How to be a good host and a good houseguest

The truth is that, while having friends and family to stay can be wonderful, providing a welcome break from the routine, the chance to visit new places and an opportunity to enhance relationships, it’s not without its pitfalls. Debora Robertson, co-author with Kay Plunkett-Hogge of Manners: A Modern Field Guide, talks Breathe magazine through the dos and don’ts of host and houseguest etiquette.

WORDS: Kate Orson

Why thinking about other people is the key to good manners

‘I hate that concept of etiquette as something archaic – rules to judge people,’ Deborah says. ‘That’s the opposite of good manners. I think manners is thinking about other people. With that, you can’t go wrong.’

Approached in this way, communal living – be it for one night or two weeks – is more likely to be rewarding, especially if expectations, boundaries and plans are discussed ahead of time. With care, honesty and, as Debora suggests, thought, you might find that, as the front door closes, your mind is already turning happily to plans for a repeat visit.

How to set the parameters as a host or houseguest

Host: A mutually rewarding experience is more likely if the planning starts before guests are due to arrive, so communicate important information in advance. Time of arrival and departure, much like flights, is key.

‘One big challenge is when do people arrive and when do they leave,’ says Debora. ‘You must make it explicit. People aren’t mind readers. Meals are a good demarcation mark for how long people should stay.’ Better to be specific than have awkward moments later on.

Guest: Respect your host’s space. If a post-breakfast departure has been agreed, for example, don’t be tempted to hang around until 1pm. Keep the visit to the arranged times and there’s a good chance more weekends together will follow.

How to establish an itinerary for a visit

Host: What you do, when you do it and how much money each party is able to spend are also important factors. Does your guest like long, lazy brunches, for example, or rushing around seeing the sights? ‘Your job is to anticipate what your guests might want, or what they might need, and not enforce your own things on them,’ says Debora. ‘If your guest wants to go to a local art gallery and you’re taking them on a forced march along the river, that’s inappropriate, because that’s what you want to do. Your job is to think about what they want to do as you can do what you want any time you like.’

Guest: Do some research, especially if it’s an area you’ve never visited before, and share a few ideas for a few places you’d like to see. That said, your host isn’t a tour guide or chauffeur. Be aware of their needs and boundaries. If you know they love to while away the time in a café, while you have a list of 20 local sights you want to see, find a happy compromise.

Be mindful of practicalities when planning a visit

Host: If visits encroach on work time, be clear and honest. If you work on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for example, make this clear. Offer ideas for nearby activities and events that your guest can explore on these days. ‘It’s a way of saying, “I can’t come with you, but I’ve thought about you, because I’ve suggested these three choices”,’ says Debora.

Guest: Remember that you’re in someone else’s home – not a hotel. Your friend or family member isn’t there to wait on you hand and foot, so be prepared to occupy yourself if they’re busy. Bring a book, download podcasts or movies onto a tablet, and offer to make them a cup of tea if they’re working.

If you’re the host, take the lead with your approach to chores

Host: If you’d like help prepping the veg or stirring a sauce and there are willing people around, invite them to join you in the kitchen. It can sometimes ease tension and make conversation easier as people chop veg or ladle stock into risotto. And if you need help clearing the table later on, don’t be nervous about enlisting people.

Guest: If it’s an overnight stay with someone you don’t know well, rushing to help with the washing-up might not be appropriate. For longer stays, however, especially with close friends and family, it will most likely be welcomed. Still, if your host likes things done in a particular way, it’s safest to ask first.

How to build downtime into the visit

Host: It’s okay to take some time out, especially if it’s done in such a way that guests feel welcomed and cared for, even in your temporary absence. You could, for example, tell your guest that you always go for an early-morning run on Sundays, but that you’ll leave all the breakfast items ready on the table and that they should help themselves.

Guest: A little autonomy and independence can give your host a breather, especially with longer visits. Are you itching to do something locally that isn’t your host’s cup of tea? If so, let them know you’re happy to go alone. As Debora says: ‘The guests I love the most are the ones who love an afternoon nap or to read or take themselves off for a walk.’


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