Living with others: Be the genuine article

For those of us who have lived with others as students, it might feel like a study of the bleedin’ obvious.  For those of you about to embark upon your first stint in halls, dorms, flats and shared houses, it might help you get some perspective.

Recently published research by psychologists in the University of Michigan suggests that new students are more likely to feel lonely in shared accommodation when they first arrive, compared with 10 weeks later.  The people most likely to get a social relationship boost over the weeks are the more genuine people who aren’t so self-concerned.

Even to those of you who haven’t yet embarked upon shared housing, you might think the research sounds pretty obvious.

Nevertheless, I think that good points are made, especially the need for students to make a positive start to their relationships.  This is done not by trying to look impressive, but is about supporting others and maintaining a focus of care.  Psychologist Jennifer Crocker states, “students can be the architects of their roommate relationships, enhancing or undermining the quality of these important relationships”.

I read about this first in The Situationist; a social/psychological site that I heartily recommend.  The main research paper is published in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  I can only find the August edition of the journal, so I haven’t had chance to read the paper yet.  The research investigates how students felt about relationships and how they developed over time in their new surroundings.

Those of us who have already spent some time living with other students will probably understand how it feels to be thrown into a new place with so many different people, while none of you have got your bearings yet.  Scary and brilliant at the same time.  No wonder it’s an equally good source of great friendships and brewing trouble!

My first couple of days at university were typically a bit apprehensive.  I didn’t feel settled in and I wasn’t too happy about that.  The people I socialised with on my first couple of days were so different to me that I wondered if I’d chosen the right university.  But I was lucky enough to feel a lot better by about Day 3.  Settling in isn’t always that quick, but even those who took a bit longer to build friendships managed to feel a lot happier pretty quickly.

However, the students who put on a front and tried to act away from their true personalities suffered badly and found it difficult to recover.

Jennifer Crocker and Amy Canevello’s research also found that students who put on this front to protect their own self-image and look good are less likely to find improved relationships between housemates.  Crocker refers to this issue as an ‘ego-system’ approach.

I can fully understand why some students want to do this, but it’s definitely the wrong approach.  Putting on a bit of a show in order to attract others is a short-term approach, so it doesn’t work in the long-term situation of Higher Education.

The good news is that there are enough people around that even those who put on a front can move on and find other friends with their true personality and some real caring.

The upshot is this.  When everyone is in the same situation and making new experiences as they go along, it’s a mistake to try and walk the walk when nobody knows what the walk is yet.  At some point, the charade will be clear to everyone watching and relationships can suffer as a result.

Building a true relationship is about genuine care, genuine trust, genuine sympathy and empathy, and genuine support.

For those of you soon to land upon campus with all the other Freshers, don’t try to be someone you’re not.  The journey you’re about to take is meant to help you find out exactly who you are!  Take interest in everyone around you and you’re bound to find like-minded people who you can share fantastic experiences with as you go through your degree.

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