Modern Etiquette: Being a Gracious Host & Guest

by Grace Bonney

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.


Image above: 1. DIY Key Tassels & Poms | 2. Mint Toothpaste $6.50 | 3. Organic Travel Shampoo $12 | 4. Mast Brothers Chocolate Bars $10 | 5. Fillable Toiletry Bag $12.50 (Fill with your own products to save money) | 6. Air & Linen Spray $16.95 | 7. Catbird Travel Candles $12 | 8. Polka Dot Bath Towel $78 | 9. Cotton Washcloth $8 | 10. Guest Toothbrushes $12.50

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.

Suggested For You


  • I love those Rifle Co. thank you cards, they’re so gorgeous. Thanks for this post, I hate having that anxious feeling that you weren’t the best host/guest you could have been.

  • Love this! I always make sure there’s a nice bottled water on the bedside table along with a fun little book about dream interpretations.

  • I think that this is a brilliant addition to D*S. I have tons of guests every summer here http://www.designsponge.com/2010/09/sneak-peek-annette-joseph.html
    I think one of the most important things in being good hostess is to be very flexible and zen when guests are staying with you {especially in a foreign country on vacation}. Most of our guests are very easy and helpful and fun, but every year I have one very difficult guest. Last year was not exception. No surprise that this was a young person who probably did not understand the rules above, or perhaps had never been taught the importance of being a good guest by his parents, it was a nightmare he could not have left soon enough. I have found over the years less is more so if a guest asks to stay with you, make sure you limit their stay to 2 nights if a. you don’t know them well. or b. you think that they are going to be difficult. Most of my girlfriends can stay with me for weeks they are so awesome. Over the years I have learned the rules of being a good host is to know your limits.

  • Thank you for starting this column– I’m excited to see what you have planned for the future :)

    One small gesture that I always appreciate is a bottle or pitcher of water by the bedside. It circumvents a midnight trip to an unfamiliar kitchen

  • A much-needed column. When I first got out of college and started living in the real world, I pored over many etiquette books and read from cover to cover everything by Emily Post and Miss Manners. One of the world’s best posts on thank-you notes — exactly how to write them, sentence by sentence — is from The Morning News. It is a classic from 2003 and it’s right here: http://www.themorningnews.org/article/how-to-write-a-thank-you-note

  • We always place a couple of bottles of nice water in the bathroom for those that may need a sip in the middle of the night. As you mentioned, we keep ample travel size toiletries well organized in a drawer in the bathroom as well, including antacids, aspirin and ALEVE, hand and body lotion, a small manicure set, and some seasonal bulb flowers on the sink counter, just because everyone loves fresh flowers. And if we know our guest and their ‘druthers, we always keep their favorite softdrink/juice, etc. ready for them.

    • jim

      aspirin/advil is a great idea. i feel bad asking for that in someone’s home because it always leads to them thinking i’m sick or upset, so it would be nice to be able to take it without causing anyone concern :)


  • Grace, THANK YOU for this column. Being a Southerner myself, I constantly feel the desire to show other people respect in an etiquette sense, but find our modern situations make it complicated more often than not. Emily Post just can’t quite cover everything for the modern woman ;)

  • I love this column, Grace! We live in Athens, GA and always have visitors at our house throughout the year, especially during football season. I love all of your tips and agree 100%. I received a written thank you note from a gal pal after a stay last fall, and I thought that was the sweetest thing. People don’t WRITE thank you notes anymore! I am always a fan of snail mail — for me and for others — just to say “thanks.”

  • great idea! looking forward to seeing this column evolve. i also come from the south(west) and feel that etiquette/graciousness is sometimes lost on new yorkers. i would love to see a post about thank you notes, especially in this digital age.

  • Looks like a lot of hard work just paid off! Congrats on the launch! Very happy for you and looking forward to more to come from this column.

  • I adore this series Grace! Being a Georgia peach myself, this topic is close to my heart. Some other recipes I like to make ahead are banana bread, gazpacho soup and “Georgia caviar” for snacking.

  • Love this column, but I think the level of etiquette depends on the relationship. I have friends who’d feel bad & uncomfortable if I went out of my way to do all of the above (e.g. , giving up my (and my spouse’s) bed, providing lip balm, etc.) and, conversely, I might feel resentment if I felt internal pressure to be such a perfect hostess and have everything lined up. My friends know they’re welcome to crash anytime, and they can help me cook dinner. ;)

    On the other hand, for my in-laws, definitely, roll out that red carpet and Uggs guest slippers. :)

  • I’m from Boston and now live in Memphis. My feathers are a little ruffled that you think southerners are more polite. In my experience they like to think they are. Take the woman in the check-out line who is being all friendly and chatty with the cashier (a stranger) because it would be rude not to chat, right? While the line behind her is getting longer and longer. Just because you say “Yes, Sir”, doesn’t make you better at etiquette. Northerners send thank-you notes too.

  • Great column. Looking forward to future posts. I also like to leave some type of pre-packaged snack (granola bars, crackers, pretzels) in a basket on my kitchen counter/table so guests can help themselves to snacks.

  • I love this column! I’m not a southerner, but I have always been obsessed with etiquette books, it’s so fascinating to see the ways manners evolve or stay the same. Plus, there are so many nice stationery items that come with formal etiquette that it ought to make a comeback. I think a great feature would also be comparing the little differences between good etiquette in America versus some other cultures.

  • this column is a great idea! I feel like we always have guests coming and going at our home, and have had our fair share of good and bad ones.
    Our favorite guests have been some friends-of friends that I didn’t know very well, but one thing they did that was so considerate: they took some time on their own, away from us, every day. This gave everyone a little breathing space – something both hosts and guests need on a visit!

  • I LOVE this new column!
    Etiquette is something that I think our culture/generation is really lacking these days. I would love to see a similar column on dinners and parties.
    I have a friend who, when invited over for dinner, always takes the initiative to start doing the dishes right after dinner (which I would be happy to leave until they’ve gone home). I love that!
    On the other end of the spectrum with parties: I would never tell guests it’s time to leave if it’s getting late, but I feel that when I start cleaning up, doing dishes, sweeping, and putting the rooms back the way they were, that’s a very clear sign that it is definitely getting late! I have another set of friends who always ignore these cues and stay until I can barely keep my eyes open long enough to say goodbye.

  • I love the idea of leaving a book about dream interpretations on the bedside, Kim!
    I’ll sure enjoy this column, as I’m really nervous about hosting or being a guest. I’m always unconfortable on both situations!

  • Love this column! I agree with the notes about meeting up with friends, the worst guest experiences I’ve had were when strangers got invited over to my place, so awkward in a small apartment. I slightly disagree with stripping the bed. For some reason I find it uncomfortable for my guests to see the bare mattress, even though it’s a nice one! The room looks so much prettier with the sheets on the bed, just leave them there and I’ll deal with it after you leave!

  • This will be a fun column to read. Thanks for adding it to the site. I have a pet peeve about some guests but don’t think it’s polite to mention it to them so I stew about it. Should let it go–there are more important things to do with mental energy–but..it’s guests who keep the guest room a mess when they stay. They don’t make the carefully dressed bed, leave clothes on the floor and clutter the loving styling I’ve done to the desk and nightstands. I guess if it doesn’t bother them I shouldn’t ruminate over it but, ahem, I was trying to create a tranquil place for them.

  • To be a good guest, ask/observe if the host wears shoes in the house. We don’t, and it drives me nuts when my parents walk across my floors with their outside shoes on. I’d never demand shoe removal though, but it really irks me.

  • Can’t wait to read the new column. I DO have some etiquette questions for you:
    -Leaving weddings early feels disrespectful but I feel like many weddings today run way later than I’d like. Is it horrible to leave early? How early is ok? After the cake?
    -I always love posts on what to wear to different occasions.
    – I love meal trees for new moms etc. Can you recommend good dishes that travel well and are generally liked when you’re cooking for someone’s family?
    -When we leave town our friends are nice enough to dog sit. I always return the favor. What are the acceptable parameters of length and duty to ask of a non-professional (volunteering friend) house sitter and how to thank them appropriately?
    -We’re taking an overseas flight with my 8 month old. I plan to make goodie bags for the people around us with a little letter from him, earplugs and candy. I know long flights with babies are horrible for everyone and I want to soften the blow to other passengers. Ideas for proper etiquette when traveling with a baby….or when confronted with a traveling baby?

  • Some light reading material and a good bedside light are a must in my opinion, it is not always easy to get to sleep, on the first night in an unfamiliar space.

  • I love having guests in my teeny apartment. I have learned to be upfront at the beginning of the stay — people WANT to be “good guests” and so it helps to be honest and avoid awkwardness. For example, tell them what time you usually wake up and what your schedule is like, or tell them which dishes are for “everyday use” if you care about that stuff. I also make sure to leave my guest alone a little bit so they can have some privacy. My apartment is so small that it’s nice for me to leave for 20-30 minutes on an errand so they can have some peace and quiet, use the bathroom w/o feeling rushed, etc.

    Grace — would love a future etiquette column on eating out with large groups of people!

  • When we moved into our home I had, for the first time, a guest bedroom. How exciting. I thought of all the ways in which a stay at another home would make me feel more comfortable and designed the room around that. I’ve got a bookcase tucked into the corner with some quick-read stories, a few beloved childrens books (we have grandkids), and a design book for Just Looking. The room has a dresser for their things and a full size mirror as well as a place for make-up and good lighting for just that. Most importantly, however, was a light by the bedside that had a dimmer switch. I find that staying in another home, I get disoriented or cannot fall asleep right away. Wanting to be a good guest, I hate the idea of bright lighting spilling under the doorway indicating that I’m up way late into the night. A dimmer light allows me (and now my guests) to read until their heart’s content or keep a low light on to avoid bumps in the night. It’s right by the bedside, so they have enough light to read by or a little light to sleep by.

  • As as house guest, I think it’s important to be able to fly solo for a while. The worst house guest I ever had stayed for a week (too long) and whined when my boyfriend and I had to work and couldn’t entertain him all day. He had his own car and we lived in LA, where are a million things to do. I guess my point is, if you are staying with someone, don’t act as if they are on vacation too.

  • I like sending fun surveys out a few weeks before people visit. I’ll include questions about their favourite breakfast or tipple and also ideas for things we can do during their visit. That way I have a better idea of what they’re interested in and can book things in advance. Sometimes I’ll also include a small present, like a sleeping mask for the plane!

  • Love the new column idea. As a guest, I appreciate it when the host mentions the morning routine of the household: times the shower(s) are generally available, when breakfast is eaten, etc. That way, I know how to blend my routine in to theirs. I try to pass the same information on to my own guests.

  • Love this column! A question I have is how to deal with family who aren’t the greatest guests. For instance, I love my cousin and don’t get to see him often, but when he comes to town, we find it difficult to fully enjoy his stay (e.g., his last minute planning for visits, changing up his plans mid-visit on which days he’ll be with us, uncertainty about when we’ll connect, etc). I appreciate that he’s trying to be spontaneous while traveling, but it does feel like a burden when we don’t know what his plans are and accordingly have to be on our toes throughout his visit. I wish I could be more laid back but I also get annoyed feeling like a hotel at times. Any thoughts on this kind of situation and how to preserve relationships even when our friends and relations have different expectations than our own about guest/host protocol? I didn’t offer for my cousin to stay here for his upcoming trip and I’m nervous he’s going to ask to crash anyway last minute.. and feel guilty about the whole thing!

  • A welcome column!
    I appreciate all your comments on guests and hosting.
    One thing I would add: the best houseguest just pitches in and helps without asking “how can I help?”.
    It is also considerate for a visitor’s arrival and departure times to fit in with our own family’s work/school routine, as much as possible. Late night arrivals, even for a most welcome guest, can be disruptive.
    One visitor who stayed with us sent a beautiful bouquet of flowers as a thank you AFTER she had left and I thought that was a lovely hostess present as well as a delightful surprise.

    I look forward to reading more of your etiquette columns.

  • I love reading about etiquette. Everyone has her own opinion, and I enjoy hearing them all!

    One question about thank you notes: I always leave a thank you note on the bedside table when I am leaving someone’s house. It’s just something I’ve always done, but now I’m thinking- is this odd? Should I mail my thanks instead? I just like to write the thank you card the night before I leave so I’m able to remember specific things about my trip.

  • Most of this should be common sense, but some of it seems a bit overbearing. If someone Texts AND emails the same info, I’d roll my eyes and assume they think I’m a complete flake. A huge amount of “comforts” on the nightstand seems borders on the “look at me, I’m such a good a host”. Personally, my guests are friends whom I don’t need to impress, and who would find several of these gestures a bit awkward.

    • APW

      This column (and the suggestions) are merely meant as guidelines, which you can customize as you see fit. For example, I would do different things for my Mom visiting than a friend from college. It’s all about customizing things to suit that particular guest’s need. If your guests don’t want things by the bed, you don’t need to do that. But I would wager that most people don’t mind some water and a magazine.


  • I will add to the chorus of praise for this new column. Another southerner here, as well.

    I really like your idea of a hostess gift being, at the very least, a cooked meal with clean dishes. What a great idea for those who maybe can’t afford a formal gift.

    I would like to second Starkville’s comment about shoes in the house. We don’t wear shoes either, but I also don’t feel comfortable asking people to take them off. When I traveled to my husband’s home country I was amazed when we’d go to friends/family’s houses and there would be slippers by the door for guests! I loved that! They weren’t fancy or anything, but it was nice to have the option of walking in slippers instead of my socks.

    • Steph

      That’s a great idea. I’ve always wanted to do that rule in my house but always feel weird asking people. Maybe inexpensive socks would be a good option for guests? I think having some option is extra nice if that rule is in effect.

      Grace :)

  • What a great idea for a column! I was both the worst hostess and had the worst guest last fall. A friend of a friend came to stay for what I thought was a weekend, but it turned into a week.

    Right before she arrived, my boyfriend left me and moved out, so I was pretty much a grief puddle with no linens, no amenities, and no patience. I was met with very little understanding, and combined with a language barrier, I eventually snapped and told her to get her own sheets or find a hostel. Ugh. Luckily we eventually got friendly over a few beers, but that was a LONG week.

    After that I’m a little put off by the idea of hosting, but since I’ve settled into a new routine I think I can take these tips and try again!

  • One of the things I loved about growing up in New England was that things were very proper in an oddly frugal and down-to-earth way. I miss that, often. When someone goes out of their way to make me feel comfortable, it’s amazing. It helps so much and means so much. It’s so memorable and amazing. But, it’s also such a treat to prepare for a visit from someone…it feels good to do things for other people.

    I loved hearing the story behind this new series, and congratulations on bringing your longtime concept into reality! I like the way it fits in with the other series on d*s. It’s always interesting to see new topics and projects emerge, here.

    ps. the illustration is super!

  • I am a New Englander living un Spain. Etiquette was always of great importance in my mother’s home and is in mine as well. This column is a great idea! I like to leave a case of earplugs on the bedside table. Nothing worse then finding out your guest didn’t get a good night’s sleep because of some random sounds in a different country.

  • I think these tips are great, but disagree with not feeling comfortable asking people to remove their shoes in your home. If it makes you uncomfortable, why not ask politely for people to respect the rules of your home? In Asian cultures, shoes are not typically worn indoors, so, in my home at least, my husband’s relatives automatically remove their shoes without being asked. I usually have to remind others, but once they’ve been to my home a few times they should know the deal :)

  • We have a guest room and plenty of visitors year round… some of our friends even call us “The Aldana Hostel”. We’ve had great friends who can be the most caring guests ever! (surprising me and my husband with dinner and cleaning after themselves), and we’ve even had the akward uncle who suggests we change the car we let him use, because he rathers SUVs… Sometimes a party of visitors arrives the next day after the other visitors left.
    It can be exhausting having one visit after another. How can we “close” the Hostel temporarily to take a break without seeming unfriendly? We think we might seem rude to turn down friends requests to crash.

  • Love this column! I also love the idea about guest slippers. We don’t wear shoes in our home either and had a recent experience with guests not taking their shoes off. Long story short, our mostly white rug got covered in muddy footprints one night. That may have eliminated the problem.

    @Lauren, I love the idea of goody bags for fellow travelers when traveling with an infant. I am dreading taking our new baby to see my husbands family on the west coast.

  • Oh this is a great column! I am inspired to be a better host!

    I haven’t had a terrible guest in a long time but I’m wondering how you would address the situation if a guest is being inconsiderate of your home i.e, clothes on the floor, unmade bed, things all over the bathroom, dishes in the sink etc. I’ve had this situation in the past and felt the the best option was to just get through the visit and remember this in the event of a proposed future visit. It seems a bit ridiculous to have to ask a guest to be considerate of your home but also ridiculous to be a hostage in your own home. How would you recommend handling the situation?

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