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So we have a problematic, new roommate, "Michael", who uses all of our stuff, when he's not supposed to be doing so. We typically have our own toilet paper, soap, dishes, paper towels, etc., and don't share it amongst each other. We find that this works best and that there are no arguments to be had, regarding who's turn it is to buy the toilet paper, dishwashing detergent, etc.

Our place is a 3-bedroom / 1 1/2 bathrooms setup. Three of us share the bathrooms, kitchen, and "living room" (just a small common room with a couch). Before "Michael" moved in, we typically kept all of our supplies out in the open: detergent by the sink, soap and toilet paper in the bathroom - we all got along really well and there were no issues at all. Now, we try to not keep things out in the open, because we know that Michael will use it when we're not there.

Michael is very aware of the house rules; he simply chooses to ignore them. (We had told him of the house rules, when we showed him the apartment, before he moved in, and he was quite fine with the rules and agreed to them.) A couple nights ago, my other roommate, Elaine, had left a roll of toilet paper in one of the bathrooms, and Michael subsequently used it all up, which really upset her. And, he has used my ... blowdryer ... which is annoying ... because he only used it after Elaine took her blowdryer back into her room. He basically will use anything that we forget to take back into our rooms. Elaine and I have spoken privately about it - but not yet with Michael.

How can we tell him that it's not ok for him to use our stuff and that he must purchase his own, while minimizing potential conflict?

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    A couple nights ago, he used up all of my roommate's toilet paper, which really upset her - is Michael aware of her being upset about it? or does he have no clue yet? – Kaspar Scherrer Jan 30 '18 at 10:20
  • @Cashbee he has no clue yet ... – D.Hutchinson Jan 30 '18 at 10:24
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    @D.Hutchinson I don't quite understand - you say he's aware of the rules and ignores them - and yet you ask how you can tell him about the rules? Can you go into more detail about what you did and did not tell him about the house rules? Are you willing to kick him out if he doesn't conform to the rules and is he aware of that? – AllTheKingsHorses Jan 30 '18 at 10:58
  • @AllTheKingsHorses he pays the most rent, so both Elaine and I would be hesitant to kick him out. But we need a conversation to tell him to stop using our stuff and that he actually takes it seriously and respects that. How could we do that effectively while minimizing conflict ... – D.Hutchinson Jan 30 '18 at 11:07
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    @D.Hutchinson Maybe others here know a way to "magic" him to be considerate. From my personal experience, though, if his actions have no consequences (because you can't ultimately kick him out if he doesn't comply) then there's little chance of reform. – AllTheKingsHorses Jan 30 '18 at 11:11
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It is of course wrong for him to use everybody else's products, he is being utterly selfish and short-sighted. However, it is useful to try and see it from his point of view for some balance. He probably doesn't see it as a major issue because in isolation it is just a couple of pieces of toilet paper here, a squirt of shampoo there. Incrementally it does add up of course, but try to go in to the discussion with a clear head. It isn't exactly the Great Train Robbery, and he will likely respond better if you don't go in too heavy-handed.

If nobody has spoken to him about this at all, then do speak to him one-to-one first, but make it clear that everybody is concerned about this.

Michael, I need to mention this to you. Everybody is noticing their products are being used. Toilet paper, for example. You do know that we all buy our own products here, right?

[allow for response]

Can you please make sure you don't use anyone else's products because it is noticed and it isn't fair.

If he doesn't respond to this then repeat it but with other housemates present. Keep in mind though what I said earlier about balance and keeping your cool. I'm not suggesting you 'gang up' on him, but I think he will take it more seriously knowing that it is everybody's genuine concern and he can't just mentally write it off as the obsessive toilet paper hang-ups of one person.

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Shared houses, when they aren’t working well, can be a pressure cooker of rule infractions, slights, power plays and passive aggression. Everyone is ‘at home’: in that personal space where we expect to be ourselves and feel safe from the things in the world that poke our vulnerable spots. That fact can make the significance of offences loom large when we are on the receiving end while they seem minor to the person committing the offence.

When you come to talk to Michael, try to remember that; and that that process can work both ways.

You and Elaine are clearly put out by Michael’s transgressive behaviour, but try to bear in mind that from his perspective the system of not having shared basic consumables and people getting upset over his using a hairdryer that was just lying around in the common area might be really frustrating. Or he might be stewing over something else entirely that you have no idea annoys him.

It doesn’t much matter, in the end, who has the moral high ground. What matters is that you don’t have a functional system in your house just now and your current approach of trying to keep your stuff away from him and being cross when he uses stuff you forget is making you and Elaine stressed.

You asked :

How can we tell him that it's not ok for him to use our stuff and that he must purchase his own, while minimizing potential conflict?

Which frames the problem not as

‘how to have a harmonious system in the house

but

‘how to make Michael conform’

If you are more interested in the former, here are some things to consider.

  • don’t make the conversation about how terrible he’s being or how you and Elaine are suffering. You might be justified, but it is unlikely to help. Of course you have to make reference what isn’t working, but focus on what happens next rather than what happened before.
  • Try to see things from his perspective (even if you don’t think it is a justifiable one), he has moved into a house where the rules have been set in response to issues which arose when he wasn’t living there. (arguments… regarding whose turn it is to buy)
  • Michael is a citizen of the house too and as such can reasonably expect to have a say in what the rules are.
  • You and Elaine might think about what changes you could accept. You have the current system as it was best for avoiding arguments, is that still true? Could it be time to reappraise the system, involving Michael?
  • Be prepared to adapt.

Stepping aside from how you might communicate with Michael for a moment, can we break the problem down? There seem to be two categories of ‘things’ causing conflict:

  • Household consumables, ie things which help keep the house hygienic
  • Personal goods and consumables, ie personal hygiene items and possessions.

It may be worth having a trial period of a communal buying strategy for the first category while reinforcing the ‘off-limits’ nature of stuff in the second.

From my own experience I’d recommend focusing on getting a financial contribution on a regular basis for the household consumables rather than trying to get people to buy them on a rota. It does mean it is likely that you and Elaine may be the ones to most often have to get the stuff from the store, but that may be the price of a more harmonious household.

So, to pull that all together, my suggestion would be to look for a suitable time to talk to Michael, plan this and take note of how he is disposed. There is no point in trying to have the conversation if he is busy, stressed, on his way out etc. and try something along these lines (obviously no-one can give you a complete or fully appropriate script, there are too many variables, but as an example…

Michael, I know we filled you in on what the house rules were when you moved in, but it seems like some of them aren’t working out that well and it occurred to me that you should really get a say in how we do things too.

I recommend keeping this as your opinion, not ‘we’ or ‘Elaine and I’, as that could make him feel you’ve been running him down when he isn’t there which may make him less disposed to be compliant. This approach also moves things on quickly to a situation he has a say in rather than one where it feels like you are telling him to obey your edict.

You could follow up with something like:

We’ve always bought toilet paper and detergent individually in the past, but how would you feel about everyone contributing five bucks every couple of weeks and then whoever is going to the store can get what we need out of that? We could put the cash (suggest place) and keep a note of what we need to get…

I’d recommend dealing with his use of your ‘things’ on an ad hoc basis and if he doesn’t get the hint accept that you have to keep more stuff in your room than you used to or escalate that to the landlord.

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