The Basics: How to Be a Good House Guest

December 5, 2013

by Margaret Cabaniss

The Basics: How to Be a Good House Guest

Last month, we talked about how to be a good host for house guests. Today: how to be a good house guest. This job is less involved, thankfully, and some rules can be bent a bit if you’re visiting family and close friends — but there are still a few important tips to bear in mind if you want to be invited back.

Remember the rule about house guests and dead fish…they both start to stink after three days. Limit the length of your stay to something reasonable, particularly if your host doesn’t have a large place (or has a lot on her plate, small children to tend to, etc.). Again, if we’re talking family or dear friends, longer visits might be welcome — but it’s always good to double-check before making plans, especially around the busy holidays.

Let your hosts know in advance about any special needs. If you have allergies, let them know so they can keep the family cat off your bed; if you have food intolerances, give them some warning so that they don’t plan a meal that will give you hives. (Be more forbearing about personal dietary choices, though. If that’s hard to do, consider bringing some supplemental snacks of your own, or eating out.)

The Basics: How to Be a Good House Guest

Bring a hostess gift. Arriving anywhere with gifts immediately makes you a welcome guest — and since your hosts are giving you free room and board, a small token of appreciation is always a good idea. Fortunately, there are lots of simple, lovely things you can do here: freshly baked treats, a nice bottle of wine, a set of cloth napkins, etc. If you’re short on luggage space, take your hosts out to dinner instead — or consider babysitting one night so they can go out on their own. It won’t cost you anything, but that kind of gift is gold to harried parents of little ones.

Be considerate of your hosts’ schedules — and let them know yours. If they’re an early-rising family with small children, don’t sleep in until 11; if they’ll have to work during your visit, be sure to keep the late-night carousing to a minimum. As much as possible, try to accommodate the house schedule. By the same token, give them a heads-up about when you’ll be coming and going, whether you’ll need a ride to or from the airport, whether you’ll be at the house for dinner, etc.

Pitch in. Your host might insist that he doesn’t need help with the dishes, but insist right back on clearing the table, at least. Offer to cook a meal, run some simple errands, or even just entertain the kids during dinner prep. You don’t need to wait to be asked: If there’s something you can do for yourself, do it. Your hosts aren’t running a bed and breakfast, and helping out wherever you can makes their job less stressful.

The Basics: How to Be a Good House Guest

Leave their home neater than you found it. Well, if you can, anyway. Make the bed (or put away the blanket on the couch) at the beginning of each day and straighten your belongings. At the end of your visit, strip your bed linens, wipe down the bathroom counter, and generally tidy up as much as you can, so that the clean-up after you leave will be minimal.

Once you’re back home, don’t forget a thank-you note. It’s an easy thing to overlook, but it makes a difference. Be sure to let them know how much their hospitality was appreciated — and maybe extend them your own, too.

Any other good guest tips to share?

Images: 1, Zoe Saint-Paul; 2, Williams Sonoma; 3, Marzipan and Smileys

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1 Renee December 5, 2013 at 11:05 am

Not to nitpick what is generally a good list, but I would much prefer that guests not strip the bed or at least ask first. Our guest mattress happened to have half a can of soda spilled on it by a friend in college, and the pillows are not perfectly white either. These items are clean and comfortable, but I would prefer our guests not see them! Stripping the bed takes under a minute once they leave, anyway. Just personal preference, I suppose, but I always ask if stripping the bed would be helpful when I am a guest.


Margaret Cabaniss 2 Margaret Cabaniss December 5, 2013 at 11:14 am

That’s a fair point, Renee! I suppose I got in the habit because I didn’t like to leave the bed unmade, and making it up when the hosts would have to undo it later just seemed counterproductive…but I hadn’t considered this perspective. Thanks for sharing!


3 Anna December 5, 2013 at 2:50 pm

Like Renee, I like your list overall, but I agree with her about the bed thing. Our pullout couch is easily damaged when somebody unfamiliar with the mechanism forces it. So I am careful to have it in bed position with bedding, etc., in place so guests won’t need to open or shut it, and I kind of cringe on the occasions I see they’ve helpfully done so.

More generally, having house-guests insist on “helping” (or having them do things unasked) gets quite stressful in my opinion as somebody who’s had many, many house-guests in rapid succession due to an illness in the family. I would much prefer they’d take no for an answer after offering once. Sometimes I’d just like to be allowed to focus on making dinner myself you instead of having to come up with and coordinate little make-work projects to keep my guests occupied.

(And please, please, please don’t mess with my laundry if I didn’t ask! And if you do, don’t be surprised that I can’t fake enthusiastic gratitude that you put my woolens through the dryer and put regular soap in my high-efficiency washer. I know a truly polite host would, but I’m just not there yet!)


Margaret Cabaniss 4 Margaret Cabaniss December 5, 2013 at 5:07 pm

This is really interesting: Somewhere along the way, it was ingrained in me that stripping the bed was the polite thing to do, and I’ve never heard otherwise from hosts — until today! I’d be curious to know what other people think on this one.

As for guests helping out, I know what you mean about its sometimes being stressful: When I’m in the pre-dinner rush, having someone ask if they can set the table (and then needing to ask where all the items are) isn’t necessarily all that helpful. But as a general rule, I think it’s better to ask than not ask — particularly if it’s an easy task like clearing the table, drying dishes, etc., that doesn’t take any particular knowledge of how the household runs. (I would never advocate taking the household laundry upon yourself, though. That’s just a disaster waiting to happen.)

That being said, I agree that you shouldn’t press too hard after your offer has been declined. I’ve heard of the “ask three times” rule, but depending on the person and the situation, that could just be plain aggravating. Funny how things that are considered basic good manners in some corners are seen as nuisances in others…


5 Anna December 6, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Actually, I was taught to strip the bed too; it’s only since becoming a householder that I realized it’s not always desired. I think it’s key to make your judgment based on how well you know your hosts and their home. E.g., at my parents’ or sisters’ homes, for sure I’ll strip the bed, and probably wash the sheets too for that matter, because I know the ways of the household.

There are definitely different family cultures out there. My in-laws are big on asking three times (or actually, as many times as it takes) and they mean it well, but to me I start to feel hounded and like I’m being guilted into making work for them. In their family they pride themselves on not sitting down and “acting like a guest.” But coming from my family, I find myself wishing they were willing to just sit down and talk at a family event. Or that I could set the table nicely with my fancy dishes for a special occasion without them expostulating, “Oh, it’s just us! Don’t use the fancy plates!”

So maybe my overall conclusion is that although helping is nice, you should still remember that you are a guest, whether you’re family or not.

6 Zoe Saint-Paul December 5, 2013 at 6:54 pm

The stripping bed thing seems to vary… I usually ask the host because some definitely do not want the bed stripped, and others are happy to have it done. I grew up with the idea that I should at least fold the blankets/duvets and put dirty towels in one spot.

I agree with the general sentiment here about helping. When it comes to meal prep, I often find it more helpful to have guests stay out of my way, or entertain my kids, so I can just get the food on the table. It’s nice to have people ask, but I expect my “no, thanks” to be taken seriously. And I certainly wouldn’t be thrilled if any guest — other than my immediate family — did a load of laundry without asking!


7 Kathleen December 9, 2013 at 6:39 pm

I’m in the don’t strip the sheets, but do make the bed and make it look neat camp.


Margaret Cabaniss 8 Margaret Cabaniss December 6, 2013 at 12:50 pm

Agree with all of this. I think it was somewhere around the time that I started hosting my own dinner parties that I realized that, when the hostess tells you she doesn’t need help, or that she’d like you to start eating, she really means it — and the polite thing to do is respect her wishes and just be a guest, like you said.


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