5 Things I’ve Learned from Extensive Couchsurfing

Over the past few years, I’ve spent about 7 months staying with friends while traveling. Here’s what I’ve learned from the experience.

1. Offers can come from surprising places

One of the main ways that I’ve found people is just by posting to Facebook that I’m going to be in town and I’m looking for a place to stay. (I suspect this works better for me than other people, since I have a fairly engaged feed.) This is a nice approach, because it lets me cast a wide net without anyone really feeling like I’m putting pressure on them.

At any rate, apparently I still feel a bit weird about posting this or something. I’ve known for quite awhile I’d be traveling to the Bay Area again this August, and yet I still didn’t manage to get around to making a simple post until yesterday. I think it’s that issue again where not getting what you want feels immensely worse if you can’t pretend you didn’t want it.

Anyway, offers to stay, both on facebook and from people I’ve talked to in person, have often come from people I didn’t actually know very well at the time, which I wouldn’t have expected. Although of course I got to know them better via staying over, so we’re closer now 🙂

An image of a stick figure icon surfing atop a sofa. The waves are the waves in Malcolm Ocean's logo, which is a circle with a wavey M inside

2. Caveat housemate

My friends mostly live in group houses, either in a relatively official way (the house has a name and agreements and collectively throws parties) or just in the sense of being a bunch of friends living together.

This makes the prospect of hosting a couchsurfer very… complex. Because even if my friend who is hosting me (hereafter referred to as the “host”) thinks I am the coolest person ever and would be glad to have me stay there for a month… 😀

…their housemates might be much more neutral, or even averse to having me around.

This could be related to my personality, or how my behaviour affects them, or it could be just that couchsurfers are more annoying when you’re not the one who offered to let them stay.

Social dynamics are complex though. In several instances, behaviour of mine was consistently disrupting the housemate’s routine, but due to a desire to be polite or aversion to conflict, they didn’t mention it until I’d already been there quite awhile and they’d become quite frustrated. Ack.

I developed a strategy to mitigate this, which is to ask everyone in the household what needs and preferences they have regarding my stay. Since people often aren’t consciously aware of what needs they actually have, I give some examples based on my past experiences:

  • needing to use the house as a workspace at certain times of day
  • noise levels
  • sleeping hours in general
  • kitchen usage
  • preferences around being engaged in conversation in various contexts

If the housemate doesn’t know me at all, I think that asking via the host may in some cases allow them to feel that they can be more explicit and open about their needs. Also, asking before I arrive (or immediately thereafter) makes it clear that whatever the person is saying isn’t them criticizing me. This seems to work okay so far, but I haven’t had that much chance to test it yet.

3. Some of my old social strategies needed an upgrade

This one is related to the “preferences around being engaged in conversation in various contexts” item above.

In March, I wrote about a ritual I did to tweak my personality. One pattern I relayed was

“not noticing when someone I’m already talking with doesn’t want to be talking to me right now (or not about this topic). On reflection, I have lots of evidence for this, but I didn’t notice it super clearly until one of my friends laid out really bluntly that that was “the main way that I take up space”.”

Living temporarily with a bunch of different people—in particular, people who like direct communication—caused me to realize ways in which my behaviour was bugging people. (The friend quoted above was someone I stayed with.)

And I experimented with new ways of doing things.

At one point, I was working in the kitchen and a couple of my hosts came out to make supper. I put out to them that while I was totally game to hang out with them, I realized that maybe they would prefer to have the social space just be them (as if I weren’t there). So I put out to them explicitly that if they preferred at any point, they could request that I put my headphones in and effectively remove myself from the social space. So they tried it! It felt good to have that trust there.

I’m also actively working on developing my own situational awareness so that I can do things that make more sense for people even when they don’t ask explicitly.

If you’re planning to take this as advice, it’s worth noting that different peoples’ social patterns show up totally different ways. Using the quadrants model I mentioned in the ritual post, some people might be more “get along” than “get seen”, which can sometimes come off as pathological niceness: “Is there anything I can do to help with dinner? No? You’re sure? I don’t want to be a bad guest!”

…this behaviour might come from good intentions, but ends up being less “I don’t want to be a bad guest” and more “I don’t want to feel like a bad guest”. And that’s just a single example of a type of learning edge you might have.

But whatever your learning edge is, one skill that’s valuable for couchsurfing is the ability to reduce your impact when necessary. Even if they’re fond of you, your host or their housemate(s) are probably sometimes going to want to be able to go about their lives as if you’re not there, and so if you can identify whatever behaviour patterns of yours tend to get in the way of that, and shift those, that can be really helpful.

Changing subtle behaviour patterns is far from easy, but it’s very worthwhile, not just for couchsurfing but also for interacting with whoever you live with at home, too.


4. I’d been taking my own home for granted

There’s a sense in which while staying with others I find myself naturally “on my best behaviour”. This isn’t surprising, really. I don’t want to damage my relationships, and I want to be invited back, and so on. Plus I’m staying there for free, and so I feel a strong desire to contribute through doing extra dishes and sweeping the floor, and so on.

Makes sense, right?

But hang on a sec.

I make a monthly financial contribution at my home in Waterloo (we don’t consider it “rent”, for various reasons) but that financial contribution doesn’t in any way represent a contribution to the upkeep and care for the dishes or cleanliness of the house.

I’ve spent 6 years of my life living in school residences, where I actually was paying in part for cleaning staff and food services. (And before that I was living with my parents, which is its own puddle of unresponsibility). And outside of that, I had mostly lived with strangers, who I’d never see again after the 4-month coop term ended. In those contexts, there wasn’t a sense of relationship to maintain, and I just cleaned when I wanted something clean myself.

So it’s not too surprising that my habits didn’t automatically include cleaning the common spaces. But it’s fascinating to realize that on a more abstract level I still had the vague sense that because I was putting money into living here, I had fulfilled my basic responsibilities to the ecosystem that is the household. It’s a thought that doesn’t make sense under inspection, but it took staying with friends thousands of miles away to prompt me to actually dig it up to inspect it. Related to entitlement on some level.

This was probably the most profound insight, and it has shifted my behaviour back home too.

5. Even within a niche subculture, houses have distinct microcultures

This insight isn’t actionable in the way some of the others are, but I find it fascinating.

As I gestured at above, many of my friends live in named group houses. On my last trip, I stayed at 3 and visited at least 4 others. And even though all of those people are part of roughly the same community of 100-200 people, the culture at each house wasn’t simply a smaller version of the culture at large.

Some of this is obvious: naturally, small groups of people that hang out often develop inside jokes, and of course different houses have different norms about how the dishes get cleaned or how people engage with the social space. And the people are sufficiently varied that this affects things in a bunch of ways.

Beyond the obvious, a lot of it is actually hard to articulate, because it was more of a gestalt sense that I got. So it’s a thing I learned, but I can’t put most of the content in this post.

Two things to share though, one subtle and one very overt.

Subtle: I noticed during my last trip that people seemed to be saying “Mhm” more than I’d observed before (not at all confident in this sentence). But the sound had different inflections at different houses. At one place I stayed, the residents of the house would draw out the second syllable while slowly raising the pitch (mhmmMM). At another house, they would scoop highish, emphasizing the first syllable, then sharply drop the second: “MM-hm.”

I noticed myself adapting to the context I was in and using the kind of “Mhm” that the locals did. When in room, do as the roommates do?

Overt: Several of the houses I’ve stayed at over the years had clothing-optional policies, but I basically only ever saw this in action at one of the houses. So this is actually two differences: one being that different houses have different clothing policies, and the other being the actual norms followed at the house.

Host me?

As I mentioned towards the top of this post, I’m visiting the Bay Area again for the month of August. If you live in the area, I’m still looking for places to stay, so drop me a line 🙂

I promise I didn’t write this post just to get places to stay (it’s been in outline-form since last fall) but I won’t deny that the timing is deliberate.

(If you liked this post, you might dig another “things I’ve learned” post: 9 Things I Relearned From Hugging 70 strangers in airports)

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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