The First Convo You Have With Your Roommate Should Be About Sleep

Talking through sleep schedules is even more important than liking the same music.

Two college roommates peacefully working side by side in the dormroom
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Living with a new roommate in college can feel a bit like being at summer camp. Suddenly, you’re bunking up in close quarters, trying to keep tidy for another person, probably adjusting music preferences, and, of course, learning that person’s different habits around sleep.

But don’t give in and give up on the quality of your slumber just to make friends.

If your new roomie stays up late or sets an alarm early, it could impact not just your sleep, but how well you absorb what you’re learning. After all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 33% of Americans are sleep deprived — and that’s not the future you want for yourself. It’s best to set some basic rules that benefit both of you as early as possible.

Here’s a road map to help you get started.

Talk about your boundaries and standards

The first building block of a sturdy roommate relationship is to talk openly about your sleep habits and preferences. That way, when differences arise, you can find a solution together. As psychologists have found, open communication builds trust, which can foster problem-solving and collaboration.

Here are topics to cover:

  • Bedtime routine: When it comes to winding down, each person has a different routine. For instance, you might be a late-night Netflix binger who falls asleep after midnight, but your roommate may need some quiet time. One way to broach the topic is to ask: “At the end of the day, how do you like to wind down?” and “What is your bedtime routine?”
  • Morning routine: Not everyone is an early riser, especially in college, so ask about your roommate’s preference and share yours, too. Consider asking about when your roommate’s earliest classes start, and whether they hit snooze or jump out of bed.
  • Noise level: Whether you live in a dorm, residence hall or other student-centric setup, noise is bound to be an issue. This may be particularly true if you’re sensitive to sound. To get a sense of where you both stand, start with: “Are you sensitive to noise, and if so, what bothers you?”
  • Sleep quirks: Many of us have sleep quirks. For instance, you may be a loud snorer, talk in your sleep, or make other noises. While disclosing your quirks may feel a tad embarrassing, address the topic in a light way by divulging your embarrassments, and asking: “Are there any silly, sleep quirks that I should know about?”

After you’ve talked about your sleep habits, come up with a game plan. For instance, if your roomie hits the hay early, you might agree on a few activities that won’t disrupt their sleep, such as listening to music or a podcast with headphones on. When late-night study sessions or all-nighters pop up, you might agree to work in the library or study lounge. And if you're a light sleeper but your roomie snores, earplugs could be your new BFF.

Follow the uncomfortable rule

Of course, you can’t predict every wrinkle beforehand, which is why Harlan Cohen, author of the book “The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run into In College,” recommends “making rules before you need rules.”

One of Cohen’s rules is the “uncomfortable rule,” which means if something makes any roommate feel uneasy, that roommate must address the issue within 24 to 48 hours. Essentially, this ground rule gives each person permission to bring up thorny topics before they turn into bigger issues.

How to break post-pandemic jitters

Two roommates in a dorm room talking about sleep schedules
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If you were living on your own during the pandemic, sharing a room with anyone could be an adjustment. You may wonder where your dorm-mate stands on the vaccine or worry that a new virus variant will make room-sharing unsafe, particularly if your new roommate likes to bring friends or more-than-friends to your shared space. Along with these concerns, re-entry jitters might make bunking up feel like interviewing for a new job.

Two questions that can help break the ice: “What’s it like to share a room together, especially after the pandemic?” and “How can we support each other?”

Remember that sharing space stretches your comfort zone in all sorts of ways. If you're an introvert, having a roomie might feel a little draining at first. On the other hand, if you’re an extrovert, you might secretly want your roommate to become a close friend, in which case it’s important to discuss your expectations. According to Cohen, differences don't need to turn into conflicts, especially when addressed early on.

How to have the privacy talk

Before you invite your partner, Tinder date, or friends over, be sure to have a privacy talk with your roommate. The last thing you want is to be known as the “extracurricular roommate” (a.k.a., the roommate with lots of overnight guests).

One tip: Do some preemptive planning, recommends Cohen. You might consider reviewing this checklist.

  • How often can you and your roommate have guests over?
  • Is it OK if a partner spends the night?
  • How might overnight guests affect your sleep?
  • Do you want guests to leave at a certain time?

When it comes to laying down ground rules, go over the details together, and don’t forget about the uncomfortable rule. In the end, talking about these issues might feel awkward at first, but being upfront will get your relationship off to a good start. Not only that but coming up with a solid sleep plan will keep healthy habits from falling by the wayside.

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