My last post talked about dishes while I studied abroad in Quito, Ecuador. When I came back to the U.S. I lived on campus for a semester, which made dishes once again a non-issue since there were people being paid to do them in the cafeteria.

My final year of undergrad three friends and I rented a house off campus from a professor who was on sabbatical. After graduation I participated in the Summer Institute for the Truman Scholarship, living with three other scholars in a two-bedroom apartment at George Washington University. I then spent a year in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, living with four roommates in a house in Northeast DC, near Catholic University.

I remember dishes being an issue that would come up from time to time during this period, but I don’t remember being nearly as angry as I got in Brazil. In college, I do remember coming home to dishes everywhere from some sweet dish (I think it was cider?) with ants crawling all over and telling a roommate “I can’t live like this.” The person who made the cider apologized and I think things were pretty good after that.

At the apartment during Summer Institute the roommate who shared my bedroom and I were of the school of thought that says you should wash your plate right away. The other two were of the school of thought that says pile the dishes in the sink and do them every few days. At one point the roommate, now an incredibly accomplished physician and scholar of public health, washed all the dishes that had piled up and then hung up a sign telling people to wash their dishes. He also drew a copy of a smiling place with the caption “happy plate!”In The Lutheran Volunteer Corps we each received $85/month for food (I think that’s right, but I might be off by $5). The only way to hope to get by on this was to pool our money and buy groceries and cook together. We worked out a schedule with one person cooking each night Sunday-Thursday. At first we tried having each person do the dishes once per week, but not assigning days. That got too complicated, since sometimes people would be out in the evening, so we moved to doing the dishes when it was your night to cook.

At an early house meeting with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps roommates we discussed dishes and washing your own dishes right after you use them. One roommate argued that should be the general rule, but it was okay to leave the occasional plate in the sink as long as you came back to it later as long as one didn’t lead to a “broken windows” situation. The specifics were never clear to me, but I think the basic point was to not be too rigid about things.

(One of my issues with dishes piling up in the sink, especially when there isn’t a dishwasher, is it reaches a point where it’s impossible to do my dishes without also washing the ones in the sink. So I can either do them all or add mine to the pile.)

Some thoughts

  • I think stories like these are common with roommates. One of the things going on is that we all come from different families with different norms about dishes—who does them, as well as when and how. We tend to assume that our norms are just the way things are done.
  • There’s usually less formal structure and authority with roommates than with a family.
  • Roommate arrangements are often shorter term. So there may be less incentive to have difficult conversations to come to an agreement about the division of labor—you can just tough it out until the end of the semester/year/whatever.

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/22709181293

Next post in series: Memories of dishes: Living alone in North Carolina.