how to be a good guest?
April 18, 2005 7:37 PM   Subscribe

What are your recipes for being a good guest, for weekend or overnight stays?

I will be travelling a lot over the next few months and will be staying with a few relative strangers and some friends. As a guest, I try to find a balance between trying to be low maintenance but also trying to be helpful and responsible. I was sort of raised by wolves and don't have an ingrained sense of how to behave in many social situations. It's not that I feel awkward as much as I worry that I may be missing something obvious. I didn't learn that "give each guest their own towel" thing until fairly recently, for example.

When I was in my 20's just doing all the dishes and not leaving a mess made me a near-perfect guest. Now that my hosts often have dishwashers and enough wine that one more bottle chosen by a non-wine drinker won't be too special, I'm looking both for tips and etiquette suggestions along the lines of:

- do you make the bed when you leave, or leave it unmade assuming the sheets will be washed anyhow?
- if there is no specific guestroom and you're in a semi-public sleeping room, do you tuck all your stuff away if you're out for the day or leave it where you were sleeping?
- if you're a smoker, is going outside for a smoke well after your hosts have gone to bed liable to freak them out when they hear the door open/shut?
- is there some nice "thanks for having me" thing you can bring to a house of relative strangers that isn't wine?

Any other "how to be a good guest" or even "how to be a bad guest" advice welcomed.
posted by jessamyn to Human Relations (27 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
* Bring a thoughtful gift. If your hosts are new homeowners, bring them something for their home. If you know that they like to read, see movies, or enjoy nights out, bring gift certificates, movie passes or AmEx gift cards that they can use after you're gone. Whatever it is, just make sure it's something you know your hosts will like.
* Be courteous about hot water usage and time spent in the bathroom.
* Don't hog up their phone line or give out their phone number as a means of contact without asking. (That's what cell phones are for.) Don't tap into their wireless bandwidth without asking.
* Before using your laptop, cell phone charger, hair dryer, curling iron or other electrical appliance, ask if there are any wiring issues you should know about.
* Don't leave lights, TVs or radios on all night. If you're feeling sleepy, don't fight it, shut stuff off and go to bed.
* Whether you're in a public room for sleeping or a guest room, keep your things as contained and tidy as possible, to minimize your footprint upon their home. Make your bed, etc.
* Before spraying on perfume, cologne, hairspray, etc. make sure your hosts don't have allergy/sensitivity issues.
* Offer to help with cooking and clean-up for meals or to split (or fully pick-up) the tab if you're taken out.
* Ask the host what they'd like for you to do in terms of smoking, if you smoke.
* Ask the host what they'd like for you to do in terms of their pets, if they have them.
* Bring your own toiletries. If you've forgotten something, don't borrow, go buy. You're a grownup now.
* Clean up the bathroom, making sure that you're not leaving toothpaste in the sink, hair in the drain, etc.
* Ask the host what they'd like for you to do with bed and bath linens before you leave.
* Last but by absolutely no means least: send a thank you card when you get home. Proper displays of gratitude seem to be on the verge of lost arts.
posted by Dreama at 7:50 PM on April 18, 2005

My rule is to leave the house looking as if I was not there. I make the bed, because it looks nice and sometimes other people have walked through where I have stayed, so this way the host's house does not look messy. If I use dishes, I wash them, or put them into the dishwasher (or other location specified by the host). I put my things away or at least stack them neatly out of the way while I am not in the room. I try to give everything the appearance that it had before I arrived, at all feasible times.

Don't be afraid to ask a lot of questions. "Where should I put my dirty dishes/towels/sheets?" is not an unusual question. Each person's house is different, so each host will have different expectations. If you are in the habit of a late night smoke, tell them to expect that you will go outside. That way they know what to expect, and also they can tell you which door to use or where to go. Communication is the key here. Use as much of it as is necessary, and if you are unsure, most people would prefer that you ask.

I'll admit that I am unsure about the gifts. I do not drink either, nor do I bake, but sometimes I might bring a bought food item such as a dessert. I note of thanks along with any gift would be appreciated.
posted by veronitron at 7:54 PM on April 18, 2005

- When leaving, I usually fold the sheets up, so that they're ready to be taken to the laundry. That includes trying to put the bed/futon/couch back into order for them; during the day, in semi-public room, I definitely try to put things away. Even if it's just folding the sheets up and putting them on the corner of the couch, it helps the situation [especially if you're relative strangers, or if it's really the prime room in the house].
- Don't leave your wet towels on the furniture or floor; hang them up. That's a pet peeve for lots of people.
- Don't throw pads or tampons in the toilet; a plug-up can be annoying and slightly awkward.
- I agree with Dreama - be conscious of time in the bathroom, space on counters, dirty laundry on floors, hair in drains, oils on counters, anything else that leaves a mess.
- If I was a smoker, I'd probably ask if it was okay to step outside for a cigarette after people had gone to bed, just to warn them if nothing else, and to make sure there aren't any issues with alarms, animals, lights, etc.
- As for gifts, I've found that tea is a remarkably versatile gift. These Tea Forte bags are slightly more expensive than other luxury tea, but the aesthetic and sensory appeal of them is so beautiful that it makes a useful, non-cluttering, but lavish gift. They come in different packs, so you could get different sizes depending on how long you stay. The boxes of tea samplers from Adagio Teas are also always appreciated, and something different than most people would choose on their own. Books are also appreciated, especially if you know something about your hosts, their upcoming plans [travel book if they're going somewhere on holiday?], known food tastes make for good cookbook picks, and even fresh flowers make people smile.
posted by fionab at 7:57 PM on April 18, 2005

I'm not really good with gifts, but I know that I would certainly appreciate someone keeping my fridge mysteriously stocked with beer. ;) Make sure you know what type they like.

I don't know how badly you need that late night smoke, but I personally would find it somewhat discourteous to do anything noisy, including leaving the house, after the hosts have gone to bed. Being warned is obviously better than not, but I would try to wait until tomorrow if at all possible.
posted by trevyn at 8:14 PM on April 18, 2005

I keep things put away during the day and strip the bed when I leave for good, leaving everything in a neat pile. They're going to wash it anyway so you've saved them a step and left it still looking presentable.

A gift from where you're from is a nice touch (small bottle of maple syrup with a bow on it maybe?) If I'm staying for a few days I usually offer to make at least one meal, just something simple like you'd make at home is fine. The gift is that they don't have to cook, you don't have to knock them out with an elaborate meal.

And I'll second the suggestion of a thank you note or postcard from your next stop.
posted by cali at 8:37 PM on April 18, 2005

This question is timely for me, because I just had a horrible house guest over the weekend. He plugged in his electronics all over the kitchen, tried to eat barbecue in the living room while sitting on a cloth couch (I had to tell him twice to come to the dining room), left wrappers and garbage all over the house, some of which I just found a few minutes ago, spilled food on my laptop, which he used without asking, walked around in his dirty underwear... I could go on. It was terrible, and I'm not normally uptight about my home. This is from a thirty-plus family man, and it's really made me not want to ever deal with him again. It's too bad, because I considered him a friend before this weekend.
posted by letitrain at 8:40 PM on April 18, 2005

My number one rule: entertain oneself. There is nothing I hate more than houseguests who sit around waiting for me to entertain them. F.O. and go do something touristy already: I got work to do.

My number two rule: if staying more than one night, it's never, ever a bad idea to take one's hosts out for supper. Or to at least make a sincere offer with some amount of insistence.

My number three rule: clean up after oneself. That means helping with dishes, stripping down the bed, putting books and magazines back where they were found, etcetera. Be as little work on one's hosts as is humanly possible.

And number four: learn to hold a conversation.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:42 PM on April 18, 2005

We had some bad houseguests awhile ago (friends of a friend). If you go out without your host, please come home at a reasonable hour. Our guests did not have a key, and having to wait up for them to come home was a serious pain, especially because I had work early the next morning.
And definitely write a thank you note once you're home- but also don't forgot to say goodbye. After hosting three total strangers in our house for several days, feeding and entertaining them, they left without a trace while we were out of the house, and we never heard from them again.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:00 PM on April 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

As a person who has done a lot of couch surfing in the recent past (and who is also trying to return those favors now that I have a proper place to sleep), I think the advice on this thread is excellent. I would also just add the recommendation to try to be comfortable wherever you are – that is to say your hosts will feel much more relaxed having you around if you’re relaxed.
posted by Staggering Jack at 9:07 PM on April 18, 2005

Having just stayed with some friends in Oakland, Cal, I found that letting one of the hosts use my car (she was late for work, etc.) a couple times was a helpful and completely unexpected gift that she honestly didn't know how to respond to. The clean living outlined above comes highly recommended, too.
posted by hototogisu at 9:29 PM on April 18, 2005

This might be tangential to your question, but it's been my biggest problem. I can put up with a lot from houseguests, but my biggest beef to date hasn't been what they do physically, it's been how they occupy the 'psychic space,' if you will. I have a couple friends who just really over-fill the room with their experience: if they're happy, it's time for everyone to be happy. If they're mad, it takes over. I'd rather have a few dirty dishes than someone coloring all the emotional experience in my house. (And yes, I do believe people can modulate this.)

And I've had friends who are the opposite: they'd just sit on the couch all day until I was ready to go somewhere, then they'd draggily get themselves together to go out. Emotional vampires make terrible houseguests. In short: don't stay with someone and watch their TV all day. Houseguests need to have lives too!
posted by RJ Reynolds at 10:10 PM on April 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

The best houseguests I've had brought home groceries on the second day. Just a few things -- fresh fruit, some juice and a loaf of crusty bread. But it was the acknowledgement that they 1) were taking up resources and wanted to share both ways and 2) were independent enough to go out, find a store and think of me when they were out exploring San Francisco/Ranch 99 market.

Cooking for people, although it sounds nice, is never nice in execution. I lose more beautiful specialty flour to guest-made pancakes that way.

If they have kids, bring something for the kids like a cool book.
posted by Gucky at 10:28 PM on April 18, 2005

i usually try to pack travel size versions of all my toiletries (which I, of course, keep to a minimum). Usually, I'm able to get the collection so small that it covers maybe six square inches of bathroom counter space. When I'm not actually in the shower, the shampoo stays with the collection since shelf space is often at a premium inside the shower. I shove it all back into one corner and try to make as small a footprint as possible.
posted by Clay201 at 10:31 PM on April 18, 2005

If you're going somewhere where it snows, shovelling the driveway may be appreciated.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 11:48 PM on April 18, 2005

While I think it's polite to ask if you should strip the bed, I always get (and give) the same "just leave it" answer, so I make the bed up as this leaves the room looking the same as it did when I arrived and my host can change the bedlinen when convenient to them. If you are sleeping in a semi-public area put as much away as you can so it's not in the way. As for a gift, if you are only staying one night I think a thank you note would be enough. If staying longer I think Gucky has it right. You actually sound like you have it nailed already Jess, have fun.
posted by Tarrama at 11:59 PM on April 18, 2005

do you make the bed when you leave, or leave it unmade assuming the sheets will be washed anyhow?

Just ask. If they say no, try not to think about the likelihood that the sheets were washed between the time the last person slept in them and you.

My roommate had a long-term guest in our small apartment once. After about a month, I was getting somewhat annoyed with having him sleeping on our couch all the time. I would have asked my roommate to send him off, but to be honest I was too addicted to the guest doing our dishes and buying fruit for us. I can't say it was a bad deal for me.
posted by grouse at 12:52 AM on April 19, 2005

If your hosts have kids, entertain the kids while ensuring that the kids do what they are supposed to do. If you can pull that off, everything will follow.

If you're going to be there very briefly, spend time with the hosts; don't use their home as a free hotel room from which you zoom around their town without actually visiting your hosts. But if you're going to be in town awhile, give the hosts time to themselves. If they have kids, take the kids off their hands while the kids show you around. In any case, get out of the house for a bit, let your hosts know when you'll be back, and stick to that schedule so you don't keep them hanging around for nothing.

Stock the kitchen with what you know they like and something you think they would otherwise be afraid to try.

Hide a small surprise or two in the back of a cupboard or two. Nothing perishable, of course, unless you want them to find fungus behind their shoes. Play it like an Easter egg hunt but not with eggs. Kids are easy: get some sort of multi-part toy (Lego, little plastic animals, whatever) and hide the stuff in many unlikely spots without letting on who or how.

No detectable sex -- no grunts or screams or squeaks or wails, no horrible stains, no broken beds -- unless it involves the host.
posted by pracowity at 2:40 AM on April 19, 2005

In the morning, let your host be the first to arise. Give him/her 20 minutes to a half hour alone to fully awaken and prepare for the day.
posted by klarck at 4:11 AM on April 19, 2005

Oh yes - mornings are the hardest for me when I'm host and when I'm guest. As host, I really don't like talking to people much before the second or third cup of coffee and as guest, I'm both trying to avoid being chatted to and overly conscious of not wanting to disturb them. And then there's waking up at different times: the worst thing to do as a guest is wake up your hosts by banging around in the kitchen and bathroom, but the second worst is sleeping in for hours and making them tiptoe around waiting for you.

As to the bed, I've always just made it up assuming it will be stripped later. Starting to rethink that now - it may look neater but it just might be a little more work for the host.

Always take them to dinner or offer to pick up a grocery/gas/drinks tab.

Nice teas (the Adagio tea sampler listed above is a great example of something I've wanted to try but not enough to splurge on myself) are a great gift because even if they don't drink tea, they'll like having it around as something they can offer a future guest. Fresh flowers are always a great gift (allergies aside, when did life get so complex?) because they brighten the joint so much and are something many people don't buy regularly. A bath products sampler is also nice.

One of the best things a houseguest ever did for me was go out after a huge party I had and bring back a bag of bagels and lox and cream cheese and capers to mitigate the hangover.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:15 AM on April 19, 2005

Pretty much seconding everyone else's advice. To sum up, I'd say "be unobtrusive." Be neat, don't strew your stuff around, wipe out the sink or tub after using, etc. Esp. with the people you don't know well. When you're packing to go, ask if they want you to strip the bed or just leave it. Taking them out to dinner is always a nice gesture, or even breakfast if everyone will be up at the same time. Giftwise, present them with a new houseplant if there are already some in the house. Do they have kids? Bring a present for the kids and you're golden. Pets? Ditto. A nice in-kind gift would be a sincere offer to return the favor if they're ever in your town.
posted by scratch at 6:49 AM on April 19, 2005

At least once a year I go on a driving vacation where I stay in a different city almost every night. For that trip I live out of my trunk. I have a small bag that I bring into the home of whoever I'm crashing with and the rest of my stuff just stays in the car. The overnight bag and travel size toiletries really cut down on the amount of clutter I create in someone's home.

If I'm sleeping in a semi-public space I keep my stuff as packed as possible at all times. If I sleep in a bed I pull the sheets to in the morning but don't make the bed (assuming it'll be stripped later). If I'm sleeping on a couch I fold up the sheets as soon as I get up and put them either on one side of the couch or on the floor beside the couch.

For gifts after the fact I always send a thank you card and include at least a few photos from that leg of the trip. I also usually mail a jar of my homemade barbecue sauce to the people I stay with after I return home.
posted by smash at 6:51 AM on April 19, 2005

maybe i'm just not in your social class, but when we have guests, washing up and wine are appreciated! i wouldn't expect gifts afterwards (in fact it would make me uncomfortable), but since people sleep in our "living room", being reasonably tidy during the day is a plus. but apart from that, don't forget that you just being there is probably a good thing. we enjoy having people to stay and wouldn't invite them otherwise!
posted by andrew cooke at 7:12 AM on April 19, 2005

A host gift from your locality is wonderful:
I'm in BC, but even a gift of Vermont maple syrup would be appreciated (maybe some fancy pancake flour as well?). A pound of nice coffee for coffee drinkers (local is good, BC has Kicking Horse Coffee - very good per my husband and mum aka: coffee snobs). Tea, as mentioned, is nice (maybe some local honey as an addition). Cookies or candy that you know the host will appreciate (local or homemade is best).

Be helpful but not underfoot. Offer to cook or take your host out for a meal or two. I always ask what to do with the dirty linens. Making as small a footprint as possible is great advice. Keep it tidy, tidy, tidy.

There's an old saying: fish and guests smell after three days. The only people I'd consider staying longer with are my mum and my husband's dad.
posted by deborah at 8:32 AM on April 19, 2005

I always check out a book or two from the public library when i'm going to visit a houseguest. They give me some unobtrusive, portable entertainment (at a guests house i'm always staying up later and waking up earlier, just because of the weird environment) and they can be good conversation peices.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 8:53 AM on April 19, 2005

If you're going somewhere where it snows, shovelling the driveway may be is always appreciated.
Unless you're sexually active with the host, I think three days is more than long enough for any visit. My in-laws think that it's cool to spend a week with us and it is not a good time for my wife and I (and we're now firmly stating our limits, lest we suddenly have to kill them out of frustration.)
posted by five fresh fish at 10:20 AM on April 19, 2005

I was raised with archaic, overly-polite manners for someone of my age (Miss Manners would have thought my dad overdid it), so I've learned to ask when I'm not sure what to do (should I strip the bed? Is is ok if I step outside for a smoke?) and to carefully watch my host's reactions. I pay more attention to the body language than the words. Different causes, but these tactics should work for you, too, Jessamyn.

I used to always show up with flowers, until I triggered a bad asthma attack in a host. If I'm staying with people I don't know well, I try to pay attention to what they might like, so I can send them a small gift later, possibly with my thank you note, possibly a bit later. I'd think a postcard from the next city, especially if you can find one with a pic they'd like, would be an acceptable substitute for a formal thank you note. I'm personally fond of nice used books (usually from the local PL booksale) to give to my hosts, unless they really aren't readers.

When I host people (my partner and I believe in hosting strangers), it is my duty as host to be very clear about the house rules. This includes taking a guest aside, and gently asking them to do or not to do something, if it is causing problems. I think this makes things go more smoothly for everyone, and I appreciate hosts who are clear with me of their expectations.
posted by QIbHom at 1:05 PM on April 19, 2005

I generally strip the bed and toss the sheets in the washer. That way, if I'm not around to put them in the dryer, I know my host isn't having to handle my scuzzy sheets.

I tend not to ask before doing this, because hosts almost always say not to bother.

I pull the quilt or blanket over the bed and replace the pillows to make the room look better.

When visiting my in-laws, I almost always buy my mother in law fresh flowers on the way to her house. Since she rarely gets flowers, she loves this and spends considerable time fussing over how and where they will be arranged. On preview, I realize there may be asthma issues if you are doing this with someone you don't know well.
posted by Sheppagus at 1:10 PM on April 19, 2005

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