I used to live in a co-op called pika. It was awesome but exhausting. When the co-op extended a “bid” to someone we hoped would move in, we sent them a letter. Part of it went like this:
“pika used to have rules, but we got rid of them a couple of years ago. We do, however, encourage you to not play accordion in public spaces after midnight or steal other pikans’ laundry from the laundry machines. pikans are assertive enough to let you know if your habits are bothering us. The flip side of it is that we also trust you to let any of us know if we are doing something that bothers you.”
I live with my boyfriend. We have no rules. When he does something that bothers me, I let him know and suggest a better course of action: “Could you keep the door shut while you’re listening to that?” “If you’re going to stand right next to the window, you should probably wear pants.” “Our compost experiment is attracting fruit flies; can you think of a way to make it less gross?” Not a big deal, no hard feelings, issue is resolved quickly.
In theory, clear statements about preferences can replace rules among any group of conscientious and caring people. My boyfriend and I don’t need formal rules because we know each other well. When we guess wrong about what’s okay, we talk about it and fix the issue. This is an effective and flexible system. Rules, on the other hand, are a blunt weapon. We could have a “no shoes” rule and a “no loud music” rule, but sometimes context makes it obvious that shoes and loud music are okay.
When I was in college, I thought my co-op’s letter had it right: People should be more assertive. They should communicate their preferences clearly and, in the face of criticism, listen and be willing to change. If I had gotten a tattoo, it would have said “If someone is bothering you, talk to them about it.” Ignoring the problem was bound to lead to fury trickling out in confusing, passive-aggressive hints. Appealing to an authority figure instead of confronting the problem at its source was a cop-out that disrespected the problem-causer’s ability to deal with criticism. Formal rules were too inflexible.
Yet despite that attitude, and even though my acquaintances are kind and reasonable, I’ve attempted very few confrontations with people I’m not extremely close with, and few or none of these has been sucessful.
One reason an attempt at level-headed confrontation may fail is that the target of the complaint is large or diffuse. One hot summer, my room in the co-op bordered a porch with a hammock. People sat outside my thin window and talked late at night, keeping me awake. I could have asked people to talk elsewhere, since there were plenty of other places to sit, but that wouldn’t have solved the problem because there were different people outside my window every night. I posted a sign requesting quiet after 11 pm or so. I felt kind of dirty about it, but it worked.
Another reason for failure is that people frequently do something annoying without being fully conscious of what they’re doing or its consequences. They may be happy to change their behavior if asked, but will soon forget and go back to their old habit. As an undergrad, I was sometimes woken by people conversing outside my door in the wee hours of the morning. Once or twice, I asked people to talk in the nearby lounge so I could sleep. They were happy to comply, but a few days later I would be woken by a slightly different set of people conversing outside my door. Eventually I gave up and lay awake or read a book while waiting for late-night conversations to die down.
When I’m working near someone with a distracting habit like tapping a pencil on a desk, I usually leave or switch to a less-demanding task until the distraction passes. In my experience, people don’t mind being asked to not do something distracting and will stop, but they will eventually start again without noticing.
Confronting someone over an annoying behavior has a cost. It’s stressful. No one has ever responded negatively to a reasonable request I’ve made, but they will only stop what they’re doing for a short time before resuming the annoying behavior without noticing. At that point, I can repeat my request; this leaves at least one of us feeling like a jerk, and makes me wonder whether the person is secretly upset with me. Confrontations are draining and provide only a brief respite. As a naive freshman, I thought that I had to choose between fixing problems with an uncomfortable but brief conversation or living with them indefinitely. But the choice is actually between ignoring a problem forever and having an endless series of “hey, can you stop doing that pencil thing” conversations.
My dorm used to have hall meetings at the beginning of each year. All six to eight residents would eat dinner and talk about how they wanted others to behave — don’t leave dirty dishes out, ask before having a guest over, no loud music after midnight, etc. It was much easier to make requests like “don’t play loud music” when the request wasn’t targeted at anyone in particular. These requests sometimes resulted in rules. Later — although I’m not sure I ever did this — it felt much easier to ask people to live within the rules once they were the official hall rules that everyone had agreed to, and not just my possibly-crazy personal preferences.
Since “talk about what’s bothering you” isn’t a panacea, I really like my dorm’s alternate plan of “set expectations and talk about potential issues before they become a problem”. I shared an office with eleventy million people this past year. We sort of talked about office rules but didn’t reach a consensus, so that although there was a lot more talking than I would have liked I didn’t feel justified in asking people to be quieter. I’m going to be sharing an apartment with someone I don’t really know this fall. I plan on talking to him about apartment rules when he moves in, and then enforcing them with a light hand; although most problems *can* be solved by talking about them, the stress just isn’t worth it for me.