Really, we're not a cult
A survey of rituals that bond coliving communities
What makes coliving different from just living with roommates?
The most common line is that coliving involves a level of intentionality: we’re choosing to live together not for convenience or cost savings, but because we want to live communally.
This means sharing resources, trying to do things that are best for the group rather than getting the most value for yourself, and taking care of each other.
And, sometimes, you play pranks on each other. Or do other weird things together to cement your bond. Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse describes rituals as ‘the glue that holds social groups together,’ and so maybe these little traditions are what truly makes coliving different from a collection of roommates.
Beekeepers or a sinister cult? It’s so hard to tell.
If you’re looking for ways to help your community bond, read on for a sampling of rituals that have evolved in some of our favorite coliving houses around the world.
Nevin McConnell of the Wooden Spoon in Oakland, CA: “Early in the life of our house, after a few Spoons (our name for housemates) left in kinda awkward ways that felt bad, we started placing an emphasis on 'matriculation and graduation' as cultural norms of the house, to help every Spoon feel ‘palpable care’ from the rest of us, regardless if they were a current, former, or future Spoon.
“Matriculation: We'd try to really show up for every new Spoon as they moved into the house (the obvious stuff like Welcome signs, ensuring that their walls have been patched and painted, physically having 10+ pairs of hands to help the move in, a 'matriculation' gathering of their design/favorite activity within the first week, and a buddy system so they knew someone would walk them through all the systems and answer all their questions. This was a total tone-setter that really shocked a few people who had never lived in community before, and I think was exactly the right 'first impression' we hoped to give (ie: you matter, we want you here, and we're going to show you with our actions that this is true).
“Graduation: when someone would leave, we'd throw a surprise experience that would be completely custom to the outgoing Spoon. Sometimes it came with a physical gift or two, but most of the time it was filled with memories and impact shares and gratitudes.I think it was one of the best things that we normalized within the culture: making it okay for someone to leave, and showing them that they were still cared for and appreciated and loved.”
At Casa Chironja in Puerto Rico, leaving celebrations often get folded into monthly lightning talks, where people give five minute lectures on any topic. These range from the academic (The Life and Times of Toussaint L’Ouverture) to the practical (How to Survive at Sea) to some mix of the two (Five ways to organize a wine cellar). If a long term housemate is departing there may well be a 5 minute lecture about them, such as this cautionary tale about Julia.
Logan Ury of the Radish in Oakland, CA: “Birthdays are a big deal at Radish! We celebrate someone for an entire day, with different housemates joining for different activities. For example, for Misha's birthday, you could participate in a morning run, a post-run breakfast, tastings at two tea gardens, lunch, cartoons and cookies, post run stretch, sauna and hot tub session, hoppy hour with mocktails, Indian takeout, and/or a screening of the Princess Bride.”
Making the un-fun funner
Louise Doherty tells us: “At Feytopia in France we have Disco Dishwashing... Cleaning (and dancing) is a community love language. It makes even the thought of doing dishes together so much more fun. We have been known to have DJs playing while we wash up, not just Spotify. I think it instils a culture that even dull things can be fun with a bit of creativity and enthusiasm. I believe behavioural science calls it habit stacking: stacking one habit you want to start (that’s perhaps good for you but not enjoyable) onto another habit that you already have and enjoy.” For a glimpse of disco dishwashing in action, see this video.
Armand Cognetta of the Archive in San Francisco describes Suffertember, “a month of deliberate suffering intended to let you practice equanimity in the face of things that normally make you uncomfortable, and by doing so expand your sense of what’s possible for you and also gain a deeper appreciation for the rewards that come from doing hard things.” Examples of suffery things that Archivists do include personal fitness challenges from a 5 minute plank every day to doing a triathlon; and self-discipline challenges like waking up at 5am, taking cold showers, and limiting social media use. Jason Benn adds: “we have a big kickoff celebration... that's a pre-dawn run up a mountain. There's a lot of MANC* energy all month and people just feel great about themselves. Then there's another big suffery finish, like a 50 mile bike ride or something, at the end of the month and everyone gets a huge brunch after. I love it.” Suffertember ‘cofounder’ Armand Cognetta also wrote a post on what Suffertember means to him if you want to try it yourself.
*MANC stands for Mutually Assured Non Complacency, a concept that originated at RGB in San Francisco. As Kristen Berman explains in a longer post well worth reading, “Plainly, it’s a system that uses the people closest in your life to assure you don’t fall into status quo ruts. You do this by defining new desired personal behavior (“goal”) and putting in systems to achieve it (“accountability system”). Borrowing a concept from software development, roommates commit to 3 month sprints where they work on a ‘big hairy audacious goal’ with help from their roommates.”
Life Story Hour
Tibet Sprague recalls this tradition from the Palace of Dreams in San Francisco: “One thing we loved was every other week, after a house dinner, we spent the evening listening to one person’s life story. They would share for about 45 minutes and then we would have Q and A. It was super sweet, entertaining, and enlightening. It’s amazing how much better you get to know someone in just one hour with this simple prompt. Also this really helped us live together because you got to know things like why someone might get triggered by certain behaviors based on their family experiences. We'd even record it so if anyone missed it they'd get to catch up, and I’m really glad I listened to the two I missed live.”
Samantha John introduced a twist on life story hour at Casa Chironja: “Churcha Chironja is a practice where you, your friends, and your community come together in a secular setting to ask and ponder questions that are usually the province of religion. You step back from your day-to-day problems and think longer-term and bigger picture… Every Sunday, we gather over a meal followed by a ‘sermon,’ a short talk about a life topic that has challenged the speaker. Personal stories are encouraged. Then we have a conversation where folks react to the sermon and share their own stories on the same theme. We end with a poem that we co-create.” Despite the terminology, Churcha is not Christian or intended to be as culty as it sounds. Samantha wrote a bit more about the practice and how to start your own here.
Does your community have any traditions? Tell us about what makes your group weird & wonderful in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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I really appreciate the “fun” factor in most of the examples in your article. One of the practices I’m familiar with is Zegg Forum (https://geo.coop/story/zegg-forum-–-ritualized-form-communication-larger-groups)…One of it’s drawbacks is that it requires “expert” trained facilitators (that happens to be one of its strengths too, BTW) and the other is that standing up in front of a group and speaking one’s heart and mind freely and extemporaneously can be a tad terrifying for a good percentage of the population, (myself included)… So I’m always curious about more “populist”, simpler, more democratic, and funner means of building community trust, camaraderie and intimacy, like sharing circles, for instance…. Anywhoo, great piece, thanks!
I love the concept of naming transitions to/from the community "matriculation and graduation." What a great framing!