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Carolyn Hax: Moody college roommate ‘puts my hair on end’

(Nick Galifianakis/Illustration for The Washington Post)
3 min

Dear Carolyn: I am living with a girl in college who is very moody. It is not even about trouble dividing chores. It’s that sometimes she’s just in a bad mood, bangs doors, stomps on the floor, and seems to get very annoyed with my attempts at lightening the mood with small talk. She told me once that it had nothing to do with me. The behavior still puts my hair on end sometimes. She started ignoring me once and I told her I wish we’d say hello to each other.

Sometimes, she's cheerful and chatty.

I sort of strive to keep up basic politeness with the bare minimum of small talk to lighten up the tension, but don’t know how to make it more consistent. When I try and she just lets it all pour out with the mood, it makes me very agitated.

What do I do if moving isn’t an option right away?

— Anonymous

Anonymous: What a self-indulgent roommate you have, I’m sorry. Childish.

She's entitled to her bad moods, as we all are. But we all have a basic social responsibility, too, to keep from sloshing our bad moods all over the people sharing our spaces, like an open cup on a subway. Roil away, sure — with a lid.

I'd gladly say otherwise if door-slamming actually worked. But emotional incontinence doesn't cure anything except warmth, trust and peace of mind.

At the same time, your approach is a form of butting in — those “attempts at lightening the mood” — which basically splashes your feelings onto her.

Door-slamming and small-talking might not seem equivalent. But there's a difference between cheering people up and trying to correct their feelings when you don't like them. The former is a wonderful thing people do for each other — and the other is what cheering up becomes when the person you're trying to cheer up clearly isn't receptive.

So while your roommate is stomping into your space, you're chirping into hers.

The fix is straightforward: respect. For you, this means leaving her alone when she's crabby. When you feel the impulse to cheer her up, recognize you're the one who is uncomfortable and train your efforts on you.

For her, this would mean leaving you in peace when she’s crabby, and not indulging her percussive impulses while you’re just going about your day.

But she didn't ask me, meaning you will have to communicate these ideas to her yourself (when she's in a good mood, I recommend). Tell her you've tried polite chatter to make yourself more comfortable, and understand now that only gets on her nerves. Then pitch the new plan: You will stop the forced cheer and trying to fix her when she's moody. Instead you'll stay out of her way — and ask that she offer you that same hospitable space. Slam- and stomp-free, if she would.

You can use headphones and good music to close gaps in her ability to play along, or yours.

I know this is more of a “both sides” answer than you deserve; she is the less roommate-ready of the two of you. But because she’s being dramatic, not cruel — right? — you do have room to make productive changes to your own choices here. You can be less involved, less reactive, less enmeshed, more compassionate — “Anything I can do?” — without compromising yourself or how you deserve to be treated. Think “basic politeness” with a dash of benign detachment. Roommating 101.

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