Home is probably one of the places we feel most at ease. But as the holiday season approaches, you might spend time staying at someone else’s place. How do you maintain your own sense of comfort without encroaching on your host’s?
Diane Gottsman is a national etiquette expert, author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life” and founder of the Protocol School of Texas who has helped young people and seasoned executives alike refine their etiquette. She gets lots of inquiries around the holiday season.
“What makes the holidays stressful is the uncertainty,” she said. “But once you have the knowledge it’s easy because when you feel comfortable, it puts other people at ease.”
Here, Gottsman answers common houseguest etiquette questions so you don’t have to worry about anything other than enjoying time with your host.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Q: What are some of the basic ways to be a good houseguest?
A: Don’t expect anything. Make sure you’re making your bed and taking your towels off the floor. Offer to pitch in for groceries. Bring the items you can’t live without, but pack carefully. And here’s a big one: Leave on the day you said you were going to leave. They might have somebody else coming in after you; you never know. If there’s bad weather and your flight gets canceled, I’m sure they would accommodate. But you never know, so be prepared to get a hotel room. Before you leave, strip your bed and ask your host whether they want you to put your sheets and blankets somewhere when you’re done.
Q: Do you always need to bring a host/hostess gift?
A: I always say don’t show up empty-handed. Even if you get off a plane, on the way to the house stop at a bakery or pick up a bottle of wine. Or you could show up with something that might identify you. If you’re an artist, it might be a handmade card or cocktail napkins. It should be something thoughtful and small — nothing over the top. Another nice gift would be a little box of stationery. Don’t exceed your budget, and remember that a gift is not a competition; it comes from the heart. You don’t have to have it wrapped tight like a holiday present, but put it in a gift bag or some kind of decorative wrapping. Make sure it has your name on it so they know who gave them the gift.
Q: Should you expect your host to provide transportation to and from the airport or during your stay?
A: I say don’t expect anything. Unless they offer, don’t expect for them to pick you up or for them to give you a car. Take your own car or rely on Uber.
Q: Is it rude to bring your own food or buy your own groceries when you’re staying at someone else’s house?
A: If you have a serious food allergy, it’s actually polite to offer to bring a dish or two to share with the group. If you require special foods or have certain foods you like to eat for breakfast, for example, you can purchase food while you are visiting and ask your host if there is anything else you can pick up while at the grocery store.
Q: What should you do if you clog the toilet?
A: If you are a guest at someone’s home and you clog their toilet, you can take a quick look around to see if there’s a plunger and try to take care of the issue on your own. If you don’t succeed, however, discreetly tell your host so they can take care of it before the next guest needs to use the restroom. It can be embarrassing to admit, but it’s the right thing to do. Also, the host may know there is a problem with the plumbing and may not be surprised to hear that the toilet was clogged. In other words, it may not be your fault and be a plumbing issue. But you need to tell your host.
Q: You’re visiting your significant other’s family and want to know about the sleeping arrangements. Should you both expect to stay in the same room?
A: Follow the house rules and let them guide you. Let’s say you’re visiting your boyfriend’s family; he should ask them what the rules are and then tell you. Then follow them. Always be respectful of boundaries and house rules. Even if you live with someone at home in another state or city, when you go to their family’s home, it’s the host’s rules.
Q: What should you do if you get sick when you’re staying at someone’s house? Not a medical emergency, but something like the flu or a fever?
A: Try to do something proactive to get better, such as going to the doctor or getting some medication. A kind friend will make sure you’re well taken care of, but they probably prefer you not infect their home. If possible, you may consider cutting your trip short if you live close enough to make it home. If you’re really that sick and there’s a house full of other people who can get sick, you might want to consider getting yourself a hotel room.
Q: How can you maneuver out of uncomfortable conversations?
A: The rule is the same: Don’t talk about sex, religion or politics. However, we know it will probably come up in some form, so it’s everyone’s job to keep the conversation pleasant. You don’t want to be the guest who makes everybody else uncomfortable. You can be proactive and say, “This is a tough conversation and I feel like it’s important to keep this conversation festive to respect our host, so let’s please change the subject.” The host has every right to say that as well. But if it’s the host that’s doing it, you can just excuse yourself. We have a right to be polite and proactive.
Q: Should you adjust your sleep schedule to fit your host’s?
A: You should be part of the family. If everybody is up and moving around and you’re not, you’re making everybody walk around quietly and feel ill at ease. Follow the same schedule as your host.
Q: You’re staying somewhere with a lot of other people, maybe cousins or other relatives. Do you need to bring gifts for people other than the host?
A: You’re not expected to give every single person there something. Give something to the host family. If you’re very close with that person, that’s a different story, but you don’t give one cousin a gift and not the other. If you do, do it privately out of the way of other people so they don’t see. The bottom line is you don’t want to hurt feelings.
Q: We’ve heard that you shouldn’t give cash as a gift. Is it ever acceptable?
A: There is nothing wrong with giving cash, but there is something wrong with giving cash as a hostess gift. When you give cash, give it in a thoughtful manner with a sweet note. If you’re going as a guest to stay at a girlfriend’s home, and you know this is costing her a lot of money, you might just leave a $50 bill and a note saying it’s to cover the products you used while there.
Q: Let’s say you’re staying at someone’s house and they want to go do some activity you can’t afford. Are you expected to take part in all the activities while you’re staying there?
A: It’s okay to opt out. Set boundaries, but set them respectfully. Stay within what’s comfortable for you.
Q: How much should you pitch in to help around the house?
A: You need to pitch in. You need to offer, and if they accept your offer, clean up the dishes, set the table or do whatever it is that they need you to do. Offer to take the trash out to the curb or put the dishes in the dishwasher. You’re not there to be a housekeeper, but you’re not there to have somebody wait on you, either. If you were, you’d be at a hotel.