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Q&A with Harlon Cohen

By Christopher Schonberger

When it comes to surviving college, Harlan Cohen is the guru that students can turn to with any question, from how to make the most of on-campus opportunities to how to decide whether or not to sleep with the cute lax player from Econ. He is the author of The Naked Roommate, and his “Help Me, Harlan!” advice column is syndicated in newspapers across the country.

Seeing as Harlan has spent so much time speaking with students on college campuses and helping them develop the tools to make the most of their time there, we figured he’d probably have a thing or two to say about life after college as well. Thankfully, we weren’t wrong…

Living with roommates is one of the biggest transitions for people starting college, and the title of your book certainly alludes to the many absurd circumstances that can come up. What advice to you have for people who have left school and are looking to live with roommates in the “real world” (either to save money or avoid loneliness)? Are there different factors that come into play?

The big difference is when you’re in college, you have a mediator. At least in your first or second year, you probably have someone like an RA who can come in and tell your roommates to put their shit away or take a shower or stop having sex in the room (or to just do something that you don’t have the balls to talk to them about). But once you’re out of that situation, you need to be the one having these conversations. And I think the real skill there is creating a dynamic where instead of having confrontations, you can have conversations.

But generally, the same rules apply to roommates after college as in college. The first question should be whether you want to get along with the person. Whether it’s a friend or a stranger, the first thing you ask is basically, “Do you want to get along?” And if the answer is “no asshole,” then that person clearly doesn’t want to get along. But if they’re like “yeah,” then immediately you have a baseline understanding, and you can make a rule that whenever something’s making you uncomfortable you’ll tell the other person about it. If you set a precedent to feel comfortable to say you’re uncomfortable, then that’s a great start.

It’s a really important skill because most people never really learn how to deal that sort of conflict. Maybe one day you’ll be living with a significant other—the ultimate “roommate,” really—and what’s going to happen then? So this sort of approach to getting along really has a lot of applications.

There’s also a lifestyle transition that occurs between college and working life. In college you may have to wake up at 11AM (on a bad day) and maybe it doesn’t bother you that much that you’re roommate comes in drunk at 2 in the morning, but once you start working full-time your standards about “acceptable behavior” may shift a little bit. Should recent grads have different criteria for choosing a roommate?

In terms of schedule, hopefully anyone who respects you will respect your schedule and specific needs even if they’re different from his or hers. But you’re probably not sharing a room after college and it’s not like you’re on top of each other in bunk beds, so I think it’s possible to live with someone who works nights in a bar even though you work a 9-to-5.and still get along.

Ultimately, it’s probably more important to do things like clean up your stuff and clean up the kitchen and figure out when you’re gonna pay the bills and how you’re gonna pay them…that’s the stuff that will really cause problems. You run a risk when you live with a friend or someone you know really well because they tend to not try as hard. So if you live with a friend, live with the one who’s known as the “responsible one.” Don’t live with one who has a history of doing stupid shit and being irresponsible. Because, guess what? They’re only gonna do stupid shit and be irresponsible. They’re not gonna magically change. They’ll probably just take advantage of you even more. You’re better off living with a stranger who has a couple references.

Put it this way: a good friend who has bad gas is just gonna fart all the time and waft it into your face. A stranger will fart in the corner of the room and see if it stinks first—they’re not gonna just let it fly in your face. And living with someone who consistently farts in your face gets old. That’s the truth—if you’re living with someone who’s gonna be drinking to the point of vomiting and bringing home random people, that’s what you’re stuck with.

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