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Be a Stylish Houseguest, Gentlemen. . .

'The Houseguest' by Janet Hill.


The stories I could tell.  Accounts of unpleasant -- ok, horrible -- houseguests abound.  Probably nothing new, or unique to 2019 in particular, but there is no disputing that hosting people in your home, even those you might (might) actually like, for more than a couple of days and nights is a trial, and that is putting it lightly.  Unless one is solvent enough to employ live-in help 24/7, or have a cleaning woman/kitchen help come in as my maternal grandmother and great aunts used to do. 

Why this chilly reserve about houseguests?  Well, as with so much else these days, it seems so few people know to behave themselves anymore, and having them in your house for any length of time is likely to result in, if we can be clear-eyed and honest about it for a moment, displeasure, distaste, or flat out disgust from the hosts' point of view.  The problem?  Too many people take the stock phrase "Make yourselves at home!" far too literally, and, indeed, proceed to behave like they do at home.  Think about it for a moment. 

I'll spare everyone the list of just downright obnoxious, rude, and plain gross things I have witnessed guests doing in our own home since The Grand Duchess and I moved in together in late 2004, married in '06, and we began hosting occasional overnight guests.  No used dental floss left on the coffee table in the living room, but just about everything else offensive that you might imagine with seemingly no care, no thought, no consideration, no reflection, and definitely no "Excuse me, please!  Where are my manners??!!" 

And that's exactly the point.  Where ARE people's manners?  Again, I'll spare everyone the grand list of guidelines for today on how to be a pleasant houseguest that your hosts might actually want to invite back at some point in the not too distant future.  Please do allow me to flesh out today's theme with just a few general tips however.  

When you are a guest in someone's house, whether for just the day, the evening, or over several days and nights (Shudder!), be on your absolute BEST behavior as far as personal habits and conduct are concerned.  Don't act like you were raised in a barnyard in other words.  At the bare minimum, then, be extremely conscious of the following.  

Keep yourself to yourself.  Keep all clothing and personal items in your room rather than spread everywhere else.  Keep your room relatively pulled together and make your bed in the mornings, or strip it on the morning of your departure as a help to your hosts, who will need to launder the bedclothes in your wake.  In any case, your room should not look like a bombsite during or after your stay even if the door is closed.  

Ask before you touch, pick up, use, or help yourself to anything that is not yours, unless you have been explicitly told otherwise.  It's always a nice idea to ask your hosts if there is anything you can do to help them, but be conscious of the fact that they may have their own ways of doing things.  Believe it, or not, your hosts may not want someone else in the kitchen during food preparation, or clearing the table, or loading the dishwasher, for instance, once meals are over.  

Likewise, give your hosts some mental breathing space now and then if your stay is for more than a couple of days and, as the Jordan Peele suburban horror film from 2017 on race and social class suggests, get out of their hair for a few hours.  Don't depend solely on your hosts to entertain you during every waking hour in other words.  Go out and do something, anything, but don't remain planted in the middle of the sofa for a week straight expecting to be waited on hand and foot like the fellow in Janet Hill's painting at the top of this post.

If everyone must share a single bathroom (God, forbid!), keep your toiletry items consolidated and out of sight if at all possible.  Likewise, hang up your towel, and don't leave puddles of water everywhere as though a huge, wet dog has shaken itself off multiple times.  Finally, don't habitually leave yesterday's underwear lying in a pile on the floor in the bathroom for someone else to find when they use the facilities.  Been there.  Done that.  No kidding.  Show some respect for your hosts even if you go back many years with them.  Familiarity breeds contempt as the saying goes. 

If your visit happens to come at the end of a lengthy trip elsewhere, and you are now wending your way home, do not turn your hosts' house into a dumping ground for those things you wish to jettison now that the fun is just about over.  Avoid leaving empty boxes, unused suitcases, leftover foodstuffs, or similar unwanted, undesired, items for your hosts to dispose of.  As is the case with camping, pack in, and pack out.  Whatever shows up with you, leaves with you in other words.  Don't make your unwanted crap the responsibility of your hosts.  Enough said?

Now, before anyone fires off with a righteously indignant comment or email accusing me of misanthropy or worse, keep in mind that my own family certainly imparted the concepts of graciousness and hospitality to my sister and me.  There were many examples over the years of family members and close friends coming to stay for a weekend, a few days and nights, or even an extended period in one instance when I was in high school. Those experiences were almost universally pleasant, barring a two-week house party hosted by my maternal grandparents on The Outer Banks of North Carolina in early September of 1984.  That particular riotous sequence of events is worthy of its own post, though, so I won't go into it here.  

Suffice to say, the rest of the times, as I recall them, were both fun and interesting, regardless of whether I happened to be 10 years old or 30.  As I say above, people knew how to behave, or at least gave that impression while staying with us.  My own blunt thoughts on houseguests are based on more recent experiences since marriage.  Burdensome is a word that springs immediately to mind.  It's a highly apt term, and I think that we can all agree suffering at the thoughtlessness of boors is not in anyone's best interest.  It is certainly not something I wish to do anymore in the time I have left on this mortal coil.   

Apropos that sentiment, three days and two nights, or two days and three nights, seem an ideal length of stay for guests.  At most.  For those people you actually like.  Shorter for others, who you must endure.  If you are lucky, the latter will find a nearby bed and breakfast, a motel, or simply stay at home.   We have suggested, on more than one occasion, to family members who breezed through town that they should overnight elsewhere because we felt too swamped with work and domestic duties at the time to host them properly. 

And that rather pointed approach has largely worked, reducing our collective stress levels and even boredom appreciably, to say nothing of our occasional collective revulsion.  Especially when the guests in question have taken their leave not too long after the evening meal since few people seem to linger afterwards over coffee, dessert, and scintillating conversation anymore.  Mercifully in quite a few instances.

The Grand Duchess and I joke with each other, once in a while, that we are now too far from Central Illinois (we live in Mid-Michigan) for those family members located in the western part of that state to make the trip easily.  Likewise, Lake Michigan and the morass that is driving around Greater Chicagoland provide handy deterrents when it comes to family who live in Wisconsin.  Age, distance, and thankfully circuitous airline itineraries now also function as useful buffers when it comes to the family members living in the Pacific Northwest.  

All of the parties in question have, at one time or another, been guilty of visiting too often, somehow altering the plans which were agreed upon initially, arriving two or three days before they are expected, overstaying their welcome by several days on the other end, and conspicuous lack of restraint when it comes to less than savory personal habits, daily considerations, and a bit of gentility (there's just no other way to say it) like the kind conveyed to my sister and me during our formative years.  The benefits, I suppose, of growing up in a Southern household although my sister and I hail from north of the Mason-Dixon Line.  

Make of that what you will, but thank goodness we received a good grounding in the basics of how to conduct ourselves both at home and away.  The socially awkward alternative that is in your face almost everywhere now is enough to put one to bed following a handful of tranquilizers and a tall glass of cheap rotgut.  Where, oh where, is Dr. Nick when you need him?  Viva Las Vegas and all that. 

A further semi-amusing thought comes to mind if we return to the topic at hand for a moment.  A much missed Danish professor of mine at UW-Madison -- my one-time mentor, the late Niels Ingwersen -- once told us, during a course on Hans Christian Andersen, that Charles Dickens kept a small plaque on a nightstand in a guest bedroom of his house that read something like, "Hans Christian Andersen slept here.  And he stayed for six months!" 

Ultimately, houseguests ought to be rather more conscious of the fact than many are that when people say, "Make yourself at home!" most of us do not really mean that they should.  It is similar to the question "How are you?"  A platitude as my late maternal grandmother advised.  Most of us do not really want to know beyond the simple and concise, "Very well, thank you." 

So after all of that, how long should your stays in someone else's home last?  Short and sweet is an ideal rule of thumb when it comes to being a stylish and considerate houseguest, gentlemen.  The precise length of time is up to you and your hosts to determine, but I'd advise you thusly.  Make your overnight stays anywhere a surgical strike.  In and out.  Like the Raid on Entebbe.  Always leave 'em wanting more.  An awareness of that fact keeps things relatively pleasant for everyone involved and leaves your hosts actually wishing to see you again once your visit concludes.  Maybe. 

-- Heinz-Ulrich




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