Modern Etiquette: Being a Gracious Host & Guest

Illustration by Anna Emilia

Today I’m absolutely thrilled to be launching a column that has been in the works and kicking around my mind for years now. Growing up in the South, the importance of etiquette was instilled in me pretty early on. What was proper, polite and appropriate varied from family to family, but the general concept seemed to exist in every household. Etiquette often gets a bad rap as some sort of right/wrong, holier-than-thou rulebook that exists to make people feel bad. But for me, etiquette has been just the opposite. I didn’t learn to appreciate this until I was much older, but the guidelines I got growing up gave me a sense of comfort and confidence that allowed me to feel at ease in almost any social situation and taught me how to do the same for others. For me, etiquette is all about learning simple tools and tips for making the people in your life (and your home) feel welcome, loved and comfortable. It is with that spirit that I’m launching Modern Etiquette, where we’ll be sharing ideas and having discussions about what the modern interpretation of any given situation will be. From polite email and blogging techniques to clever and inexpensive ways to host a dinner party, I’ll be delving into these subjects with the goal of making all of us feel more confident about our day-to-day exchanges and our abilities to comfort, welcome and care for the people in our lives.

After polling our editors and readers on Facebook and Twitter, the question that popped up the most revolved around house guests — how to welcome them and how to be a good one. So today I’m tackling this topic by sharing what I’ve learned (and experienced) so far and hoping that you’ll share your tips, too. This column is really about sharing perspectives, so I hope you’ll join me after the jump to offer your feedback. Whether it’s a horrible guest experience or little things you noticed after a particularly welcoming stay at someone’s home, I hope you’ll share your insight so we can all learn from each other. xo, grace

*If you have requests for column topics/quandaries, please leave them in the comment section below and I’ll get to them asap!

Read on for gracious host and house guest ideas (including products to give for hosts + guests) after the jump . . .

Being a Gracious Host & Guest

If there’s one thing I appreciate most and strive for in my traveling life, it’s feeling welcome in a friend’s home. During the D*S Book Tour, when we felt the most run down, it was our friends and family in other states who took care of us and made us feel relaxed and comforted. What they did wasn’t expensive and didn’t take much time, but it made all the difference in the world. The goal was to add small touches that let us know they cared, while striking a balance between alone time and connecting time that made us feel comfortable. Let’s break down the basics:

Being a Gracious Host

The goal is to make your guests feel welcomed and comforted and like they have space to be on their own as well as ways to connect and be involved with your household. Here are go-to’s for welcoming any guest:

  • Pre-visit: Two days before a visit, I like to do a deep clean around the house, do laundry and stock up on essentials like toilet paper, paper towels and tissues. The extra day ahead of their arrival allows time for laundry delays, etc.
  • Basic Information: I always email and text my address, phone number, transportation information and my Wifi network and password two days before someone arrives. That way they have two ways to find their way to your home without getting lost.
  • Key Copies: Having a copy of the keys for your guest is always nice. It allows them to come and go as they please. I like to attach a little card with suggestions for places in the area to get coffee, shop, find transportation and eat.
  • Where to Sleep: I don’t have a guest room in my home, so my rule of thumb is to always let guests have my bedroom. For a night or two, I don’t mind taking the couch, so when in doubt, open up your (cleaned, with fresh linens) bedroom to guests if possible.
  • Bedside: Nothing makes guests feel more welcomed than having a few creature comforts. In addition to freshly changed sheets (which I like to spray with a mild scented linen spray) I like to provide: books/magazines, a carafe/bottle of water, a candle and matches, tissues, a tiny plant or flower arrangement, travel lotion and lip balm, a little snack (I like something location specific like Brooklyn-made chocolates or mints) and an extra blanket.
  • Bathroom: In addition to a freshly cleaned bathroom, I like to provide a stack of clean towels, washcloths and a toothbrush for guests. I put the toothbrush and a travel-sized toothpaste in a clean glass on the counter so they have a little landing space for their toiletries. (Amy’s sister keeps a drawer full of travel-sized beauty products and disposable razors for guests.)
  • Food: As much as I like to cook, I hate having to dirty the kitchen with a ton of dishes when someone’s visiting. So to cut down on cooking/cleaning stress, I like to make some simple recipes ahead of time that keep well in the fridge. Slow cooker chili and pasta salad are my faves. You can easily label and serve them (or let your guests have them when they want) as an easy meal.
  • Saying Goodbye: As polite as it is for them to offer, I always make sure I change the bed sheets and towels after they leave. (Though it’s nice for guests to stack their dirty sheets or towels if they have the time so it makes cleanup easier.)
  • After They’re Gone: I think it’s nice to follow up with an email, letter or text to let your guest know how much you enjoyed having them.

 


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Being a Gracious Guest

Being a gracious guest is all about cleaning up after yourself and helping your host whenever possible. While the southerner in me insists on doing everything for a guest, it’s always appreciated when a guest offers to help out when they can. The main thing to remember is to be as tidy as you can and follow up with a thank you.

  • Pre-arrival: Sending your host your arrival information is always helpful. That way they can track your train/plane if you’re delayed and can’t update them. It also gives them a good idea of when to prepare for your arrival.
  • To Bring with You: I think a host/hostess gift of some sort is a must. It can be something as simple as flowers, a small house plant or a bottle of wine or, if you don’t want to carry something, an offer to take them out for a meal or activity. If these are too costly, simply cooking a meal at home and doing the dishes is a good option.
  • Around the House: Tidying up after yourself is a must. Doing your own dishes, making your bed and wiping down the counter or mirror after using the shower is always helpful.
  • Can’t Find It? This is the easiest way to avoid awkwardness. If you can’t find something or need something, just ASK. Poking around someone’s home looking for something can lead to all sorts of uncomfortable situations, so when in doubt, just ask your host.
  • Visitors: I personally don’t love having a ton of people at my home if I already have one guest there (my space is TEENY). But if you plan on having people join you — even for a bit — give your guest a head’s up to see if it’s ok. I think it’s most polite to meet others outside of your host’s home when possible, especially if they’re not a mutual friend.
  • Making Plans: If you have a schedule while you’re in town, let your host know. It helps them plan around your needs and know if they need to cook/provide for you or others.
  • When You Leave: When possible, it’s always a huge help when a guest starts the cleanup process. Stripping your bed sheets, stacking dirty towels and consolidating them in one space (or dropping them in a hamper or washer) is great. Just ask your host what’s most helpful for them.
  • Once You’re Home: A thank you note, call or email is a must. Letting someone know you appreciate their hospitality always goes far in being welcomed back again and again.

 


Image above: 1. Succulent Garden $19.99 | 2. Brooklyn Wines $29 | 3. Rifle Co. Thank You Card $4.50

These are the tips I’ve always followed, but what are your favorite musts, do’s and don’ts? I’m dying to hear both ends of the spectrum: nightmare visits and trips where you felt as welcomed as family.

  1. Lucille says:

    I have invited a college friend to visit at Christmas. Our family and extended family get together for dinner and share gifts on Christmas Day. I don’t want my friend to feel left out. What should I do?

    1. Shelly says:

      We had family over to our Summer house on a holiday weekend. Several of our neighbors came over to have cocktails. During this time, several of the family members decided they no longer wanted to have the neighbors at the house. They felt they had overstayed their welcome. They elected one of them to tell our guests they needed to leave and ended up having an argument with one of our neighbors. We were embarrassed and disappointed that the family would act in this manner. Is it ever ok for guests to tell other guests it’s time to leave without discussing with that hosts first?

      1. Grace Bonney says:

        Shelly

        Plain and simple, no. Etiquette wise, unless someone has fallen ill or there’s a family emergency, the host should always be the one to wrap up the party.

        Grace

  2. Betsy Bowers says:

    Lucille,
    One thing you can do is let your friend/and family members know this tradition so they aren’t caught of guard. Put yourselves in their shoes. That always helps me in situations like that.
    Betsy

  3. Julie says:

    When a former resident comes in from out of town with less than a month’s warning, who should shoulder the burden of driving further, compromising on meal/drink meets?

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Julie

      What do you mean by former resident? A friend? I’m not sure I understand the situation- could you explain who this is and what these meetings are?

      Grace

  4. Angie says:

    I often stay at my sisters home when I travel. I usually buy groceries and necessities that we use to replace what we are using because I know money is tight for them, but she gets upset because she says I’m not your charity case! What is the proper etiquette? I don’t want them to feel that but I know they don’t have the extra money?

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Angie

      I think perhaps instead of re-buying these things, maybe you could treat them to a meal when you’re there? That’s a very common ‘thank you’ and perhaps won’t feel as much like a “charity chase” situation to your sister? I would honestly sit down and talk with her, thank her for being such a gracious host, and ask what is the best way for you to repay their kindness? Perhaps they’d appreciate help in another area/way.

      Grace

      1. Angie says:

        I actually have been cooking and baking while I have been here. I told her that I know how hard it can be with 5 mouths to feed and adding 2 more can stretch you pretty thin. She said when they visit us they never have to want for anything, so it should be the same there. But I know financially we are in a better place. But I don’t want to verbalize something she already knows. I don’t know what to say.

        1. Grace Bonney says:

          Angie

          I wouldn’t say anything that sounds demeaning or makes assumptions about her finances. It sounds like she made it clear that they’re fine. I would still offer to take them out or make a meal when you’re in town, but I don’t think you should say anything that would feel offensive to her.

          Grace

  5. Love this post! It was very useful for me during the holidays, because I had a lot of guests this time. All the tips and ideas for being a good host were very helpful and gave me great ideas for cleaning and preparing the house for my guests. Thank you for sharing all this great stuff! Greets, Diana

  6. Alex says:

    Loved this post. As I lay in my bed when I should be sleeping… I am writing a list of everything I need to get taken of before my boyfriend’s 3 best friends from college get here in the morning. We have a guestroom and an air mattress Any other suggestions for this is a first type of guest I will be hosting to this weekend!

  7. Dana says:

    If guests don’t make their bed, is it polite of me to make their bed while they’re out? Or would that seem like nudging them to be neater?

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Dana

      Are they b&b guests or home/friend guests? In the case of the former, I think it’s ok (and would be seen as room service). In the case of the latter, it may seem like nudging, so I would let them leave it as-is (you can definitely request they strip the bed when they leave).

      Grace

  8. Mel says:

    What is proper etiquette in this situation?
    We have stayed with a sibling before and her guest bed was awful! (I almost slept on a rug on the concrete floor because it was that bad!). Now she has invited us to stay with her again. How do we ask if she’s gotten a new bed without sounding rude? Or decline her offer and stay with another sibling without offending her?

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Mel

      I think you nailed it with your last sentence. I would just stay with another sibling and leave it at that. If they press you why, you can mention that that particular bed hurts your back, but if there’s another place to stay, I’d just go with that option.

      Grace

  9. Norma Leigh says:

    I’m having my long distance beau of three years over for two weeks. He travels constantly and this will be by far the longest we’ve spent together consecutively. . I’m thrilled and terrified at the same time. I want to make everything perfect. But I’ve never exactly been Suzie Homemaker.. Please help!

  10. Anne Gilmore says:

    These could be my stories with my kids. All grown with well paying jobs. They make big messes when they come. Leave all their gear in the common areas. Don’t make their beds or pick up the room. Do not help with cooking or offer to take us out after several home cooked meals. If we go out, do not offer to pay. Go about their own schedules when we are invited to visit. Do not include us in their planned activities when they visit.

    I have wondered what is different between my generation and theirs. One thing that is different is that since after high school, they often lived and vacationed with big groups of friends. Everyone pitched in for the rented cabin, ski lodge, boat or beach house.
    No one was considered host or guest and no one played that role. Pretty much unorganized but usually with maid service. Everyone doing their own thing. Keeping their own schedule. But if someone decided to cook or buy beer everyone gladly participated but no expectation of reciprocity. They don’t know how to play host and therefore don’t know how to play guest.

    I’m hoping this will change as they settle down. I failed to teach them at an early age the basics of guesthood and now at their age I know they would be insulted if I gave them a lecture on the basics.

    Also they all have highly stressful professional jobs. I wonder if they just need to go back to a time when parents invisibly took care of everything.

  11. Destiny says:

    I was always taught as a hostess to overnight guests to make them comfortable and welcome. I recently stayed with my sister-in-law and her husband and they literally followed us around pointing out any crumb that made its way to the floor and commenting on making sure we don’t make a mess as soon as we sit down with a dish. Is it me? Or are they a bit more than a little over the top?? We don’t plan on staying there again for sure. But my mother-in-law says we’re the bad guests because we left two glasses out at her house. When they used to come stay with us(which was 2-3 times a year for 6 years) I always picked up any messes and stripped the beds and everything myself. If there were crumbs, I swept them. I understand everyone has their own opinions, but I’m furious at them acting like we are horrible house guests. I never left laundry or food laying around. And other than the 2 glasses left out at my mother-in-law’s house (which I forgot about because we were in a hurry) I always did our dishes. I guess I’m just venting. We won’t be staying with any of them ever again. Even if that means we need to make out visits shorter to afford a hotel.

  12. Pam says:

    This is brilliant, and definitely a needed device. I have a quick k question. When someone shows up, unannounced, even just for a quick afternoon chat. What are some things hostess should always prepare to have on hand? Obviously, if you new, in advance, you could provide tea, cookies or cake. But what if your caught unawares?
    Thanks!
    Mrs. Pam Hobbs

  13. Kay says:

    Hi :

    I am wondering if it’s rude to ask for a cup of water when you just arrived at a stranger’s house? I’m looking for a room in someone’s house to rent, but it was so hot in the sun that I was very thirsty by the time I arrived at a new place.

    Thank you,
    Kay

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Kay

      I don’t think that’s rude, as long as you ask politely :)

      Grace

  14. Grace says:

    I’m wondering if you can weigh in if I’m being overly critical… I had a couple friends visit from out of town, one of them more of an acquaintance but me wanting to get to know more too (was a former co worker and the two recently hike a lot together). We had planned on doing one big hike, everything else was tentative. To make a long story short, my friend ended up leaving each evening and coming back very late to go see a fling or worse go to the strip club (she has a thing for this apparently). Not judging, but felt shy having to entertain this acquaintance independently during those hours. We weren’t able to make it to the hike because of car issues and them making last minute plans to go sky diving that afternoon. What was frustrating was that she left her car keys with a drunk friend she couldn’t find after they went clubbing together, and my alternator went out. I was cleaning up quite a bit after her and she didn’t bring groceries. of course going out for lunches etc was an additional expense for me. The group kept saying “you should come with us sky diving!” And I reminded them I’m tight on cash as we’re going to Hawaii in one month and I have a 2600$ hotel bill to pay. I’ll note that I offered this friend to come which she is. It was rather boring waiting around to entertain and listening to their fascinating stories of their adventure (sarcasm at this point is my poor coping). We’re all professionals but I don’t know if I’m comfortable entertaining again after this experience. Am I being immature?

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Grace

      I think the answer feels clear- this is not a friendship where both people respect each other equally. The way she treated you and your time and your hospitality is inappropriate. I’m sorry that happened. I think it may be time to move on to a new friend who respects your time and space and finances.

      Grace

  15. Jennifer says:

    Grace, I invited my kids and their boyfriends/girlfriends out to vacation with us and rented a nice beach house that sleeps 8 very comfortably. My husband and I ensured there was plenty of variety in the fridge. Hotdogs, cold cuts, anything to make sandwiches or easy to make meals. Quite a few times, we took them all out to restaurants, or ordered in, my husband cooked one night. But then my husband and I wanted to go and spend our vacation time out at the beach. I found out later that my oldest sons girlfriend is really upset that we took off and didn’t order out for them, cook, or take them out. That we did this quite a few times.
    She thinks we were terrible hosts. My son is pretty upset with her, frankly, I am too. My husband and I just wanted to have some fun vacation time with our college age kids and their partners.

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Jennifer

      I’m sorry that happened, it sounds like you were generous and kind hosts. I think this is an issue between your boyfriend and his girlfriend, unless she said anything to you directly. I think it’s his work to either not bring her next time (if there is a next time) or talk with her to explain why her thoughts/words/response to your generosity are out of line.

      Grace

  16. Jenny says:

    Please help with clarifying if theirs an rule of thumb for someone traveling several miles to the city or state the grew up in and both their family and friends expecting them to visit with each and everyone of them separately. I live in California and whenever I fly back to Texas for maybe four to five days, some of my family and friends live far from each other and or the hotel I’m staying at during that time, but expect me to visit them all separatley at their homes. I’ve always thought that if someone traveled many miles to their destination that family and friends at least meet up with them near where they’ll be staying. I’ve even tried suggesting we all meet up at the same location for one visit to prevent me from having to plan separate visits with everyone in just a few days. Please help, because its starting to bother me and making me feel that their being selfish. Thank you♡

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Hi Jenny,

      I think it’s totally ok to ask people to come meet you, if they can, in one central place. If you did the heavy lifting to get to their state, they can (with some exceptions due to budget or mobility) hopefully get to you.

      Grace

  17. Lynda says:

    I like this post and everything I’ve ever heard about southern hospitality. My sister moved far away 20 years ago. She has a 4 bedroom house. One of the bedrooms has a huge desk in it. Back in the day they sometimes used it along with my older niece, but they don’t work from home. When I visited, my one niece would sleep in the room with my other niece and I would get her bedroom. Now nieces are older and this isn’t the way it is anymore. Now they put a blow up mattress on the “Office” floor where the big desk is. They just turn the desk sideways to do it. There isn’t any room to move in there and my suitcase ends up on the desk. I am now 60 years old and find if difficult to get up from the floor on this mattress and it isn’t very comfortable for sleeping. I feel hurt that my sister feels that this big desk is more important than the sleeping of her friends/family. She could have put a smaller desk in there and a sofa bed or day bed. She is so different from me. I go out of my way to make guests feel comfortable. She has never given this a second thought. I am just wondering where she is putting her husband’s sister and husband to sleep when they come down this October. I doubt they are putting them on that air mattress on the floor. I don’t want to appear nit picky and ask this. Also, sometimes I wake up at night and go downstairs, just to stretch legs a bit. Then I don’t want to go back upstairs and disturb anyone. They have squeaky floor and my sister said she has heard me sometimes. When I stay downstairs on couch, my brother in law gets up very early and the couch is the only place to sit to watch TV, read, etc. I am totally uncomfortable staying there now. I have decided to rent an Airbnb just down the street from them this year at Christmas and also rent a car from the airport instead of them picking me up so I have my own vehicle. I’m not sure how I should tell my sister that I’m doing this. She doesn’t like to discuss anything, especially feelings. I would like to be nice, but I’d also like to somehow hint that I don’t appreciate her carelessness about visitors. What do you recommend?

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Lynda

      I think there are a lot of assumptions here about what your sister thinks and intends. I would suggest having a heart-to-heart with her first. But bottom line- it’s totally ok to stay somewhere else if their spare room isn’t comfortable enough.

      Grace

  18. Lynda says:

    P.S. Further to my last post, my sister and husband don’t even use this desk anymore. My brother in law does any homework at the dining room table and they have a laptop in the kitchen. Nobody uses that desk for several years now. Thanks

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Lynda

      I wouldn’t fixate on the desk. It’s not for us to judge what other people put in their homes or what those pieces may mean to them. It may represent something you’re unaware of. I would tell her you’re uncomfortable sleeping on the floor and will be staying elsewhere this year, but that you appreciate her hospitality over the years. If she’s welcomed you every year for holidays, it’s definitely not in line to question her desire to take good care of her guests, she may feel she’s already doing that. And it’s not worth risking your relationship with a sibling over an air mattress. We’ve all had to sleep on uncomfortable beds over the holidays at one point or another ;)

      Grace

  19. Katie says:

    Grace, I have a question about etiquette that may pertain to a risqué topic, but I’m hoping you can give me some insight. This past weekend I spent some quality alone time with a relatively new beau. We’ve agreed to take things slowly and get to know each other before we become fully intimate. I did not spend the night either evening, but we cuddled in his room, watching tv and necking. There is a bathroom attached to his room, but neither of us used that one if we needed to use the facilities. As his guest I understood that I did not need to be in a very private place of his, and thus used the guest bathroom. I noticed he did the same. He would use the guest bathroom instead of his own. I asked him about it, and we came to realize neither of us knew the proper etiquette for such a situation. Can the host use their own bathroom or was he actually doing the proper thing in using the guest bathroom downstairs?

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Katie

      I don’t think there are any rules here for this one. I assumed your desire to use the guest bathroom was more of a desire for sound-related privacy and less of an etiquette thing. I think either bathroom is fine to you. I think once you’re making out with someone in their bedroom, you’re allowed to use the nearest rest room ;)

      Grace

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