredibly personal questions and constantly offers to hear my personal problems. This really came to a head a few weeks ago when I finally broke up with my boyfriend of 4 years. For the most part the break up was amicable, it really was just we are at a point in our lives where we want different things; I am trying to finish my Ph.D. and then hopefully have adventures as a post doc while he is trying to buy and house and settle down. Anyways I decided not to tell Reba (and the other roommate Mike by proxy) because I did not want to talk about it and my personal life with Reba. But a few days after it happened Reba mentioned that she had over heard me talking on the phone about breaking up with my boyfriend. And then talked about how she is really good at listening, and will be totally fine with hearing all of my problems about the break up etc. etc.

Honestly I was kinda in shock because I had specifically been avoiding telling Reba, and the fact that she admitted to overhearing me on the phone and the fact that she decided bringing it up was the best course of action was annoying. I more or less responded with “I don’t want to talk about it” and left the room. Now to her credit she has not brought it up since. But I am still really annoyed by it. I am trying not to obsess but I just feel like I have no privacy at my house. I have not been talking on the phone at my house at all (I have been leaving to go somewhere else to have phone calls), and avoiding going home until late at night to avoid having to deal with Reba.

I think part of my reaction is due to some previous actions of Reba. When I have had packages sent to the house she asks what they are, who they are from, etc. A few months ago, my boyfriend and I had a small fight at the house and she offered to mediate for us (ugh that was so gross.) I responded that I think the two of us could manage to discuss things on our own. I think the big thing for me is that when she discusses previous roommates it is like they are a string of problems. There is “roommate who was divorced and had to move home to take care of a sick parent”, or “roommate who liked to horde”. Reba also thought it was appropriate to talk to me about how the other current roommate Mike is very sad because his brother died, note that Mike had not yet told me about this.

All in all I just feel like Reba has no boundaries about other people and their problems. I dont really know what if anything I should do. I want to confront her, or at least not feel like a prisoner in my own house. I feel like I cant talk on the phone, or be upset, or show any emotion without Reba bringing it up and try to help me “process things”. I am an adult and I have been supporting myself and paying for my education on my own since I was 20. I neither want nor need Reba’s help working things out in my life, because quite frankly I feel like my life is pretty good at the moment and even if it wasn’t I feel like I am pretty competent at knowing myself and working things out on my own. And if things get hard and I am upset I have good friends, both in the area and back where I grew up, to talk to or get a beer with. I especially don’t really want to talk about my life to anyone with Reba’s boundary issues.

I am on the lease with Reba and Mike until August, so I don’t think moving is an option for the next 6 months. But I am also annoyed because I feel like at this point the sum of my interactions with Reba are her asking about personal details and me responding with “I don’t want to talk to you about this” as I make a mad dash to my room to avoid further contact. I feel like I need to have a talk to Reba about appropriate boundaries. Although ideally I would like a big confrontation where I list all the past problems and Reba learns the error of her ways and apologizes I don’t think this is going to happen. My alternative approach is to start elaborating on “I don’t want to talk to you about this” by being really firm on why asking me personal, emotional questions really really annoys me. I guess my question is what advice do you have on the best script to use so that she realizes that by being so overbearing about asking me about my personal life she is causing me serious anguish?

Roommates should not be your therapist

Since your housemate is an budding amateur therapist and an obvious expert on human relations, no doubt she will appreciate a frank conversation about boundaries and how she is making you feel.

:wipes tears of laughter away:  Sorry, I didn’t mean to make funny jokes back there. In fact, I bet she will NOT appreciate it, because no one like being told they are being a busybody, and busybodies never think they are busybodies, they’re just people who care! a! lot! If you point out that they seem to kind of get off on other people’s problems and  get a sense of importance* from feeling needed and “in the know” and that it’s a little creepy sometimes and it definitely makes you feel cornered and pressured to share your personal details with them and they should back off because you don’t actually find their insights helpful or think of them as a close friend that you want to talk to about stuff? Yeah, they don’t like that.

And yet? A frank talk is in order. A very frank talk. And I want you to keep this front and center in your mind, if you start feeling squeamish or guilty about being “confrontational.” Reba has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that she is totally incapable of taking hints. All of those times when she asked you stuff or offered to help and you turned her down flat? That was you communicating that you are not interested in her help and not interested in sharing.

So here’s what you do.

“Reba, can we sit down and talk for a bit?” I wanted to talk to you about my break-up, and some stuff that happened right afterward.”

Reba will be so psyched right now? She’s been waiting for this, right?

It really bothered me when you told me about overhearing my phone conversation with my boyfriend. It made me feel violated and like I can’t have personal conversations in the house without someone eavesdropping and commenting on them.”

Let her talk. The most likely response will be a variation of “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop/I just care about you and mean to be helpful,” which, true enough.

Can I teach you a pro-level teaching/directing/interviewing/difficult conversation/werewolf technique right now? It’s a really hard one for me because I am a middle child who wants everyone to feel comfortable all the time. But whenever I practice it good things happen and I learn something new.

STRATEGICALLY PLACED SILENCE IS YOUR FRIEND. Say the difficult thing/ask the question, and then wait expectantly. When an awkward pause happens, don’t automatically jump in to fill it and smooth everything over. Sometimes you need things to be temporarily unsmooth so that real, true things can happen. Like learning, or creative leaps, or dawning self-awareness, or the kind of conflict that actually solves the deeper issues. Let the other person step into the awkward pause and come up with the words themselves.

In other words, when Reba tells you she wasn’t eavesdropping and didn’t mean to, wait. Gather your thoughts, and let it get wicked uncomfortable. When it’s time, jump back in.

“I’m sure you meant really well, but it still made me very uncomfortable to feel like my private conversations are monitored. When you live in close quarters with people, you just have to pretend you don’t hear certain things.”

I mean, we all know the Housemate Code of Sex, right? “As soon as a bedroom door closes, a magical soundproof seal is activated and no one can hear anything that goes on, and also a spell of forgetfulness descends over us all….what were we talking about again?

Before we finish the script for the conversation, let’s put ourselves in Reba’s shoes for a second. In the most generous possible interpretation, Reba obviously likes you and cares about you, and the way she shows that is to take an active interest in your life. So, because you want to maintain a cordial relationship with her for the remainder of your lease, keep that front and center while you say what you say next.

Reba, I know you are a caring person and you are just trying to show a friendly interest in my life and make sure I was okay after a troubling thing happened. But I am a very private person, and the best way you can support and care for me is to give me as much privacy and space as possible to sort through things on my own or with my very close friends when and if I choose to talk about them. So I need to set a very firm boundary with you right now. I need you to not ask me questions about my personal life, and trust that if I need your help I’ll come and ask for it. Can you do that for me?

What you want to hear from her right now is some version of “Oh god, I’m so sorry” and any indication that she has an awareness of how she made you feel. If you get that, it’s time to end the talk/thank her for hearing you out/change the subject back to something lighter. Congratulations! This relationship is salvageable!

What you don’t want to hear from her is stuff about herself and her issues. Her issues are not the issues, and they’re not your issues.  So if she starts cycling into the “Oh god, I suck” place or the “I wouldn’t have to be so nosy if you weren’t so standoffish and secretive” place, jump in and cut her off.

Reba, I can sure appreciate that this is an awkward conversation, especially when your intentions are so helpful and kind. But even though you meant well, it still made me feel very invaded and uncomfortable. I need you to acknowledge that, and I need you to agree to be more respectful of privacy. If you can just say “I’m sorry, I’ll try to do better!” we can change the subject and be cool with each other. Cool?

Afterwards, if things go well and you see her openly trying to change her behavior? Be generous with her. Act as if the whole thing never happened. Thank her when she does something nice. Spring for a pizza one night and watch a movie with her.

If she does cross the line again (and she will), speak up right away in a friendly-but-firm tone. “Hey Reba, thanks for asking, but I’d prefer not to talk about it. Let’s talk about your day. What’s new with you?” Or try this – “Reba, please just ignore me for the next couple of hours. I’ll catch up with you later!” Or this, if she tells you something private about Mike:  “Hey, that sounds like Mike’s private business, so I’d prefer not to discuss it unless he tells me himself.

If any of that feels mean, remember: Reba cannot take hints. You have to SAY THE STUFF.

If things do not go well weird passive-aggressive place where there’s a lot of loud sighing and “How was your day? OH WAIT, AM I NOT SUPPOSED TO ASK YOU THAT ANYMORE?” start planning where you’ll live when the lease is up or how to band together with Mike to kick her out.

*Yes, I do have enough self awareness to say “FUNNY YOU SHOULD SAY THAT, JENNIFER WHO STARTED AN ADVICE COLUMN FOR FUN,” thanks for asking!

66 thoughts on “#205: The case of the nosy roommate.

  1. Moment of silence? Also brilliant in teaching classes, and emotionally loaded scenarios.

    I hate it. I hate silence. I hate that moment when no one volunteers an answer. And I’ve always been the one to jump in, because I always have an answer. But now I see that it’s a necessary, important place. (And I’m still working on it, but I’m getting there.)

    Sometimes when things get really uncomfortable, that’s the only way to make them actually comfortable, instead of making due. Like, you have a futon that’s in the process of breaking. You can sleep on the part that isn’t, but then you’ve got a broken futon that you’re just not fixing, and it’s uncomfortable, and you hurt yourself accidentally all the time. It’s always abrasive, never quite right, always something you’re cautious around. Everything would be so much better if you could just fix the actual problem. That might involve buying a new futon — but your life will be better for it.

    (No prizes for guessing what I’m sitting on right now.)

    1. I have learned to use the long silence when somebody is asking me to do something I don’t want to do, and I have already said no. Such as:

      Them: Could you do X?
      Me: I don’t really have time, no.
      Them: It’s just, I’m no good at it. And I’m so stressed out right now.
      Me: Sorry.
      Them: (long silence while staring at me)
      Me: (staring right back, resisting the VERY STRONG URGE to go into long explanations about why I can’t help them)
      Them: And I’m so tired. It’s so hard.
      Me: Hmm. (silence)
      Them: (eventually going away)

      IT IS HARD but it is so satisfying when it works. That 10 second silence was a 30 minute we’re-pretending-this-isn’t-an-argument that I didn’t have!

    2. Agreed so hard re: classroom use.

      I have a class of fifth graders that I teach once a week who are notoriously difficult. Like, “their original teacher had to go on stress leave and their current teacher is clearly frustrated and yell-y” difficult. So they talk. And talk. And shout. And talk. And, rather than shouting or raising my voice or demanding quiet, I stand there. And I wait. Not happy, not angry, just staring at the back wall and waiting. And one by one, they go silent and then I thank them for quietening down and we go on with the lesson.

      No shouting, no singling anyone out, no undue headaches. It’s pretty awesome. Never thought to use it in one-on-one situations, though. I’m one of those compulsive “WAIT WAIT LET ME EXPLAIN MYSELF AND SMOOTH THINGS OVER AAAA” people, so this may be of use later on.

      1. I teach 7th grade. I stand and wait with a stopwatch in my hand. They get quiet really quickly when they see the stopwatch, since they know I use it to keep them in during breaks. 🙂

      2. It also works when students don’t want to participate in class discussions. When I ask my class a question and no one has anything to say, I sometimes feel tempted to rephrase it or start answering to get the discussion going, but that doesn’t actually help them articulate their own thoughts. If I wait long enough, someone usually volunteers something. Even if it’s, “I don’t understand what you’re asking,” or “I don’t know how to respond to what you said,” that can at least start a conversation.

      3. In animal training, we use “silence” when an animal is offering a behavior we don’t like/aren’t asking for. We call it an LRS, or least reinforcing stimulus, but it’s the same idea – if you don’t respond, that behavior will extinguish and something else, hopefully more positive/appropriate, will take it’s place.

        So yes – Reba totally needs some LRS’s.

  2. Ah, another word/phrase to add to my refrain of:
    If you have to tell people you are ___________ then you probably are not as ___________ as you think.

    Good at Listening

    Also, as a (semi)recovering Fixer, I cringe in recognition at Reba, who I have always feared becoming. “BUT I CAN HELP! I WILL HELP YOU! :D? :D?”

    1. Ha, so true!

      See also people who tell you they are “good in bed.” 1) I’LL TELL YOU if you are any good at that, and 2) can’t we just let that be a happy surprise?

      In Junior High? I was totally Reba. Cringing right here with you, Logic.

      1. Reckon an advice column (i.e. a place where people VOLUNTEER their AWKWARD PROBLEMS for you to FIX and MAKE BETTER) is probably a good way to channel those urges constructively… 😉

        1. Ha, true, and I officially have more questions than I will ever reasonably get to in the hopper.

          1. Perhaps the commenters could help? An “easy” letter crowdsourced by the community could be fun! And I always love reading the guest posts…

    2. Yeah, took me a while to learn “you cannot convince someone to want to tell you their problems” anymore than you can convince someone to want to go on a date with you.

    3. My social anxiety is making me wish this were also true for negative characteristics like: “annoying”

      Sadly, I think it is not.

      1. A person who tells you “I am terrible in this way” is sometimes just being nervous and insecure and sometimes warning you. I always want to believe it’s the former (and sometimes it is) but it is far more often the latter.

      2. Well, people who tell me that they are bitchy or bossy I take a face value, because wow, why would I not? “I just have to let you know that I’m an asshole! You can’t take anything I say seriously.” “Thanks! Duly noted! I await your inevitable sexist/racist/otherist rant with dread and an immediate escape plan!”

        But the framing can change the context:

        “People tell me I’m ______, but what do they know? Do I seem _____ to you?” (And you will say “no” because that’s what they want to hear, and then flee.)

        “People tell me I’m ______, but I’d like to know what you think. I’m worried about how I come across.” (And then you might be honest because the person is being sincere.)

        Basically, if you’re worried about how you’re coming across, and taking steps to change it, you’re probably not as bad as you think.

    4. “If you have to tell people you are ___________ then you probably are not as ___________ as you think.”

      I would add “loyal” to that list.

      The thing about being helpful (and most of the other things on that list) is that it isn’t an objective thing. You are a helpful person if people find you helpful. If they don’t find you helpful, and you insist on forcing your unhelpful help on them, you are probably annoying, which is often the opposite of helpful.

      1. Also “Powerful.”

        HusbandLogic and I just got the Game of Thrones blurays, and boy howdy, saying you’re powerful sure don’t make it so, VISERYS. AND STANNIS TO A LESSER EXTENT IN THIS SEASON. AND ESPECIALLY JOFFREY.

        I like to imagine each of them saying “I’m kind of a big deal.”
        /off-topic nerding

        1. OH MY GOD VISERYS. (I just started the second book! And this is my first comment here because I am so excited about them!)

          Seriously, people who refer to themselves in third person (especially by ridiculous titles) are just impossible to respect or take seriously. I couldn’t even get properly ticked at him at first, (except for, you know, when he did… stuff) because it was just too ridiculous to picture the dude stalking around going “You do not wake… [ominous pause] the dragon,” and every single person rolling their eyes as soon as he looked away. “You do not bump into… the dragon. You do not snicker at… the dragon. You do not make mocking limerics about… the dragon. You do not — did you just spit in my– I mean the dragon’s — wine?”

      2. So true! One of our family sayings is “Ask if someone needs help and wait for a yes before helping”. Unhelpful/ non- helpful “help” is super irritating and all my family members are prone to it.

  3. I mean, we all know the Housemate Code of Sex, right? “As soon as a bedroom door closes, a magical soundproof seal is activated and no one can hear anything that goes on, and also a spell of forgetfulness descends over us all….what were we talking about again?“

    My boyfriend’s old roommate did not know this. It started when she complained she couldn’t stand hearing us having sex. Okay, fine then, we did it quietly unless we knew she was out. Then she started complaining that even this wasn’t okay, because she still knew we were having sex when she saw me around.

    Things culminated with an ultra-creepy email where she argue that because she knew Sexy Sex was happening in the house, she felt like she had been “unwillingly involved in your sex life” and that “it makes me feel like I’m stuck there in the bedroom with you having sex.”

    My boyfriend began shopping for new apartments and now lives in a delightfully kink-friendly clothing-optional house.

    1. I’m glad that worked out?

      The code does go both ways – I mean, roommates are called upon never to acknowledge that they’ve heard sex, but the sexy roommates are also called upon to keep it down to a dull roar.

      I’ve been in your old roommate’s shoes when I lived with a dominatrix who was also an awful, awful person, and I feel like she DID unwillingly involve me in her sex life because having me hear things (and having her partners know that I was hearing them) was part of their play that added to the humiliation. Nothing like eating my cereal and watching Saturday morning cartoons while some poor dude-bro is experiencing his first flogging 15 feet away.

      1. Sorry, I realize that was a semi-unrelated story. Just my own “roommate with NO boundaries” situation. Or maybe with a boundary that really, really should have been communicated before he moved in.

        We weren’t doing obvious kink in the house, I promise. We weren’t even making noise after the first complaint. The roommate’s complaint came down to the fact that she couldn’t tolerate even abstractly knowing sex was being had in her house.

        1. No, I trust that you were cool! “Knowing that sex was taking place in the house.” Really? Were you living with my mom?

          And trust me when I say that it wasn’t the kink that made my old roommate horrendous. (Written years ago before I really thought about a) how bad that domestic abuse chapter was and b) how knowing the warning signs doesn’t always help you (or obligate you to save yourself).)

          P.S. To the influx of Goodreads followers: Go ahead and follow me if you feel like it, you don’t have to ask. I won’t follow you back – I only follow a few close friends and don’t have time to keep up with it very much.

        2. I had a roomate in university who would have completely noiseless sex with her boyfriend in the afternoons. They would go into her bedroom, a deathly silence would reign for about 20 minutes, then they’d emerge, all smiles. And it wasn’t like the apartment was soundproofed – I could hear her *typing* from my room.

          I don’t know how they did it, but it was super awkward to be sitting in my room studying or watching “Murder She Wrote” or something while they were in there.

      2. I am SOOOO with you. I lived with a dominatrix who was also an abusive girlfriend and I did NOT enjoy listening to her beat her girlfriend. (Yes, it was not part of a scene. Yes, I know the difference. She also bit her son repeatedly. CPS got involved, and her girlfriend dumped her and moved out.) I also didn’t enjoy listening to the loud, screaming, howling sex.

        Fast forward to a different roommate and his partner. I had no choice but to sit about 6 feet from their bed with only one very thinly insulated wall in between myself and them and listen to them have loud, dramatic sex. It was that or try to study in my car. They would fuck with the window open, too, never mind the pack of elementary school kids playing in the street in front of our house who were ALSO forced to listen to them. It was really tasteless.

        If they fucked at a normal decibel level it wouldn’t have bothered me so much. I mean, I have sex too, and I’m not a dormouse, but screaming orgasms every 5 minutes for 2 hours is a bit much.

    2. I had a roommate once who used to play music to cover up the sounds of her having sex, except that the sex was not that loud, and really didn’t bother me, whereas the music was WAY TOO LOUD and kept me awake. I felt super awkward about asking them to turn it down, because I didn’t want to interrupt their sexytimes, and maybe they felt all self-conscious if they didn’t have the music, but otoh…

      I ended up banging on the door and asking them (nicely) to turn it down. I think I made the right call, but I’m not sure. After I did that the loud music was never a problem again…

      1. My former roommates used to turn reggae music on. But they didn’t play it loud enough, so instead of social-contract reggae, it was just…sexy reggae.

  4. As usual, superb advice from the Captain.

    Let me emphasize one point from the post-talk, ‘when she gets nosy’ script: the deflection.

    Reba may be asking questions in part because she’s terrible at conversation. She doesn’t know about your hobbies, she doesn’t talk about her hobbies, and she doesn’t know how to make small talk. Offering smalltalk on a safe subject is a socially-pleasant way to take the sting out of “thanks for asking, but I’d prefer not to talk about it”. Consider having a list of “Reba conversation” topics, either steering the conversation to her, or talking about something relatively neutral.

    Having neutral small talk should go a long ways to preventing the passive-aggressive “How was your – whoops, I’m not supposed to ask, am I?” nonsense.

    1. Yes! I love this. Investing too much in others’ problems/relationships is sometimes a diversion from one’s own life (I can be a terrible gossip when I don’t have enough going on workwise or any interesting creative projects in the hopper, and I’m somewhat a recovering Fixer as well) and also sometimes a shortcut to connecting with people you like but don’t know that well yet (I may not know WHAT we have in common but I know WHO we have in common). Reba might initially be annoyed that you are trying to rein her in/keep her away from THE JUICE but reminding her that there is other stuff to talk about is at least worth trying.

  5. I just wanted to highlight the whole “plotting with Mike” portion of things. Because sometimes, roommates just gotta go.

    1. I lied that’s not all. In reflecting I wanted to emphasize the Captain’s point here:

      “But I am a very private person, and the best way you can support and care for me is to give me as much privacy and space as possible to sort through things on my own…”

      This part is so right on because it makes it *your* problem that’s being addressed (We all know it’s really Gretchen Weiner’s problem, but GW doesn’t so this is key). This gives roomie the space in her head to think “my roommate is WEIRDLY private so I’m being SO ACCOMODATING by respecting that.

      This is of course a falsehood, but it doesn’t force you to break someone’s world view (me = GREAT HELPER) in order to just have non-frought daily interaction with them.

      My dog thinks he’s a great helper too, but really he just likes licking the dirty dishes ’cause they taste good.

      1. Yes, this is exactly what I was trying to say, about not breaking her own worldview of herself! She thinks she’s great at helping, so acknowledge that she is so helpful when asking for the help you need….which just happens to be “Stay the fuck away from my business.”

        1. Ohhhhh very good point. During a falling out with a “helpful” friend I made the mistake of calling her out explicitly (“You say you do/are X, but ACTUALLY, you do/are Y, at least around me”) and guessing about her motivations (also about control, also about being in the known) which just made her really mad (and she denied or minimized a lot of stuff she had in fact said/done, which did not make me feel any better) and shifted the focus of the conversation, which should have been about what would and wouldn’t be OK moving forward. It is almost certainly too late to fix that relationship and I don’t want to sink anymore energy on it, but this is good to know for the future.

  6. I am curious if anybody here has ever had an experience where they realized they were The Person Who Can’t Take Hints. I know that for myself, when I read about somebody like Reba, I am like, “Ha ha, yes, *those* kinds of people, what’s up with them?” But that’s usually a phrase that should presage some introspection, because we are all *those* kinds of people sometimes, right?

    My boyfriend and I just recently had this conversation, is why I’m thinking about it. He grew up in a household where, if somebody was bothering you, you gave them I Am Annoyed face as a hint, because it was considered far more rude and hurtful to say “leave me alone.” I grew up in an abusive household, where faces like that were essentially threats meant to scare you back into line. Getting out of abusive victim mindset meant that, just as much as I had to work on using my words, I had to work on listening to words — I had to trust that most people will tell me what they want, instead of constantly being on the alert for their body language and how do they feel and are they mad at me should I bake them a cake what does that eyebrow twitch mean.

    So if I am following my boyfriend around yammering, and he needs some quiet right now, he gives me an I Am Annoyed face. I see that, and first I let it go because I know I overreact to the slightest hitch of negative body language as meaning SHUT UP NOW YOU ARE BAD, and he can use his words to tell me if I am annoying him. He does not use his words because he thinks that is rude. He gives me annoyed face again, and again, and again, and eventually I take it like a blow to my stomach — in his mind, it’s the polite way to ask somebody to quiet down, and in my mind, it’s the equivalent of saying, “Shut the fuck up” to somebody. Then, I KEEP talking because fuck you, you want me to stop talking, you tell me, you don’t control me with your face, I am not going to shut my mouth and walk away feeling shitty because you can’t use your words. Then we are both unhappy.

    We have solved this through 1) the first half hour after he comes home, I do not talk to him about my day because that is time he needs to unwind quietly and 2) after that first half hour, he USES HIS WORDS.

    1. Yeah, I’m not great at taking hints either, so when I sense something is weird I’m the weirdo who will say “Is there something you need me to do I’m not getting? Please just tell me.”

      I think the world is much better when people can say what they need out loud and trust that it will be respected. Stuff like “Hey, give me an hour to unwind and THEN I want to hear about your day, ok?”

      But? There is also a lot of legitimate nonverbal communication in the world. The lady on the subway reading her book doesn’t want to chat! A person who gives you one-word answers and then goes back to what they were doing before doesn’t want to chat. When your boss gets up every time you come in the room, he doesn’t want to chat. (If you ask someone a bunch of times if they’d like your home-cooked couples counseling and they say no every time, they probably don’t want your couple’s counseling, Reba!)

      Non-neurotypical people sometimes have a hard time time picking up on nonverbal cues, to be sure, and we all do it imperfectly – either because we’re not picking up on the cues, the cues themselves are too subtle, or because our need is great. It’s imperfect.

      And like you, I will strategically refuse to take passive aggressive hints on purpose. Like, if information comes to me second-hand? I think one time in college one of my roommates told me that while she liked my shower-singing it was annoying our other roommate, who I will call by her full name: Spoiled Brat Laura. If that’s the case, Spoiled Brat Laura can tell me herself, and all the huffing and sighing in the world won’t make me stop belting out my sweet tunes!

      1. I had a terrible roommate situation that fell apart spectacularly. After the dust settled, and we had all retreated to our corners to complain bitterly about each other, I heard that my roommate complained that she had asked me to do a thing for her a zillion times and I had always said no because I was a terrible unhelpful roommate. What I remembered happening was:

        Her: I am so busy today oh my god I am so busy here are all the things I have to do so tired so I really won’t have time to do X.
        Me: Okay.
        Her: And X really needs to get done!
        Me: Okay.
        Her: It’s so frustrating!
        Me: I bet.
        Her: (angry sigh) Are you able to do X?
        Me: If you need me to.
        Her: No, it’s not that I *need* you to.
        Me: Okay.
        Her: (angry sigh, leaving room)

        Because she spoke in passive-aggressive, she assumed everybody did, and assumed that “if you need me to” was code for “I hate you for asking me to do this.” And I knew it would come across that way, though I actually meant, “Yes, if you need me to, I will do this thing,” so I was being bad and responding to her passive-aggression with more passive-aggression. But to me, it was also part of the Roommate Code. If you do not say a thing in words to me, I am not going to assume, or we will end up with me confronting you about your recent break-up because you had that conversation in my earshot and I assume that means you wanted me to know about it so we could talk about it, right? Right? Oh, wait, not right, now you’re mad at me.

        1. Passive-Aggressive was my first language and definitely what we spoke at home.

          I got better! Looks like you did, too. I mean, I still understand it when someone speaks it to me? But it all gets sort of hazy….oh, look at the time.


        2. Ugh this is so me. Back when I had roommates I always wanted to have a talk and nail down who was responsible for what, because true story, I am a total slob. I need to be told in very clear words what to clean and how often because I can really ignore the mess forever. (I also spent some time doing all the shopping and kitchen cleaning for 2 of my roommates until I decided if they didn’t care, I didn’t either.)

          So anyway, I always want to be like HERE IS A WHITE BOARD WITH CHORES AND BILLS.

          And no one else wants to do this. They want to just see how things go and blah blah blah. Perhaps I am not proactive enough in my quest for designated doing stuff.

          Instead I ended up in these situations where I didn’t really notice that my roommate was giving me the silent treatment, not realizing at all that they were mad at me for eating the pizza/never cleaning/being myself.

          I’ve also had issues where people thought I was speaking in passive, and I was really just being indecisive. I had a college roommate I shared a 1 bedroom with and she really wanted to split up and have her live in the living room and me in the bedroom. I really hate living in 1 room so this did not appeal to me at all. We talked about it a few times and I said something that I thought meant maybe and that I needed to think about it, and she apparently thought meant yes. I then left the house and came home later to find all of my stuff moved by one of our male friends.

          1. Ha, even if you HAD agreed, it’s not like it is ok to move your stuff without you even there.

            Do you want a roommate? I like your whiteboard idea. My most successful roommate experience was the one where I said, “Look, I try but sometimes I suck about cleaning, if I leave things too dirty and it bothers you please tell me and I will step it up,” and she took me at my word. Communication FTW!

            Of course then she tried to move out with like 2 weeks notice without telling me, but that’s a whole ‘nother story…

          2. Love the white board idea!

            When I had housemates, within a month or two at dinner, I asked, “how do we want to handle chores?” Their reply, “Oh, you know, if you notice something needs doing, do it.” Me: “I am slow to notice things; by the time I notice, you’d have all cleaned it twice. I want to make sure I contribute my fair share. Could we have a list on the fridge of various tasks that we update when they were last completed? That way I can check and see what needs doing, and notice if I’m not contributing enough.”

            Reply: “Absolutely, except let’s hide it in the drawer in the dining room!”

            Needless to say, that did not happen. Who would update a list in a drawer? A list that isn’t visible basically doesn’t exist to me. In the end, I did work on the project to convert part of the house to an apartment and hoped that was enough to absolve me.

          3. My people! Being messy can be stressful when you live with others. One of the best ways I experienced to circumvent all of that was a chore wheel (this for chores beyond, say, pick up after yourself if you make a mess in a common area and wash your own dishes). Inner circle: roommate names. Outer wheel: various chores we agreed needed to be done weekly.

            See, we only had to make it the once, and we rotated it every week. If you didn’t want to abide by it, fine. But if you did, it was helpful to have a thing to do every week and only that thing (and therefore, to feel no paranoia that you Weren’t Doing Enough!). Also, this was helpful because it did not require the neatnik roommates to be stuck in the “parent” role- ie, constantly updating a list of things they think should be second nature.

          4. xenu01, I love your wheel idea! I’m definitely The Messy One in my roommate situation and I never know if my roommate is sekritly passive-aggressively angry at me for not cleaning or if she really doesn’t care and it’s not a big deal, so having explicit guidelines would help somewhat, I think. I like the idea that if you don’t do your wheel thing, okay, but if you want one thing to do you can just look at the wheel.

    2. Yep.
      When I read this I realized I pretty much am Reba. I try not to be, but given no social pressure that’s who I would be. I’m going to continue trying to be aware of whether people actually want my help.

      Oh it’s so hard…. Need…. more…. drama…..

      Maybe I’ll go watch a movie 🙂

  7. This is really timely, thankyou. I thought I had a very successful boundary-setting situation on the weekend but Husband and I talked it over afterwards and he thought it was rude, and then I felt bad :\

    I told a friend three times in a row that I didn’t want to talk about (recently upsetting thing). I didn’t start with the caveat “I know you’re only asking because you care (see also: helpful / kind) but…” – because they were my friends, not a random housemate, I didn’t think I needed to preface that, but maybe I should have? These particular friends are rather boundary-oblivious.

    In a lot of ways I think practicing setting boundaries helps the boundary-ee AS WELL AS the boundary-er as to how to accept boundaries gracefully and respect people’s words the very first time.

    (Husband thought I should have at least said “it was really hard” or “I am still really upset about it” or something. But like…that would be TALKING ABOUT IT? Which I said three times I DONT WANT TO?)

    So echoing Le Capitan’s (always) excellent advice – even if Reba’s motive isn’t malicious, she definitely needs more practice respecting boundaries, which you can give her in spades. Stick to your guns 🙂

    1. I find that there is a curve of upsetting things I want to talk about. Things that are upsetting but not in any serious way, more like OMG So and SO is a jerk and What’s with the republicans and reproductive rights? I can talk about these things that make me feel not happy forever. I will enjoy talking about them, I will call people so I can recount these upsetting things.

      But really serious things like family illnesses, I don’t want to talk about. I would like to pretend that they have not happened as much as possible. And if people bring up stuff that is very upsetting to me while we are in a social situation, I probably wouldn’t be very nice about it either. Especially if they brought it up more than once.

      I think everyone has their own threshold for this level of thing that is so important it is not to be chatted about, and that should be respected. I don’t think politeness is required in these situations. If you wanted to talk about it, you would have brought it up.

      1. I absolutely agree, and have the same limits around talking about friend or family illness or death, especially with people who didn’t know the ill/dead person. Since I find those things so upsetting, I’m even less able to control my feelings when people intentionally disrespect my boundaries.

        My great-aunt (to whom I was very close) died suddenly almost 5 years ago now, and I heard about her death from my mother, who rang when my in-laws were over for dinner. Clearly they saw how devastated I was, and my mother-in-law was trying to be supportive, but nevertheless spent some of dinner speculating about ‘how she might have died’. This I did not find helpful, or relevant, which I conveyed to her. The following week, we were supposed to go around to their place for dinner, and I *absolutely* did not under any circumstances want to talk about GA – they did not know her, and I did not want to spend my time there in tears thinking about how much I missed her. Because I didn’t want to talk about it so much with them I couldn’t even see my way to personally telling them this (because I didn’t want to talk about it), I had my husband ring up and make explicitly clear that his mother should not mention GA during dinner. Guess what the first thing she said as we walked in the door was? “Do you know how your great-aunt died now?”

        Because I guess her autopsy was EXACTLY WHAT I WANTED TO THINK ABOUT when I said I didn’t want to speak about my great-aunt? Regardless of whether she thought that my husband was speaking passive-agressive when he rang, and actually I wanted her to bring it up immediately, I am still angry about this.

        But like you, LW, I couldn’t burn all the bridges. I can’t even remember what I did say, which isn’t helpful, but CA has given some great advice, as always. I like to think I did something worthy of the CA methodology, because whatever it was worked!

        1. shinobi: yes!! exactly – this was a Big Family Thing (returned to my home town for the first time in almost 4 years to see my dad who i have a …complicated….relationship with) and they knew the context behind it and that i was really anxious/dreading it. of course i appreciate them being concerned, but i think in those situations an ‘ask once then let it alone’ rule isn’t unreasonable.

          huia: ugh, i am so sorry you had to go through that after losing your GA 😦 as a few people mentioned above, some people really *really!* aren’t great hint-getters. glad that you found a strategy that worked eventually (even if you’re not sure what it was, haha!)

  8. “I mean, we all know the Housemate Code of Sex, right? “As soon as a bedroom door closes, a magical soundproof seal is activated and no one can hear anything that goes on, and also a spell of forgetfulness descends over us all….what were we talking about again?“”

    I had to learn that the hard way at 27. To be fair, I had gone to the library before moving to say, “I want a book on getting your first apartment and everything you need to know,” and the librarian stared blankly, all “DOES NOT EXIST.” (My college was dorm all 4 years and then I lived with my parents for a few years.)

    If a book on life in your twenties is ever written, this should be spelled out exactly as you say. And also “see the other reason waterbeds are not recommended in rentals.” As in, 100+ year old wooden house, everybody’s beds running parallel to the floor beds = waves of motion not your own creation. I am sure I embarrassed everyone by breaking the code I didn’t know about to inform them, in transparent code, that their motion was transmitted via the floor boards and felt in my bed every night. Even remembering and mentioning this I feel embarrassed.

    Okay, more on topic:
    As a recovering “does not perceive the hints” person, I second the Captain’s advice, except that I try to avoid “made me feel” phrases and go for the “when you x, I feel y because I need z, so are you willing to agree to a?”

    1. seconded on the made me feel (even though I have a hard time with finding alternative phrasing). Own your emotions!

    2. Oh my god, that book needs to be written. Why is there not a book on everything you need to know about roommates?

      Okay Awkward Army, we need to get on this.

  9. It’s GustavO Fring, or Gus to his subordinates and drug lord enemies. And he is very good at setting and enforcing boundaries.

  10. I am really glad my first therapist really came down on me for being a Help-er. I was 16 and trying to fix EVERYONE around me, and I didn’t get why this lady wanted me to cut down on that! But she kept pointing out, “For you to be a healer, everyone around you has to be sick, even if they actually aren’t,” and finally I figured it out. I learned that seeing everyone else as a problem child was a way to decrease my own anxiety–I often felt like no one would like me if I wasn’t helping them. It actually took a lot of courage to think, “This person is happy, healthy, and has their shit together–and they still enjoy spending time with me!”

    Now that I’m actually in school with as a therapist myself, I am really grateful for that, and I get it now. If your life is centred around helping other people, you can run yourself totally ragged. Therapist school is really emotionally taxing–there’s something uniquely harrowing about having to watch a video of yourself helping someone else and then have all your classmates point out everything you did wrong. A bunch of my classmates are having some real emotional problems with that, but are really prevented from getting help from friends or a therapist, because they GIVE help. They don’t GET help. Especially about not being good enough at giving help! If they’re not the giver-of-help, who are they???

    But the thing studying counselling has really taught me is that the most powerful agent of change isn’t actually advice. (Advice is awesome, though!) The most powerful tool in a counsellor’s arsenal is unconditionally supporting and believing someone while letting them figure out their own strengths and abilities. Counsellors really have to believe that in a vast majority of cases their clients have the ability to figure out their own lives, more or less, on their own. Otherwise we might end up implicitly telling our clients, “You are sick and hopeless; jeez, aren’t you a loser–you’d never last on your own. Good thing I have all the answers.” And then they wouldn’t end up in possession of the strongest parts of themselves, and we’d never have a moment’s rest.

    So maybe telling Reba that you’re still okay with her even if she isn’t helping you–or that she could help you feel happy and self-confident by acting like she has faith in your ability to do things on your own–would be good for both of you.

    1. Great perspective!

      I just want to add – it’s WAY more important that the LW gets Reba to back off than it is for the LW to become a “helper” to Reba. The LW doesn’t have to like Reba because of or despite her helping or even at all, and has no responsibility to do an “I’m ok, you’re ok” thing. I say validate Reba’s “helper” tendencies because it’s useful, ie, “Here’s how you can really HELP THE MOST…go away.”

      1. Oh yeah. I think I’ve just spent too much time dealing with Rebas–“It’s okay to look after yourself! It’s even helping the other person!”

        God, give me people who know how to be responsibly selfish.

    2. “Counsellors really have to believe that in a vast majority of cases their clients have the ability to figure out their own lives, more or less, on their own.”

      I’m not a counsellor, but I feel like that’s probably one of the most important thing about helping people. If you think that you are the only person who can solve a person’s problem, then you really have no way of helping them in any permanent way. A helper and a fixer are two totally different things.

    3. This is actually the same for teachers too, the best classroom management technique is genuinely caring for and supporting your students.

  11. The silence! I am still learning to let it stretch uncomfortably without becoming a stare down. But! It is so useful. When I don’t say things I learn so much! Most of the things I learn are painful and shitty to hear, but at least I know they exist? And once I know about them I can identify if they are Really Truly My Fault or the other person projecting their own frustration on me.

  12. I think there are two types of behaviour that are being conflated because LW is angry. I live with roommates, I totally get this. I have ended a long string of valid complaints with “And they ALWAYS leave the soap on the left side of the sink!” so I understand that when you’re close to the situation it’s hard to distinguish between normal human behaviour and That Thing They Do.

    Reba is clearly over the line. Asking about your relationship and eavesdropping is totally not okay, and the gossiping about other roommates is also not okay. Everyone is dead on with how to deal with these behaviours.

    But asking what you got in the mail? Is a pretty normal small-talk question, especially if you live in close quarters with other people. Same with asking where you went last night, or how your day was. It’s a phatic question to show that you care about the other person and try to build a connection, not digging for info. It goes like this:

    Jamie: Hey Jack, you got a package. The return address is from England. Who do you know there?
    Jack (Answer A): Oh, I have an aunt there. I asked her to send me Downtown Abbey, because it is cheaper.
    Jack (Answer B): That’s private. I’d rather not talk about it.
    Jamie: Cool! Have fun.

    It’s unclear from the letter whether there’s a problem with Reba pushing for information after LW said things were private, or Reba just asking in general. If she’s pushing for information, that’s not okay, but I have to come down on the side of “normal human interaction” here. It sounds like this is one of those things that becomes an issue because all of Reba’s other behaviours MAKE it an issue. Also there is nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t like to talk about my mail,” and then changing the subject and asking about her. Most people get the hint by the third time. What it sounds like LW is doing is telling her she don’t want to talk to her, and then hiding in LW’s room. From Reba’s perspective, I can see how this is coming off as her just needing to TRY HARDER to be nice and friendly to LW. It doesn’t excuse her behaviour, but five minutes of indulging roommates in small-talk goes a long way towards keeping a pleasant atmosphere in a shared apartment.

    As far as Mike is concerned, I had a sibling die recently, and it is the LAST thing I want to talk about… so I gave my friends permission to give otherr friends the heads up so they wouldn’t accidentally make insensitive jokes or comments. When a family member dies, especially a sibling, a simple question like, “What are you doing for Christmas?” can be fraught. It’s a lot easier to pass the Baton of Unfortunate News on to someone else until you’re capable of dealing with things, and it’s entirely possible that Mike asked Reba to let you know so he didn’t have to talk about it any more than he had to. If Reba mentions it again, asking her if Mike gave her permission to talk about it would be a good way to establish the situation and set boundaries. As it is, it feels like LW is making just as many assumptions about what Mike wants as Reba is making assumptions about what LW wants, and using someone in that situation as a pawn in a roommate fight is not okay.

    1. I think the first part of this comment is SUPER important. Asking what’s in a package is normal roommate behavior and shouldn’t be that upsetting. LW, you need to sort out which of Reba’ questions are “over the line prying” and which are “normal interacting with someone whose physical space you share.” And if they’re the latter? Interact. Be nice and polite, answer her question and do the two minutes of necessary chatting, and then excuse yourself to your room. If they’re the former? Well, you have a lot of advice in this post.

      In a healthy roommate relationship, even the overhearing wouldn’t be such a big deal – the truth is that sometimes roommates overhear things, and the fact that they were overheard and not told doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. But even in those situations, anything more than a simple, tactful “Hey, this is awkward, but I overheard some things, and I just wanted to say that you should let me know if you need anything or want to talk” is uncalled for. Likewise, offering to mediate for you and your boyfriend doesn’t seem “gross” to me – well-meaning but inappropriate, perhaps, but on the other hand you guys were having a fight in the place where she lives.

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