Benjamin Franklin famously said that guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days. Being a gracious and polite houseguest requires a social awareness that comes with experience. After years of hosting and being hosted, I have a list of things I try to be aware of and implement when I’m staying with someone. I’m not perfect and probably still manage to be annoying sometimes, but mostly I try to adopt these rules for polite and happy cohabitation.
During my three-week trip across California and Nevada, I didn’t pay for accommodations once. Sure, I had an all-expenses-paid business trip wedged in the middle, but for the rest, I was crashing on people’s couches and inflatable mattresses.
The very first step is to be invited. Don’t assume you can stay with someone because they’ve stayed with you or because you’re close. Some people would prefer spending quality time with you outside of their home. Don’t take it personally.
The best way to kick things off is to have a sincere invitation to stay with them. In my recent trips, sometimes that invitation was extended after I conveniently let the host know I’d be in town, and sometimes my trip was planned around a long-standing invitation to visit. Don’t make it about saving money but about spending time with the host. If you’re not that close, perhaps express how much nicer it is to stay with locals than in a hotel. It’s gauche to say you’re doing it because it’s free.
Let them call the shots
You are the guest, therefore it’s understood you should work around your hosts’ preferences. This means gratefully taking whatever room or bed they offer, agreeing on dates and arrival times, and bending to their schedule.
Ask about the rules of the house, like taking off shoes, turning off lights, and adjusting the thermostat. If they would rather you park on the street, follow their instructions. All of these can seem like tiny details, but you want to make your presence and impact on their routine as unnoticeable as possible.
Be aware of space
Staying in someone else’s space can be tough for both parties. Psychology Today has a neat article about the dynamics of personal space:
At the heart of the matter is that houseguests temporarily set up their personal shop in another’s primary territory. Houseguests [..] are stressful to the extent that they disrupt our routines and usurp the high amount of control we normally enjoy in this personal territory.
Try to keep your possessions in a concentrated area of the house. Don’t spread out all over the place by leaving your cosmetics in the bathroom or leaving your suitcase in a high-traffic area. Don’t move about the house like you own it. Don’t make people uncomfortable by walking around in a towel. Only be in the spaces that are shared or make sense for you to be in. It’s awkward if you’re caught looking about the garage or using the master bathroom. Don’t monopolize the bathroom or any other shared space.
It’s important to communicate clearly with your host on what is expected. Communicate well in advance your arrival time and the length of your stay. If you have activities planned already, let them know roughly when you’ll be around and when you’ll be out. Exchange numbers so they can reach you easily.
Ask what their routines are so you know to work around it and be as non-disruptive as possible. For example, if they leave for work around 7:00 and you share a bathroom, don’t hop in the shower at 6:45.
Communicate what is expected in terms of spending time together. This is a fine balance which depends on the relationship. For example, it can be rude to not spend any time with your host and use their space like a hostel. On the other hand, it can become annoying if you stick to your host like glue. Agree on loose plans early on so no one is hurt or overwhelmed.
When I arrive, I like to ask more questions in the beginning. For example, if my hosts say to help myself to the kitchen to cook or make myself a cup of coffee, I ask for a quick rundown of where everything is. This limits the number of times I have to bug them for things over the course of the visit. I like to be self-sufficient and not interrupt them too often.
Being grateful can take many forms. Obviously, say thanks, clean up after yourself, and clean the space you’re in. Do your dishes, tidy up your room, and when you leave, put your sheets in the wash and fold up your futon or pullout couch. You can also offer to help out with other chores like emptying the dishwasher or walking the dog. You can treat your hosts by making them a meal or taking them out for dinner. If my hosts have been exceptionally kind and generous, I also like to send them a thank you gift and card.
My new favourite gift is Box Fox. You can curate your own gift box that they ship within the US (and within Canada upon request). You can choose a curated box or build your own based on what your hosts like. I’ve sent two already with great results.
How do you know if you’re successful? If you get invited back.
Happy Travels xox