Don’t Touch My Cheese! An Expat Guide To Staying Sane In Shared Accommodation

Living in shared houses can be wonderful. Your housemates are your new family. You watch TV together, share meals, and go to the local pub or bar at least once a week. Your house is your communal castle, and it’s great to have other people to let you in if you forget your keys, or rant at if you’ve had a particularly bad day. Even the bickering feels warm and homely.But even if you and your housemates are great friends, it’s not all peaches and cream. From household chores to bathroom etiquette, from how long is too long to leave dishes in the sink, to the appropriate volume for Sunday morning death metal; living in a shared house is also a great way to find out what really drives you crazy.

And when you’re an expat, you can add a heaped teaspoon of culture shock to your recipe for communal living chaos. You don’t have to step outside your door to be faced with the unfamiliar and strange. It’s right inside, living with you, chewing with its mouth open, leaving its shoes on in the house, or using your bathtub as a bidet.

Everyone who’s ever lived in shared accommodation has their stories of confusion, and occasional horror, at the behaviour of their housemates. But there are ways to cope, and even learn to love those quirks from a foreign land. You never know, you might even decide that some of them are right for you, too.

Lay the ground rules

When living in shared accommodation, it is important to make sure everyone knows where they stand. Who buys the toilet paper? Will you share basic household food like milk and bread? What’s the deal with having people over?

And if you’re living in a shared house with a few different cultures, all bets are off. You can guarantee that everyone has different ideas about how to live together, what ‘clean’ means, and how many people makes a party. Usually none of them are necessarily the ‘right way’. What matters is that you all agree about the rules you’re sticking to.

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Whether it’s a brand new houseshare, or you’re moving into an existing set up, it’s important to find out what works best for everyone. Talk about how you expect people to behave while they’re at home. Simple things like meal times, shower schedules, and how you share the public space.

Laying down some rules to start with will help smooth over any teething problems, and you might even find that you like the Japanese shoes-off-in-the-house custom, or sharing an Italian coffee in the morning.

Be tolerant

Keeping your sanity in shared accommodation requires patience, tolerance, and sometimes a superhuman ability to maintain perspective. You’ve got limited private space, and the various quirks of the people you live with are hard to ignore when they’re there, in your house, day after day.

And if you’re living in shared accommodation with people from other cultures, you need to up the ante even more. You will have to call into question your assumptions about everything from personal space to appropriate bathroom behaviour.

But tolerance and understanding go a long way. It’s important to acknowledge that your priorities are different, and while you can all learn to accommodate to each other, you can’t expect your housemates to share all your pet peeves.

Everyone has annoying habits. Your housemate might take a snack with them when they go for a session in the bathroom. Maybe they’re a compulsive nose picker. Or they chew with their mouth open so wide you’re sure the neighbours can hear it through the walls. You might sound like a herd of antelope every time you run up and down the stairs.

Little quirks can be annoying, but if it’s not directly affecting you it’s probably best to put it in perspective, let it lie, and learn to laugh.

Respect personal space

Some people come from homes with open-door policies. Their room is your room, they love company and are always up for a chat. Everything in the house is fair game, and they’d happily share their last slice of bacon with you.

For others, their room is sacrosanct, alone-time is more than necessary, and they’ll avoid the public areas of the house if they’re worried about being roped into a conversation all the time. Touching their stuff is construed as a personal affront, and they’d really prefer it if you asked first. And for goodness sake, don’t eat their cheese.

Observe your housemates, and learn to respect their own personal brand of social norms. Try not to be upset if someone doesn’t want to talk to you right now. Equally, if you just need some quiet time, let your housemates know instead of being rude. Everyone needs to be comfortable in their own home, and respecting your housemates’ personal space is part of that.

Talk about it

Even the best laid plans sometimes fall to pieces, and it’s impossible to predict every situation. So, even if you’ve laid down a really good plan for living together, you laugh at each other’s quirks, and you’ve got that whole respect thing down, you’re likely to run into trouble at some point.

Often frustrations arise simply because you’ve got different ideas about how to live communally. You might even have different interpretations for the same behaviour.

Your German or Swedish housemate, for example, might be uncomfortably direct. At the same time, they might find their English or Japanese housemates confusing, or even dishonest, when they are only trying to be polite.

It can be frustrating if your housemate keeps coming into your room to have a chat when you want to be alone. But maybe they’re interpreting your open door as an invitation.

You might sick of tripping over all the shoes piled around the door when you come in. But your housemate might be equally horrified that you wear yours around the house, tracking in filth, visible or otherwise, from the outside world.

Talking about different living expectations as they arise will help prevent them from becoming big problems down the track. And if one of your housemates comes to you because you’re doing something they find bizarre or irritating, try not to fly off the handle. A little understanding in both directions goes a long way.

Get to know your housemates

There’s a high chance you will never have met your new housemates before you move in. And maybe you’re just not all that interested in being best buddies with them. Getting to know them, however, is well worth the effort and will make your life easier down the track.

Coming home will be a far more pleasant experience if you’ve got a bit of a bond. After all, no one really wants to live with complete strangers. If you get along, it’ll be much easier to sort out having people to stay, or a good rowdy shindig, because you can get everyone involved in the fun.

But it takes time and effort. Organising household activities, whether it’s a communal tidy up, a group meal, or a trip to the local pub, goes a long way. Make the effort to say hi if you see each other around the house. If you share a little bit of your lives with each other, you might even find that you’ve got a lot in common.

And, if you’re all expats, even better. Living in a house full of expats is a great way to share each other’s cultures. It can help alleviate homesickness for the sharer, and chances are it’s a good excuse for a great party. Whether it’s a barbecue on Australia Day, a turkey at Thanksgiving, or Chinese New Year celebrations, everyone wins.

Get a cleaner

No one likes doing housework. And even if you are one of those oddballs who do like it, you’re going to start to get resentful if you feel like you’re doing all of it.

There are so many ways to tackle general household tidiness. While the ‘clean up after yourself, you slob’ rule is an important one to live by, it doesn’t take care of everything. That bathroom will start growing its own fungal ecosystems if it’s not given a regular scrub, and the smell coming from the kitchen sink won’t take care of itself.

Housework can be a great way to bond as a house if you’ve all got time to get together and spruce up once a week. Cleaning rosters work for some, and others are just blessed to find a housemate whose cleaning impulses perfectly match their own.

But things are rarely so smooth. Having a cleaner come in to look after the big stuff on a regular basis will stop most cleanliness arguments before they even get started, and the little bit of money out of your pocket has got to be worth the time you get back, both from cleaning, and from arguing about whose turn it is to scrub the loo.

Sort out your finances

Money can be tricky. In a lot of cultures, talking about money is taboo, and everyone has different ideas about what is a reasonable price to pay.

But if talking about money makes you squeamish, you’re going to have to buckle up and take the plunge. A shared household means shared finances, and it’s important for everyone to pull their weight.

The solution you come up with is less important than having one in the first place. Problems with money are among the most stressful you can encounter in shared accommodation. So leave no room for misunderstandings, and make sure you pay the bills on time.

Resist temptation

It can be difficult when you’re living in a shared house. You’re surrounded by tasty, tasty food, and none of it is yours. But feeding you is not your housemates’ responsibility, and the fridge is not a free supermarket.

Living with people requires trust, and if you’re snacking on your housemate’s cheese, or helping yourself to their breakfast cereal, that trust breaks down. If you do just need just a dash of milk, make sure you ask first.

And if you think someone might be eating your food, or using your hairbrush, or playing fast and loose with your shampoo, it might be a good idea to have a chat.

Talk with faces, not emails

This is the big one. Emails and messages are great for the small things, but if it’s serious, it’s best to do it in person.

So much can get lost in translation if you write an email. Even if you all speak the same language, and come from the same culture, your email might seem passive aggressive at best, or demanding and unreasonable at worst.

Face-to-face communication allows both of you to read true intentions from facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. It also gives you a chance to focus entirely on the issue at hand. There’s nothing worse than receiving a snarky email when you’re already in the middle of a bad day, and don’t have time to deal with it immediately.

Talking face to face might make you feel nervous, but in the end, it’s a much better way to approach problems. It will be dealt with right then and there, and when it’s all over, you can hug it out.

Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer


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