Welcome to COVID Questions, TIME’s advice column. We’re trying to make living through the pandemic a little easier, with expert-backed answers to your toughest coronavirus-related dilemmas. While we can’t and don’t offer medical advice—those questions should go to your doctor—we hope this column will help you sort through this stressful and confusing time. Got a question? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today, anonymous in Indiana asks:
I’m a college student returning to campus for a new semester. I have been trying my best to do my part with community mitigation guidelines (wearing a mask, social distancing, staying at home with only my household), but now, I will have to go back to living in my on-campus apartment where social distancing guidelines are theoretically enforced, but in my own experience and observations, are not. This sparked my anxiety last semester and my anxiety is resurfacing again.
My roommate and I were placed randomly together last-minute, and due to our drastically different lifestyles and schedules, we barely saw each other last semester and still have not yet formed a coherent rapport. This may be a fault of my own because I am non-confrontational, but I do not feel confident in having an honest conversation with her about how most of her habits (such as going out for socialization purposes every week, staying in the apartment when she got sick twice this semester and leaving her dirty masks all around our shared living room spaces) make me feel extremely unsafe during a pandemic.
This semester, I will be working full-time in a pediatric clinic, so I want to establish strict boundaries so I can keep my clients as well as anyone else I may interact with along the way safe. What are your tips for having an effective conversation with my roommate? What should I do if this conversation does not go as planned? This would be our first serious conversation and I do not want to come off as being on a high horse. Our lease ends this coming summer, so I would like this conversation to strengthen our rapport, not tear us apart.
(This question has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
When I posed your question to Rob Danzman, an Indiana-based licensed clinical mental health counselor, he said he’s heard this scenario from just about every college student with whom he works. You are far from alone in this situation, and you’re smart to start thinking about solutions before you’re back in your apartment.
Your job in a pediatric clinic may actually be a useful jumping off point for a conversation. You cite your job as a reason for wanting your roommate to change her behavior. That’s fair—but at the same time, your work in a clinic may also put your roommate at a higher risk of getting sick. Acknowledging that reality could help you start a conversation on equal ground, Danzman says.
If your roommate doesn’t already know about your job, start by telling her about it. Ask her if she has any concerns, and if there’s anything you can do to make her feel comfortable sharing space, Danzman suggests. That, hopefully, will give you a natural opening to voice your wishes in return. Some give-and-take may keep your roommate from feeling attacked, and help you shake the worry that you’re speaking down to her from your “high horse.”
Be clear and specific about what you want, Danzman says. Many people—particularly the conflict-averse—soften their demands so much that they end up being effectively meaningless. Vague requests can even lead to more conflict later, if your roommate thinks she’s doing what you asked and you feel differently, Danzman warns. It may help to write down exactly what you want beforehand, so you can be clear and concise when you talk. (Think, “Please don’t leave dirty masks in the living room,” rather than a general, “I want you to be more careful.”)
“Be totally honest and be cool about it,” Danzman says. Phrase it as, “‘This is how I’m feeling. This is what I’m afraid of. This is what I think is best for me. I’m asking you to do this.’”
Be mindful of where and when you have the conversation, too. Emotions often run high at night, when you’re tired and burnt out, so try to talk during the day. And hard as it may be, Danzman does suggest talking face-to-face, since a lot can be lost in translation over text or email.
Finally, prepare yourself for the possibility that the conversation goes off the rails. Your roommate may have a fundamentally different risk tolerance than you do. She may ignore your requests. She may even refuse to have the conversation. There’s not much you can do about any of those things.
“Go into this with a plan,” Danzman says, but try to ditch any expectations of what your roommate will say or do. Instead, focus on what you can do, he suggests.
You can clearly state how you’d like her to behave. You can acknowledge that the situation is a little awkward. You can listen respectfully to what she says and asks of you. You can modify your own behavior to be as safe as possible. But, even though you share an apartment, you cannot control your roommate’s lifestyle. You can hope that she respects your boundaries and acknowledges how her decisions affect you, but you cannot force her to act a certain way.
That’s frustrating, especially when your health is intertwined with hers. But admitting that reality may help you go into the conversation feeling prepared for anything.
To that end, your pre-conversation plan should probably include some contingencies in case things go really off the rails. It sounds like your college has at least some jurisdiction over your apartment. Is there someone you could ask about a housing transfer? Would you feel comfortable getting an R.A. or similar authority figure involved? Is there a friend or family member you could stay with if you continue to feel unsafe?
Hopefully you never need those contingency plans. But knowing that you have them may give you the confidence you need to speak candidly—which is important when the stakes are as high as they are. Good luck.