The COVID-19 lockdown is an unprecedented event that has led to people all over the world being largely restricted to their homes to slow the spread of the disease. If you live in a big house with a garden, while the lockdown is certainly an inconvenience, it’s a more manageable one than people shut in small flats with roommates.
If that’s you, we hope you know those people well and like them, but even if that is the case there’s every chance the unusual situation might cause your relationship start to fray at the edges.
Here to help is adventurer Dr Loel Collins, from the National Outdoor Centre Plas y Brenin (opens in new tab), who has tackled long expeditions during which he spent weeks in the close company of just a few people in high-pressure situations. We spoke to Collins to see what people currently trapped in small flats with friends or family can do to minimise the chances of major fallings-out.
What kind of things tend to annoy people living at close quarters?
“It’s going to sound odd, but it’s the normal things that in a normal setting you wouldn’t think twice about,” says Collins. “It’s the fact that somebody sucks though their teeth, or slurps a little bit when they drink their tea. Normally when you find someone a little bit frustrating you tend to pop outside, so really it’s the proximity that’s the problem.
"Some things are dead obvious though – a colleague of mine was stuck in a tent for seven days with somebody who was learning the harmonica. That tended to annoy him a little bit.”
How can you make it clear you need some time alone without insulting people?
“If you make it obvious that you have your head buried in a book or have your headphones on, it’s a question of reading the body language of the person,” says Collins. “The flip side is not to be offended when people want that, because we all need a little bit of me-time now and then. It’s learning to read to the signs, and recognising that you might misread the signs. And when someone says ‘I’m busy enjoying the sunset’, don’t take offence.”
What tips do you have for people living in small flats with others right now?
“I recommend four key strategies for getting along with people when under pressure,” says Collins.
1. Use The Shared Mental Model
“On expeditions there’s quite a bit of work that needs to happen. You need to set up camp and there’s a whole routine that goes with that. The trick is to make sure you all have a part in that routine, and you all know what everybody’s part is in that routine, so you share the mental model of how to set up camp at the end of the day.
“That way everybody has a role, so everybody has value. That’s the shared mental model. It’s a concept you see a lot in small, high-performing teams that operate in challenging environments.”
In your flat this could mean planning out the day-to-day jobs that need to be done, so all the chores get completed without people feeling they’ve been stuck with the lion’s share of the work, something that’s certain to cause ill-feeling over time.
“One of the biggest frictions you get on trips is people who aren’t pulling their weight, or are perceived not to be pulling their weight,” says Collins. “But if you all have a shared view of what needs to happen, if your job takes ten minutes and another person is clearly struggling, then you can go and assist. It’s all about having the shared image of what needs to be happening.”
2. Have Something To Escape Into
Anything that can take your mind out of the standard routine will help, whether that’s a hobby, exercise or a chore.
“The most obvious thing is a book, but there are other things you can do,” says Collins. “You can get absorbed in the physical activity of something, entering a flow state doing routine jobs. In a flat it might be as simple as putting a set of headphones in, putting a DVD in, or getting involved in a game. It’s all about finding something that takes you out of your current existence and into something else – an altered state.”
3. Deal With The Bear Closest To The Tent
“When you look out of your tent and you see a bear, it can either be a long way away or it can be a bear really close to the tent,” says Collins. “The trick is to recognise something you should respond to, and not respond to the things you don’t have to. If the bear is a long way from the tent you don’t have to respond; if the bear is close then you do. It’s about keeping perspective and not stressing over the little stuff. Do I really have to tell that guy that I’m fed up with the fact he slurps his coffee in the morning? Honestly? Probably not.”
4. Embrace Eccentricities
“Expedition teams are always made up of individuals who bring different skills to the team,” says Collins. “What makes someone useful also sometimes makes them slightly eccentric. The guy who feels he has to spin his cup three times before he’ll drink his coffee out of it in the morning, or the guy who has a particular way of packing his bag for the day. Variety is the spice of life. Embrace that people are diverse. It’s what makes them more loveable.”
Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.
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