A century ago, you probably didn’t need to travel cross-country to visit your best friend or siblings. Chances are they lived right next door, or up the road.
Few of us have that luxury today. Seeing friends and family can mean traveling for hours, then landing in a guest room with suitcases — and perhaps children and pets — in tow.
Lovely as these visits can be, they’re often tinged with tension. Living with someone, even for a matter of days, isn’t simple.
Which presents a problem: In our increasingly informal society, how do you decipher the rules of houseguest etiquette? Each friendship or family tie has its own blend of familiarity and propriety. Making yourself at home can seem friendly or impolite, depending on the details. A nice gesture — say, pitching in with the after-dinner dishes — can seem downright offensive to a host determined to spoil you.
With the holidays fast approaching, here are some strategies for the modern houseguest:
Communicate clearly beforehand
“We always ask people, ’Is there anything special you like to eat or drink?” says Dale Schlather, a New York City executive who often hosts friends at his weekend home in the Hamptons, on Long Island. “Some do bring kids, so we ask, “What do they eat? What do they need?’ People say they don’t really care and they don’t need anything special. But then they get there and say, ’Do you have this? Do you have that?’ And you have to jump in the car and go to the store.”
Parents shouldn’t assume that families without children will have things like Cheerios, juice or toys on hand. “By them telling us what they need — Whole milk or skim milk? Is it eggs or bagels in the morning? — it’s easier for us,” says Schlather.
Schlather has twice had guests arrive with pets they didn’t mention (“Some people would rather ask for forgiveness than permission,” he says), while others have brought children without warning. Moves like that can ruin a weekend.
Ditto for showing up sick. LuAnn Cavanaugh of Brooksville, Fla., had a guest arrive with a bad cold he hadn’t warned her about. The trip was a disaster.
“He really could have gone and stayed in a motel,” she says.
Don’t overstay your welcome
Three days is great, but a week can be too much even with family, says Amy Nebens, author of “A Gracious Welcome: Etiquette and Ideas for Entertaining Houseguests.”
On occasion, you might stay a week with your parents or an old friend if you’ve traveled far to see them. If so, “make yourself less of a guest,” says Nebens. “Clean up after yourself and tell her before you come, ’I’m staying with you, and not at a hotel, because I want extra quality time with you. I want that time late at night talking under the covers. But I will not come unless you let me fend for myself. Show me where things are in the kitchen and allow me to split the bills with you for dining.’ You want it to be a vacation for them, too.”
On visits longer than three days, be independent. Ask for a map of the city or research the area in advance, then spend some afternoons out on your own. Rent a car or use public transportation so your hosts won’t have to shuttle you around.
They may want to show you the sights, but “don’t expect them to be the cruise director,” says Nebens.
Another reason to keep visits brief: You can pack lightly. “You don’t want to spread yourself all over the house,” Nebens says.
Be flexible and listen to your host“Especially for the holiday season, it’s fair to assume your hosts have a lot of other stuff going on,” says Leslie Carlin, co-author of the etiquette guide “Things You Need to be Told.”
Bring a book or something to occupy yourself.
Around the house, it’s great to help out. But follow the hosts’ lead. Their comfort level should prevail.
“I’ve heard of people who say, ’It’s my china and if it’s going to break, I’ll break it myself,”’ says Carlin. “They may not want the guest touching the dirty dishes.”
Of course, says Nebens, some instances require reading between the lines. “With your mother, if she says she’ll do all the dishes, maybe you try again with, ‘This is quality time I can spend with you, while Dad and Junior are busy in another room.”’
Don’t automatically help yourself to food, but trust your hosts if that’s what they suggest. Schlather and his wife keep a cooler stocked with soft drinks near their pool and encourage guests to help themselves in the kitchen.
“If they want a cappuccino and they don’t know how to use the machine, ask me,” he says. “But when people say, ’Hey, I want a Diet Coke,’ they should be able to get that for themselves.”
Your goal is to create as little work as possible for your host.
Often, it comes down to simply following directions. “We have guest towels for the pool, and we have them color-coded by room,” Schlather says. “We tell them, ’This is your beach towel, your towel for the pool.’ But people somehow find other towels and end up using them. There’s always a lot of laundry to do when people leave.”
Cavanaugh has the same problem. “A lot of people will automatically strip the bed,” before leaving, she says, even if she asks them not to. “All of a sudden you have all this laundry to do.”
Say thanks before, during and after the visitAlways arrive with a gift, says Nebens, no matter whom you’re visiting or how long you’ll stay.
Also, invite your host out for a meal, or several meals. Offer to pay for groceries.
Hosts may refuse your generosity. If so, respect their wishes. What matters is that your offer was sincere.
Lastly, Nebens and Carlin both advise sending a thank you note on returning home. It’s a small gesture, but a vital one.