Q. Dear Umbra,

I live in California, where we are in a severe drought. My roommate sometimes takes three showers in 24 hours. No, he does not work out; no, he does not do physical labor; no, he does not even go outside that much. He’s a musician whose max exertion in a day (besides the energy it takes to shower THREE TIMES) is strumming his guitar. As someone who limits showering to every few days, and even then keeps it to 10 minutes or less, what is my responsibility to berate him? He does not take criticism well and is not super down with having his “lifestyle” critiqued. I know this from having arguments over how much he cranked the heater this winter. Is there some magical way I can lightly and respectfully let him know how bad and unnecessary his habits are? Some literature I can delicately send him? Help!

Oakland, Calif.

A. Dearest Anonymous,

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Hm, let’s see. You shower every few days, you argue with your roommate over the heat, and you keep close tabs on his habits. Are you sure he’s the problem?

I don’t mean to jump all over you, Anonymous. Having weathered my share of cohabitation storms myself, I understand your frustration. But I find it’s always useful to approach these situations with a little empathy. You’re convinced you’re in the right on this issue, but somewhere your freshly scrubbed friend might be complaining about how his roomie won’t get off his back.

Ultimately I agree with you, of course — there are too many good reasons to shower judiciously, from saving water to reducing energy use and the attendant bills — so you took a safe gamble asking a green advice columnist about this quandary. But let’s think about how you can persuade your roommate to change his water-hogging ways, no magic necessary. It’s all about the approach.

First, a few suggestions for what not to do. Do not “berate” him about his “bad” and “unnecessary” habits. (And definitely do not use air quotes.) That comes across as aggressive and lecture-y, and tends to make people defensive. Passive-aggressive measures are just as bad: I don’t advise anonymously reporting him to the water authorities, shaming him on social media, sending him literature, or turning off the hot water supply when he’s mid-scrub.

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You might be tempted to make a financial argument, Anonymous, by pointing out that because he uses so much more hot water than you do, your utility bills are up. You could even argue that he should have to pay more of the utility bill. Saving cash can be an effective motivator. But I suspect that would backfire into petty bickering — “You flushed the toilet 23 percent more times than I did last week!” — so I wouldn’t open with that. Nor would I try to bury him with facts about California’s dire rainfall patterns or Oakland’s suggested daily water rations (35 gallons per person per day, if you were wondering; the average low-flow showerhead uses 1.5-2 gallons per minute). Facts are easy to ignore — witness climate change science and our current Congress — and therefore unlikely to change hearts and minds on their own.

Nope, what you need is to get into your roomie’s head, using time-tested strategies of persuasion and provoking an emotional response. All that research social scientists have done figuring out how to get people to change their tunes isn’t just for science journals, you know. Let’s use it! Here are a few thoughts; please mix, match, and combine based on your flatmate’s personality.

  • Pick a neutral time (i.e., not when he’s wrapped in a towel) and raise the issue as a conversation, not an attack. You might say, “Hey, can we talk about our water use? I’m concerned that we might be using too much. What do you think?” Then really listen. Research suggests that thinking through an issue out loud yourself is a lot more convincing than hearing someone else talk about it. All basic rules for conflict management apply, of course: I statements, sticking to the issue at hand (“And another thing, your band sucks!” is a real no-no), neutral language, etc.
  • Use reciprocity. We tend to want to repay people for doing us a service, so offer to change something you’re doing that’s bugging him. Maybe you can do your dishes more promptly, or promise to keep your socializing quiet after 10. Or shower every two days instead of every three days (life is full of compromises). If you want to get really sneaky, er, effective, do him a solid before starting the conversation: “I finally cleaned out the fridge like you asked! Now, about those showers …”
  • Use social norms. Convincing people that their peers are all doing something is a classic influencing move. Mention what some of your friends are doing to save water, maybe, or (if you can get this kind of data) point out that your water bill is much higher than your neighbors’. I know some musicians have made a point of addressing the drought; maybe that angle would work. Not only does this kind of approach activate everyone’s inner seventh-grader, desperate to belong to the cool group, but it also shows that water conservation is practical and doable.
  • Let your sense of humor shine (I know you have a good one by how funny your letter is). Every parenting expert recommends defusing tension with humor, and the same thing will work for you here. Perhaps you can use a few of these drought-inspired tracks as a soundtrack to your conversation? Hey, maybe it’ll inspire him to write his own song.

I hope these ideas help you get through to your roomie, Anonymous. If nothing else, take solace in the fact that you’re not alone in your roommate woes — over the years, I’ve counseled people squabbling about dish soap, light bulbs, and, yes, even water use. You could also take solace in the fact that before you know it one of you will probably move on with your life and move out.


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