‘I can definitely see how massage would be a great way to help people,’ I say encouragingly to Kenneth. Everyone exchanges eye contact, nods and smiles.
‘I just love human contact, I really need it,’ Kenneth enthuses. ‘You know, when you go in for a hug, I’m that guy who says, “lean in a bit closer”.’
Kenneth didn’t get the room.
The housemate interview is a funny thing. It brings together people who might ordinarily not have met; people who one might see in a bar, but not speak to; people who one might commute with, or have seen one time at that public lecture.
As you might observe, these instances all demonstrate a level of expected familiarity. The potential housemate is someone you expect to recognise in some way from your own cultural/geographical milieu. Sometimes this means if you live in circumstances of cultural privilege, that this expectation of how a housemate might fit within your house, maps social/cultural privilege onto geographical privilege.
Let me elucidate. I speak of the general housemate interview in the context of living in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, areas which are highly sought after in connections to public transport and distance from the city, in which the majority of jobs, and indeed, the more lucrative jobs in Melbourne are to be found. The sharehouse is particularly sought after because it is much more affordable than renting on one’s own. In other locales, the process might be determined by the landlord actively interviewing and choosing his or her potential tenants. Here, I refer to the process by which people are interviewed and are successful in obtaining the right to live in a well-connected geographical area, on the basis of how their personalities fit within an existing configuration of personalities.
The existing tenants place a succinct yet evocative description of the room, the house and location, and importantly, themselves.
Akane: was an employed professional, now doing a PhD, likes riding her bike short distances, dancing, wine.
This description must not be over-long, but with its sparse, punchy detail, it should convey to the right reader the type of people you are, and the type of person you seek. Accordingly, in this form of Internet dating, the house-seeker must also convey who they are using the right forms of description.
Some words and things are more weighted in the currency of social value of the inner northern suburbs. For example, noting particular cafés or little neighbourhood bars shows similarity in consumer preference. Do you consume the same sorts of food/ music/ alcohol/ pop culture as us? ‘Seeing gigs’ and ‘cycling’ are seen as positive, but sometimes don’t show sufficient individuality in the inner northern suburbs of Melbourne where this is taken to be a norm. However, liking a ‘glass of wine’ is generic but nice; it shows an awareness of middle-class moderation and is friendly, without being overly presumptuous. Saying you like a beer ‘or 14’ as one house-seeker did in an introductory email, is a bit too familiar.
If you work in something which would seem to indicate you are an Interesting and/or Good Person, it is good to talk this up. However, overall, what is most important is that you show in your leisure activities that you are similar enough.
At the interview itself, you need to be perceptive of social cues. When the interview takes place in the house, it is actually a very intimate space for both the existing housemates and the house-seeker. The house is usually a space where friends are invited; and with interview questions centring around evaluating personality, it becomes a little bit like going on a first date.
But the housemate interview is always already subject to a power imbalance: the existing housemates have the security of offering the room, with the house-seeker being given the option to ‘choose’. Yet, as with jobs, the applicant does not usually have as many options as the employer. However, it is uncomfortable to acknowledge this imbalance: so the burden of managing this discomfort is borne by the house-seeker. The house-seeker must strike a balance between seeming interested in the house, the people, the room, and appearing over-eager.
Diana* was another potential housemate we interviewed. She was warm and earnest. She asked straightaway, ‘if I say I like the room, can I have it?’
Diana was from Colombia, and presumably didn’t know how competitive finding affordable housing in desirable locations was – she hadn’t lived in a sharehouse with Melbourne locals before. We had received about 50 emails in the two days after we posted the ad, after which we stopped responding. Out of those emails, we interviewed 10 people. We had to compare each person’s ‘fit’ (though we didn’t use a points system for evaluation, as I once experienced as a house-seeker).
But I felt a pang as I realised that Diana and I were on completely different pages. She thought she could just rent a room, because she could pay, and she needed it. But we were already entrenched within a process of gatekeeping who got to live with us in our nice, affordable, well-connected house.
Kenneth, misreading the social cues, sought to demonstrate sincerity and warmth, where we saw overstepping. But I still wonder how legitimate it is that we were put in a position to judge. We can’t be expected to live with just anyone, right? But if we consider that where you live is not just a matter of consumer choice, the fairness of picking housemates from a market of personalities seems a bit more questionable. What do you think, dear reader?
*Evidently, not their real name.