The new rentiquette: how to behave in a student house share
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For many people, university is their first time living away from home and with new people who aren’t family members. Etiquette expert Marie-Hélène Ferguson explains how to avoid serious faux pas and live in harmony with your new housemates.
Everyone remembers that douchebag who ate everyone else’s food, never washed up and left unmentionable traces of themselves in the bathroom. Everyone also remembers the uptight person who never joined in house parties, created a colour coded cleaning rota and labelled all their food with permanent marker. Here’s how to tread a happy middle ground between the two.
The first day at university is a minefield for everyone but it’s the day you create an impression and start to forge relationships. People will be subliminally marking out who they want to befriend from the get-go, whilst hoping their parents don’t give them away as Harry Potter nerds or grade 8 flautists too early on.
The best way to make a good first impression is to appear relaxed says Marie-Hélène Ferguson, principal of the London School of Etiquette.
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“Try not to appear too stressed or anxious,” she advises. “The best way to achieve that is to be organised and not to be rushed.
“Secondly, remember that most people are just as apprehensive as you are, so one of the best things you can do is to put yourself in their shoes and try to be the one who makes the vibe comfortable for them. Try to be as friendly and as open as possible. Smile and don’t look too serious.”
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Ferguson suggests offering to help your new housemates with their stuff to break the ice, while easy topics of conversation might include the course they’ll be doing, where they’re from, whether they do any sports, seen any recent movies or play video games.
“Small talk is all about preparation and thinking about things to say and questions to ask. Remember to show interest in others and they’ll show interest in you. Finally, don’t forget to introduce yourself,” she says.
Lose the London look
Yes, we all know that north London is the centre of the universe, but if you’re leaving it for the first time you may not be aware that not only does not everybody think so, but they also don’t necessarily want to be told about it either.
“Sometimes, if you’ve been brought up in London, it is easy to think that all the best things happen in London. However, it’s worth knowing that it isn’t the centre of the world for many people,” says Ferguson.
“It is also worth remembering that people are often tired of London being portrayed as the only place to be, particularly as the media is relatively London-centric.”
That said, everyone can see through a fraud, so how can you be yourself without being seen as a London snob?
“Remember that being from London doesn’t make you the bees knees and that people will not like the inference that London is best. There are lots of examples where culturally, London isn’t first, such as the music scene and the club scene. Be proud to be from London, but be subtle about it. Certainly don’t come across as a London snob as that is a sure fire way to alienate people,” she says.
In the kitchen
“From an etiquette perspective, it’s important to be flexible and to try other people’s food, methods of cooking and style of living,” says Ferguson. “If you really don’t want to join in, be open about it and explain the issues. Try to say something like ‘I’m so sorry, but I’m super sensitive to a lot of stuff, but very happy to cook alongside you.’ Try not to separate yourself from the group at the very beginning, even if you do your own thing, cooking-wise.”
When it comes to working out rules and routines, Ferguson advises students to be upfront with the whole group as early as possible. Ask “what we doing about food and cooking? Shall we share stuff or do our own thing?”
The same applies if you’re vegetarian or have some other dietary requirement. “Don’t preclude yourself by assuming people won’t want to share with you because you don’t eat everything,” she says. “As long as you’re clear about what needs to happen with your particular diet, people are usually very happy to accommodate.
“You could say ‘I’m really happy to go in with you guys - just bear in mind I don’t eat pork. Other than that, I’m happy to share.’”
And if, like many a north Londoner venturing out of town, you find that your habitual eight o’clock evening meal elicits shocked gasps from your new flatmates, Ferguson says to just roll with it.
“Going to university is all about experiencing new things, and that includes changing your habits of a lifetime.”
Clean and tidy?
“The best way to deal with cleaning is to bring it up from the beginning, but not by way of criticism or pessimistic assumption that people will be dirty or unwilling to help,” says Ferguson.
“The best way is to pose the question ‘what we going to do about cleaning?’ You’ll be amazed at how people will instantly suggest a cleaning rota.
“Perhaps you could then ask a follow up question, such as ‘So how fussy are we? I mean, how clean is clean?’ Again, people will willingly set standards.”
Bills, bills, bills
“Asking questions is a powerful method of getting answers without seeming to be the bossy one or the one with a bad attitude,” says Ferguson.
This advice is particularly useful when you’re trying to bring up the awkward topic of money – whether you wish your housemates would buy better loo roll or would be less flakey about paying into a monthly bills account.
“Whether they’re food bills or household bills, it’s always best to be open and honest about these transactions and to be clear,” says Ferguson. “Again, do this by asking questions, rather than making remarks that could be taken the wrong way.”
Private but present
“The most important thing is always to knock on people’s doors before going into their rooms (even when you get to know people well) and never to go into their room when they’re not around, unless they’ve specifically asked you to,” emphasises Ferguson. “Having said that, it is always best, to begin with, to keep your door open as much as possible.
Of course there are times when you just want a bit of peace and quiet – maybe you feel a bit homesick, want to make a private phonecall or indulge in some guilty pleasure TV or music – but we all remember that flatmate who had an almost pathological need for privacy. They were either seriously depressed, or downright weird and you never saw them again once you were out of halls.
“Obviously close your door for short bursts when you’re changing clothes and so on but otherwise, even if you feel shy and awkward, keep your door open, so that people who are also shy and awkward can more easily make a connection with you,” says Ferguson. “Closing your door is a strong signal for people to keep away.”
Ferguson’s last word
“Be yourself, be open, be honest, be friendly, avoid forming cliques, keep an open mind and within a few weeks, you will have found the perfect way of handling your housemates. It really is all about having an open mind. Be kind, be courteous and you won’t go wrong. Above all, have fun!”
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