• Kylie Blu

Let go of Fairness to Stop issue of Dish-ues when Co-Living

I love to do the dishes. I don’t just do a few dishes either, but dishes for a housing cooperative of five that more often than not, has guests over. In the mornings I put away dinner dishes from the drying rack, wash the dishes left over from post dinner snacks and after work I’ll do a sink full, and after dinner I might be found happily scrubbing away at a big pot.

You might be wondering what the catch is. I surely would have raised an eyebrow at this outlook two years ago. Dishes are a hotly contested subject in any type of co-habitation. So much so that when we conduct interviews for new housemates, one of the defining questions we ask is, “how do you deal with the dish problem? i.e dish-ues?” Which, upon asking usually evokes some laughs as it is, quite the common issue.

But, somehow in the two years our co-op, Crescent House has existed, we’ve cracked the code to dishes and the conversation around them has only come up twice in my time here either as a friendly reminder or as a minor conversation piece. Many of us have remarked that living at Crescent has been our first experience living in a dish-ue-less house.

Dishes can be a trigger to many cooperative living frustrations, but in my experience, if the people in the group are committed to living together, dirty dishes are not usually at the heart of the conflict. What seems to be at the core of this conflict is how difficult it is to define what a “fair” amount of contribution is.

For example, one common expectation in group living that I’ve experienced, is that each person is responsible for their own dishes. What is great about this expectation is that a person’s dishes can be clearly defined. If you used that pan and that plate, it is clear with this model, you are the one that should clean it. But, what about all the shared spaces like the floor, the stove or the countertops?

This is where delineating becomes tricky. Can you quantify how often someone has dropped crumbs on the floor, or if it’s possible for one person to take full responsibility for oil splatter on a stove? To separate and assign responsibility for someone’s impact in their kitchen would require a huge amount of time and energy, more than it would take to just clean the kitchen.

So, what often ends up being the case is that a group will create systems to diffuse this tension. I’ve heard of a house that taped a section of the countertop that would always be clear of the entropy of dishes. I’ve heard of a house that has stopped doing house dinners all together. I’ve heard of houses creating chore wheels, chore charts, chore captains.

All of which can create a semblance of structure, but when the inevitable changes occur in a cooperative, like people leaving, wavering in capacity or going on trips, these methods often can prove to be unadaptable. As these systems are often based on the assumption that each person can contribute the same amount all the time.

What has worked in Crescent House and in my experience is, letting go of the concept of fairness.

When I share this attitude with friends, they are often surprised. They ask me, how is it possible to not believe in fairness? It’s not that I don’t believe in fairness, it’s that I don’t think it’s a useful way of thinking about contribution when trying to live cooperatively.

Instead, I rely on values to ground me in how and when to contribute, as well as when I think about other people’s contributions. Here are the core values I rely on:

1. Whenever I contribute, I am choosing to, and I assume others are too.

2. People give and receive at different times and in different ways and it most always ends up coming back around.

3. If I don’t feel like someone is contributing, it is my responsibility to ask and learn more.

What I enjoy about using a values-based approach is that it allows me to contemplate each situation thoughtfully. When I find myself gravitating towards determining what is “fair” I notice how quickly I’ll jump to conclusions based on very little information.

Whenever I contribute, I am choosing to, and I assume others are too.

I learnt this lesson of choice from my housemate Jonah. I had been struggling for a while with both sides of the contribution coin. I would often feel like I was contributing for the sake of others, leading me to feel a lack of appreciation for my contributions. And when other people would contribute, I would feel guilty, because I would assume they were only contributing because they thought I wanted them to. Overall, this was a swirling mess of contribution anxiety.

What helped me leave this mess behind was the advice Jonah gave me, that he always chooses to contribute and assumes that other people are contributing because they also choose to. This has led me to take a step away from the sink when I notice myself feeling frustrated or resentful, and vice versa, stepping to the sink when feeling happy to contribute.

Even better yet, when I started to assume that other people were choosing to do the dishes, I not only felt guilt free but also felt a deep gratitude that they were choosing to contribute to the community.

People give and receive at different times and in different ways and it most always ends up coming back around.

Not all of my housemates love doing the dishes. I work with my body doing a lot of repetitive actions, which I love, and that carries over to doing the dishes. Recently there was a house conversation that I overheard in pieces, where I was named the most avid dishwasher. At some point in my life, this label would have led me into a frustrated doozey because it would mean that other people had noticed how much I contributed yet were still not matching my level of contribution.

But thanks to my housemates, I have learned that having a variety of different interests is a blessing. There are some chores I love to do and ones that others do that I dislike.

I’ve also noticed that our culture likes to value only labor as a contribution. Kahlil Gibran wrote that, “work is love made visible,” and as much as this feels true, I see just as much value in connection, laughter, intimacy and being together. All of which people provide by being present.

I think about this in the context of guests. Guests will often ask me what they should bring to the house upon arrival. Recently I’ve been responding to this by telling folks that they can bring a story, an activity or something funny to share. As a home with an abundance of food and material goods, I often find company, laughter and connection to be a much richer gift than any object provides.

If I don’t feel like someone is contributing, it is my responsibility to ask and learn more.

Something that I’ve come to realize in myself when I start to feel like someone is not contributing, is that my feelings have very little to do with the actual task at hand and more to do with my feelings of disconnection to that person.

For example, if someone goes straight to their room after dinner without doing the dishes, I don’t often have to worry that between me and the rest of the housemates the dishes will get done. Or at the very least, we can do our best and leave the rest for tomorrow.

But, as minds work in mysterious or perhaps very predictable ways, I will find myself assuming that person does not want to contribute. This will then lead me into questioning whether this person appreciates me and the house. As most rabbit holes go, they’re not meant for humans to crawl into, and it serves me very well to check myself and to recognize that it’s my responsibility to learn more about why this person isn’t contributing in the way that I had expected them to.

Usually, a quick check in about how that person’s day was, is enough for me to get in a space of curiosity and trust knowing that if someone can’t contribute now, they will in the future. And even more affirming, that I will be trusted to have days when I cannot contribute.

Using these values has inadvertently allowed for contribution to happen without many rules or structures around how to keep the kitchen clean. As the kitchen is a place where our most communal practices come into play, to have a dynamic and flexible outlook on how to cooperatively function in it, is in my opinion the best way to create harmony.


The most common responses to our interview question, “how do you deal with the dish problem? i.e dish-ues?” are, “I always make sure my dishes are washed” or “I don’t like dishes in the sink and will do them all to keep the sink clean.”

I have often thought about my answer to this question. I think I might say something like, doing the dishes is my love song to cooperative living. It is holding a fistful of forks knowing someone will tip toe quietly while you are sleeping, buy the coffee beans you like, put flowers in a jar. It is exposing shiny enamel in gratitude for my housemate’s presence, listening, ideas and inspiration. When I step up to the sink, I get to practice my ability to choose, trust and to question with curiosity. The stream of water, the scritch scratch of the metal scrubby, the clanking of metal on clay is the song of how we do this funny, yet profoundly gratifying thing called living together.

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