It was shocking if not surreal. The email message was from a woman I’d never met and whose name I recognized only because a few months earlier she mailed me a book she’d written.
The message announced that she and her family were planning a cross-country road trip to Disneyland and would just love to stay with us since (at the time) we lived nearby and oh wouldn’t that be so much fun. She gave a tentative date they would be arriving.
Everything I know about what not to do as a house guest, I learned from that experience, from the moment they drove up to the time they finally departed—far too many days hence.
In the interest of full disclosure, because I have friends and relatives who read these posts, be it known that all other house guests we have ever had in all of our lives have been wonderful. Exemplary. Do not worry. This is not about you.
It need not be engraved on parchment, but you do need some kind of indication that you are invited to be a guest in another’s home. Do not send a cryptic message (“Looks like we will be in your area in a couple of weeks!”), hoping that will wrangle an invitation. And for goodness sake, don’t just show up. That would forever designate you as either an interloper or freeloader.
Nail down the dates of your visit and then stick to them. When your host does not offer specific dates, trust me that does not mean to say as long as you like. Listen for subtle clues (“We’ll be super busy toward the end of July”). You may need to split your time with someone else or find other accommodations for half of your trip.
Do not be vague
If the two of you plan to arrive with the four children, two dogs, and the new kitten—spell it out. Do not assume your host will just know this intuitively. Be very clear on who will be joining you in this visit.
Respect your space
Arriving with 16 suitcases and enough toys, devices, and equipment to keep the children entertained for weeks on end tends to appear that you’ll be taking over the entire house. Bring only what you need and will fit into a guest room and then make sure it all stays there. You’re not staying in a hotel, so don’t treat your friend’s home like one. A good rule of thumb: When you’re not in your room, it should look like it did when you arrived.
All homes have some rules of some kind. If your hosts remove their shoes at the front door, notice that and follow suit. Don’t eat in the living room; do not allow the children to jump on the furniture. Or open and then go through every cupboard and drawer in the entire house (yes, they did and to the delight of their mother who remarked that the children are just so curious).
Mind the Children
Talk to your kids—before you travel—about manners, respect, and being neat. Let them know you expect them to pick up their clothing and offer to help carry groceries or set the table.
Make sure you have worked this out before your arrival. Do not expect that your hosts’ vehicles are part of the deal. Rent a car or figure out public transportation ahead of time. Should your hosts offer the use of a vehicle, return it clean, washed, and the gas tank full, regardless of how many miles you put on it or time you spent in it.
Do not expect your hosts to do all the work. See what needs to be done and offer to help. And if the hosts prefer for you to sit back and relax, respect their wishes. Just don’t make things especially difficult for them.
You can graciously invite your hosts to join you at Sea World, but don’t expect that to happen. And don’t assume they will have discount tickets for you. Or that they will watch the children while you go out for a few hours. Remember they are neither your babysitters nor your tour guides.
Leave a Fragrance
Upon your departure, you and all who arrived with you want to make sure you leave behind a fragrance—not an odor. And I mean that literally and figuratively. Clean up after yourselves without being obnoxious. Don’t assume you need to do all the laundry and clean the house before you leave. Just use your common sense. A lovely parting gesture is to leave a handwritten thank you and appropriate gift (flowers are nice) to let your hosts know how much you enjoyed your stay.
I have another book in my library—one I cherish and read often, mostly because it is so entertaining, well-written, and educational! Years ago its author, Darlene Dennis, sent it to me. Honestly, if you have ever had house guests or assume you may in the future, you need to read Host or Hostage: A Guide for Surviving House Guests. You’ll laugh, you’ll learn, and in the process become a gracious host.
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