A separate peace

My cookies, my phone, my shampoo, my laptop, my life

A separate peace

Maggie Giles (centre) says she and her roomates watch Grey's Anatomy together | Photograph by Cole Garside

When Logan Nash decided to move in with three other male students in second-year university, he imagined it would be like Joey Tribbiani’s apartment on Friends—everybody hanging around, sharing pizza and beer, playing air hockey and being, well, friendly.

It didn’t turn out that way.

Instead, the 22-year-old graphic design student found himself living in a quiet two-bedroom with only one roommate (the other two students having opted at the last minute to live at home with their parents for financial reasons). Instead of hanging around shooting the breeze and cooking spaghetti with meatballs, he and his roommate opted to live separate lives. His roommate had a severe nut allergy so food was strictly divided. The same went for toiletries. They split up the cleaning duties, conducted separate social lives and even organized their class schedules so they wouldn’t have to be in the apartment at the same time. “We were in the same program so it seemed better if we didn’t hang out together too much,” he says. “So most of the time we just did our own thing. The purpose of living together wasn’t for company, it was for each one to pay our half of the rent.”

Nash’s experience is not unusual. Many students today opt to live with people they’ve only recently met online, a situation that encourages social boundaries. More than any generation before them, today’s students are accustomed to personalized entertainment—TV shows and movies are downloaded onto phones and laptops, boom boxes have given way to iPods and noise-reduction headphones, texting is the new talking. Add this to the fact that more and more students come from fragmented families where communal activities like family dinners or en masse holidays are infrequent at best, and it’s not surprising student life is following suit.

While campus movies like Animal House and The Perfect Score might perpetuate the notion that university house-sharing is one long potluck or keg party, do not be fooled: most students these days are leading independent lives off campus—and for the most part, they like it that way.

“With the rise of capitalism we began to focus more on the individual than on the collective,” says Oonagh O’Hagan, author of the book I Lick My Cheese: And Other Notes From the Frontline of Flatsharing. “The result is that most of us go through a period of our lives where we end up living with strangers. Knowing how to deal with that is a real test of character.” O’Hagan’s book explores the comical side of roommate alienation through comic passive aggression. (“I pay rent, what do you do?” reads one. Another: “Dear Lakey, the zoo called, they’d like you back by 8 a.m.”) The goal, of course, is not to get to the point of deranged note-writing, and O’Hagan says having clear boundaries between roommates—both socially and chore-related—is a good place to start.

“I have some roommates who’ve become good friends but it’s very rare,” she says. “In the end, the experience of living with other people makes you more durable. You realize who your real friends are and that you don’t have to be friends with everyone all the time.”

But as students abandon for good the communal living ideals espoused in Plato’s Republic, is something greater being lost? In a recent column for the New York Times, Maureen Dowd bemoaned the advent of Facebook applications like RoomBug or the site, where university students now profile prospective roommates according to personal hygiene and politics instead of choosing from the people they randomly happen to know. The rise of such sites, says Dowd, is indicative of a student culture that fears the conflict and social quagmires that invariably ensue from sharing our lives—and beer stash—with a bunch of complete strangers. “As you leave behind high school to redefine and even reinvent yourself as adult, you need exposure to an array of different ideas, backgrounds and perspectives—not a cordon of clones,” she writes.

But respecting social boundaries doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t pal around. Take Maggie Giles, 21, a media studies student in her fourth year at the University of Western Ontario. When she and her best friend decided to move in with another student in second year, they initially tried to share everything—chipping in for groceries, cooking meals, leaving the dishes until they could do a big group cleanup. But as they settled into campus life, that changed. “We’re still good friends but we realized it’s not necessary to do everything together,” she says. “We’ve definitely slowed down on that front.”

These days, Giles and her roomies keep their food stores separate—hoarding snack food like cookies and chips (what Giles describes as “easy grab” items that are vulnerable to roommate thievery) in their own rooms for safekeeping. They have separate toiletries and distinct social lives. As for chores, they now realize the best way to keep a student house clean is to have a “leave it the way you found it” policy, especially when it comes to dishes. “You have to realize you’re living with two other people and they may not take kindly to the level of grunge you’re comfortable with,” she says.

Christiane Orsini, a veterinary sciences graduate student at the University of Guelph, describes a similarly arm’s-length relationship with her housemates. She lives in a large split-level house with three women on the main floor and male students in the basement. They keep their food on assigned shelves, share a very crowded fridge and freezer, cook and socialize separately, and never have big parties. “We get along fairly well, but mostly we keep to our own busy schedules,” she says.

It’s quite common for students to want less of a less communal living experience as their university life progresses, says Darren Vanecko, president of, a St. Catharines, Ont.-based Web directory that has taken over nearly half of the university housing directories in Canada (its clients include Dalhousie, U of T, University of Windsor and Saint Mary’s University, as well as many U.S. campuses). Students these days, he says, expect more from their living spaces in terms of amenities—separate fridges, bathrooms, or cleaning services built into the rent are not uncommon requests—and less from the people they live with. Many come to his site to meet roommates, or specifically ask for one-bedroom apartments or living situations in which their privacy will be respected. “Students are asking for more and frankly, in this market they can get it,” he says.

And while it all sounds very grown up, does it mean that housemates don’t have fun together anymore? Absolutely not, says Giles. “We still like to hang out and watch Grey’s Anatomy together every week,” she says. “We just tend to do it with our separate laptops open on our laps at the same time.”