A Modern Survival Guide Interlude
You’re reading the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for navigating and interacting with the modern world. This essay is an interlude, an article that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight, or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might want to know. And one thing we all ought to know is how to be a good guest!
Specifically, we need to talk about how to be a guest in someone else’s home. This is often an important survival issue, particularly as it applies to your family and friends. I have seen many, many incidents where personal relationships were changed for years based on how someone acted as either a guest or a host — sometimes in good ways, sometimes bad. I’ve got a separate article on hosts; sufficed to say at this point that just as the host has particular duties, so also does a guest.
Having a good time on a trip is often about setting expectations, and that’s a major concern when you’re a guest. Specifically, it means setting expectations for losing control, because being a guest means putting yourself in an inherently unsustainable and often uncomfortable situation. There are three big reasons why this is the case:
- You are not in a space that you control. No matter how comfortable a host makes the guest space, it’s not a space that you own. You can’t redecorate, you can’t replace anything, and in fact it’s normally impolite to ask for those things.
- You are not on your own schedule. No matter how well the host alters their own schedule to accommodate things you want to do, you are fundamentally working around their schedule for things like meals, trips, activities, and relaxation time. It’s also generally considered rude for a guest to ask to change the host’s schedule to any significant degree.
- Your status is perpetually uncertain. You are not a full member of the household, no matter how welcome the host makes you feel. You do not have the same rights and privileges as a full member of the household, as the previous points make very apparent. But it goes beyond simple space and scheduling concerns, because you will exist in a constant state of tension around your role in the household, what things you will do for the household, and how any problems related to you will be resolved.
It’s useful to keep in mind that most guest hosting traditions stemmed from one of two sources: religion, and captured enemies. Hosts are traditionally encouraged to think of a guest as a mix of a god in disguise and a prisoner who might be ransomed if well kept. You’ll notice that neither of these roles is exactly 100% treating the guest as a human being. This accounts for the somewhat odd mix of deference and limited autonomy that guests typically experience in Western cultures.
With that in mind, here are twelve tips for being a good guest:
- Limit your trip’s duration: This is the easiest way to maintain good relations with your host — remember that guests and fish start to smell after three days. Try to avoid plans to stay with one host for longer than a week.
- Share your plans: Make sure your host knows your planned schedule in detail, including any trips you plan to take or days when your schedule will radically differ from the household’s normal schedule. Sending a calendar or list view of your itinerary is often a good idea.
- Communicate your needs: Let your host know well in advance about any special needs or requests you or your group may have. People with medical conditions or special diets particularly need to do this.
- Ask about your host’s routine: Find out what time the household normally does things. Find out what time dinner and breakfast usually are, and if you are expected to attend. Find out whether there are quiet hours you need to be especially aware of, or active hours where you’re not likely to be able to sleep. Try to get a sense of the house before you arrive.
- Bring a gift: Nothing smooths rough edges like a good bottle of alcohol, or a box of candy, or a similar little present. Your host is taking on significant responsibility and enduring a disruption to their routine by having you as a guest; the least you can do is get them a little drunk.
- Clean up after yourself: You’re not staying at a hotel. Even if you’re staying with your parents, if you’re not a child it is simply not their job to clean up after you. ALWAYS respect living areas, bathrooms, and kitchens. Do not leave dirty clothes, dirty dishes, or trash lying around. Clean up messes you make. And remember to respect linens; it’s not a good look to need to change sheets or towels every other day.
- Ask before changing anything: Especially for furniture, but also for things like meal times or other scheduling events, always ask before changing anything in the household. Be prepared for a “no.”
- Try not to disrupt the household: This goes hand-in-hand with the previous point — it’s not good manners to bowl into someone’s home and rearrange their lives. Respect their routines. Respect their arrangements. Respect their lifestyle. You are not a member of the household; do not expect to have the same rights to disrupt the household.
- Offer to help: This is just a classy move in general, but always offer to help out as a guest. If your host makes a meal, offer to help with the dishes. If they’re carrying groceries, offer to haul a bag. Stuff like that. At the same time, it’s not generally wise to offer to help with intimate issues. Do not offer to help clean the host’s bedroom. Do not offer to help them fold undies. These cross the line from being helpful to being creepy. Don’t be creepy.
- Offer to pay for things: This goes hand-in-hand with the previous point — your host is likely taking a financial hit to accommodate you as a guest. Try to pay some of that back by helping out with groceries, treating them to a meal, buying the next round, etc.
- Respect personal space: Your host needs personal space to unwind. Having a guest is exhausting. Give them the space they need to decompress and relax. As a general rule, if you can make yourself unobtrusive and get out of their space for at least one hour of the waking day, that’s a good start. You should expect this to scale up or down somewhat, depending on your host’s personality.
- Say “thanks”: This is always important, but especially so as a guest. Always say thanks when someone does something nice for you. As a guest, keep saying thanks until you leave, and then send a thank-you card. If you’re thanking your host at least once per day for something, you’re probably on the right track.
To sum up, as we say constantly in this series, be respectful and don’t be an asshole. This is a good general statement for all your actions as a guest; everything else flows from that. Always remember that your host is making a statement by inviting you to their home that they consider you worthy of such an invitation. Try to live up to that expectation.
A good guest is a joy; a bad guest is a millstone. Try to be a good guest, and you may find that you get more invitations!