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A guest in good standing

By Beverly Beyette, LA Times Staff Writer – 01/29/2006 – 12:00am

MOST of us would rather stay in a comfortable hotel than in someone’s home, but hotel prices being what they are, that spare bedroom or couch looks better all the time.

Being a good houseguest — one who is likely to be invited back — isn’t just about making the bed every day (which, of course one should do, as well as stripping it upon leaving). Nor is it just about offering to help with the dinner dishes.

The cardinal houseguest sin is “to show up unannounced,” said Genevieve S. Brown, editor of the Independent Traveler ( Assuming you have a proper invitation, you’ll want to make your visit as pleasant and stress-free as possible for you and your host. That entails certain do’s and don’ts.

First of all, send a gift or arrive bearing one. But take care when choosing it. “You don’t want to [buy] a decoration for the house unless you really know [your host’s] taste,” Brown said. “Even a bottle of wine probably isn’t a good idea unless you know specifically what the person likes to drink. If they’re readers, a great gift is a bestseller. Pay attention during your visit.”

Peter Post, great-grandson of Emily Post and director of the Emily Post Institute, said food baskets make great gifts — for instance, the fixings for a pancake breakfast. Once, he and his wife brought ingredients for sundaes and a small electric ice cream maker.

Being a good houseguest implies being on your best behavior. Even if you’re a slob at home, you must keep your guest space looking presentable and “be really careful with other people’s things,” Post said. “You don’t leave the towels on the floor in a heap or leave your dirty clothes around the room.”

The good guest doesn’t make his host feel like a doormat. “It’s important that the guest not make the host feel they’re just using their place as a crash pad,” Brown said. “The good houseguest is a participant.”

To maintain harmony, “the guest needs to adapt to the hosts’ lifestyle,” said Sue Fox, the author of “Etiquette for Dummies” and founder and president of Etiquette Survival ( If they are late risers and you aren’t, “it doesn’t mean you have to sleep in, but don’t expect them to get up early and entertain you.”

The ideal houseguests, she said, are “tidy, courteous, considerate of [the host’s] normal routine” and ideally “really enthusiastic about whatever the host suggests.” They keep certain opinions to themselves, whether they’re about raising children or about home décor. “They don’t suggest changing the furniture around in the living room.”

And they don’t pry. “You don’t snoop in the medicine cabinet,” Post said. If your hosts’ desk is in the guest bedroom, “you don’t go snooping and look at their checkbook. I think snooping’s just a horrible thing.”

The good houseguest, he added, is “not there to be waited on.” He or she offers to help in the kitchen or run errands and is ready to take part in whatever activities the host has planned.

“You weren’t invited there to sit on the back porch and read a book all day. If the hosts have four tickets for cricket matches, you don’t say, ‘I want to sit on the beach today.’ You say, ‘Tell me what to wear and tell me a little more about the sport of cricket.’ ”

Fox said hermit-like behavior on the part of a houseguest doesn’t cut it. “Get outside your box a little bit,” Fox said. “That’s how you get invited back.”

Common sense goes a long way in an era bereft of the rigid formality of Emily Post’s day (“Emily ate at 7 every night,” Peter Post said). A good houseguest doesn’t show up with a pet that has not been OKd beforehand. It’s also polite to offer to pay for some things, maybe a dinner out.

A houseguest who’s bringing a significant other should let the hosts know beforehand whether the two visitors will be sharing a bedroom. If the answer is yes and this offends the hosts’ moral standards, Post said, it’s their prerogative to suggest you stay in a hotel.

As a houseguest, one shouldn’t be expected to be included in the hosts’ every activity, Fox said. “Don’t intrude too much. It’s their castle and refuge.”

Be willing to help and make the offer, Brown said, but “if the host is adamant they don’t want your help, that’s just fine. Your presence should never result in added stress for your host.”

Most houseguests today are apt to bring their cellphones — rather than using their hosts’ phone to make long-distance calls — but they might not bring their laptops. Said Brown, “One thing people tend to do without realizing it is monopolize [hosts’] computers for their personal e-mailing.”

At visit’s end, Post said, “the really great houseguest thanks the host twice” — once as they leave, later in a handwritten note, and certainly not in an e-mail. Fox is less adamant on that issue, believing e-mail “is better than not doing it at all.”

Is it ever acceptable for houseguests to invite themselves?

Only if you’re family or intimate friends, Brown said. Otherwise, it’s better to “let people know you will be in their area” and see what happens.

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