Mind & Body

Your Roommate Doesn't Know How You're Feeling

How did you feel about your very first roommate? Did you get along like gangbusters, or did you wonder if they believed that the dishes are done by a team of magical fairies? Or maybe while you were experiencing final exam pressure like you'd never imagined, they seemed oblivious to your distress. Well, they might have felt the same way about you.

Don't Feel the Roomie

According to a 2018 study from New York University, roommates have a strong tendency to underestimate each other's distress, regardless of the closeness of their relationship. About 85 percent of the 187 same-sex duos in the study were women, and just over half of them were white. In order to qualify for the study, they had to have lived together for at least five months previously. And while everybody knows how stressful college can be, it appears that going through it with somebody else isn't enough to give roommates a strong sense of that person's struggle.

The researchers first interviewed the participants in February and asked about their overall sense of wellbeing. They also asked each person about their roommate's state of mind — then matched those against the roommate's perceptions. Then, after six weeks, the researchers checked in on the roommates again. Did they have a stressful spring? And what about their roommates? Almost across the board, the students ended up feeling like their roommates weren't having nearly as hard of a time as they were in reality.

Going Both Ways

It wasn't just a matter of people not realizing when their roommates were stressed out. There was a direct relationship between how stressed they felt and how stressed they thought their roommate was. If midterms had been particularly hard on one roommate, that person would be much more likely to rate their cohabitant as being less stressed than they really were. On average, roommates grew more stressed about four times more quickly than their roommates would estimate — that is to say, if a participant reported their stress increasing by four points on a 10-point scale, from a 3 to a 7, then their roommate might believe their stress had only increased by one point.

But although a tendency towards underestimating stress levels was far-and-away the takeaway of the study, it paradoxically also found that even people who believe their roommates were distressed weren't especially accurate. Based on participants' self-reports, the researchers estimated about 20 percent of the students experienced extremely high levels of distress. But among the pairs of roommates where one person reported that the other was having a very difficult time, that rate increased to 40 percent. That means that people who thought their roommate was struggling were twice as likely to actually have a roommate who was struggling — but it also means that the other 60 percent of the time, that report would be wrong.

Taken alone, it makes sense to take this study to heart, if only for the fact that it focused entirely on college students. After all, your early 20s aren't necessarily the most mature and empathetic period in your life, and when you add on the stress of a new environment and the new challenge of college, well, that's bound to affect how tuned-in you are to the people around you.

But a study from Southern Methodist University published the same month found similar tendencies of romantic couples. While people are pretty good at knowing when their partner is in good mood, the study showed that we're all pretty lousy at knowing when our significant other is feeling sad or lonely. The takeaway? Don't assume you know how the people around you are feeling. Ask how they're doing. You might be surprised at their answers.

For more advice on how to navigate life with roommates, check out "How Do You Work This Life Thing?" by Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of iconic advice columnist Emily Post and an advice expert in her own right. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas April 25, 2018