As an on-campus student, trying to find an open washer on Sunday night is like trying to find an available bench at Pottruck at 5:00 p.m. Impossible. At Pottruck, you could at least ask how many sets the person in front of you has left. But in the laundry room? All you can do is hope a washer is open the next time you check.
Over my years at Penn and countless laundry room ventures, I’ve gathered that there exist three main types of laundry goers. We'll start with the diligent type. These are the people who set a timer as soon as the cycle starts and promptly retrieve their belongings in due time. There’s perhaps a margin of five to 10 minutes, but overall, they are pretty consistent.
The more common types are the forgetful folk. As soon as the clothes go in the washer, they consider the job done. Perhaps they roam around campus going squirrel-watching or decide to pedal a unicycle along the Schuylkill River. We’ll never know. But one thing is certain: they don’t move their finished laundry.
That leaves the dreaded last type — aggressive laundry goers who demand to have their laundry done this second. They forcibly remove other people’s clothes from the machines, leaving them strewn atop the machine, or worse, the floor. Now, I’ve never seen these laundry goers in action, nor do I know if I would be bold enough to intervene in a moment of laundry room heroism. But I’ve certainly heard the stories from distressed friends and seen evidence of their existence.
All jokes aside, the lack of laundry room etiquette illuminates a bigger theme, which is respect and consideration for others using shared communal spaces. Before you dismiss this as a given, it’s important to realize that this is often a tough standard to follow. Following behavioral norms often involves restraint or curtailing self-interest. For starters, stress will inevitably get in the way. And as college students, Penn might be the first time that we are truly immersed in using shared communal spaces. Dining halls, gyms, classrooms, study lounges, libraries — we spend much of our waking hours in communal spaces. That’s precisely why maintaining consideration is so hard. It requires discipline. Yet, it is important, lest we allow our community to devolve into a tragedy of the commons.
Of course, there’s really no hard-and-fast rule that one must be cognizant of others in shared communal spaces. Even if there were, it would likely be unenforceable. However, being cognizant of others can manifest itself in a multitude of ways: wiping down equipment in the gym, holding the elevator open for the upcoming person, or not talking in quiet spaces. It’s the simple, little things. The things that may or may not even cross your mind, depending on how your day went. And they do add up.
What about the flip side of the coin? Is inconsiderate behavior really that harmful? Consider workplace incivility, a more active albeit extreme form of inconsiderate behavior. Research shows two things. It’s pervasive — 98% of workers have experienced it during their careers. And it drags us down, in mood and productivity, just by witnessing it occur.
It isn’t hard to see how such behavior might snowball into a self-perpetuating cycle. By witnessing and experiencing poor behavior, we get more stressed and unhappy, which in itself is a catalyst for acting in inconsiderate ways. Thus, we are more likely to act flippantly to other people.
Part of the difficulty is that most of the time, you don’t see, know, or talk to the people that you share communal spaces with. It’s analogous to how most people believe that online incivility is in part fueled by anonymity. The benefits of being socially considerate are largely unseen. You don’t see the relief on a person’s face when they are able to find an open washer when you remove your clothes in a timely manner or how a peer can effectively concentrate for an impending test when you decide not to chat loudly in the library. That’s the challenge. It’s hard to be motivated by what you do not see. But we nonetheless have to hold ourselves accountable for maintaining and sustaining a mutually symbiotic community.
The key is realizing that the aggressive and disrespectful laundry goer lives in all of us. It may not rear its head that often, but it is there. When the clock starts ticking and no one is watching, we all may face the urge of wanting to take out someone’s laundry to run our own. After all, you tell yourself, it’s their fault for not taking out their laundry promptly. The inconsiderate option is just simply more convenient. It would be remiss, however, if we fail to remember that the conscientious laundry goer lives inside of us as well.
As we think about how powerful this negative progression is, we have to realize that it only takes one person to break the cycle — one person to avert a potential cascade of frustration and inconsiderate behavior. So every time that conscientious laundry goer inside of us wins out, count that as a victory. Just as incivility is contagious in the negative cycle, I believe that being cognizant of others builds a positive cycle that is even more resilient and powerful. Each little act of consideration costs so little but pays so much. Before you know it, we’ll hit critical mass.
ANDREW LOU is a Wharton and Engineering junior studying finance, statistics, and computer science from Connecticut. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.