Fish and visitors smell in three days. ~Benjamin Franklin
If it were not for guests all houses would be graves. ~Khalil Gibran
I have been a bad house guest in my time.
A few years back I attended a conference in a major metropolitan centre, bunking in with a friend and her large dog. At the end of a long first day I had dinner downtown then returned home after dark. I walked the dog then double-locked the apartment, first with the key then by flicking the switch on the mildly archaic hardware. The dog lay down to sleep and so did I, slipping in earplugs to keep the building’s sounds at bay.
The next morning my friend recounted how she’d returned late and couldn’t unlock that second switch I had so dutifully employed. The dog barked and barked at her attempts and she had to wake the super for the master key and a screwdriver when I failed to materialize.
In my backpacker days my sins were numerous: I have arrived unannounced, overstayed my welcome, used up all the hot water, left my stuff lying around, been an all-around lazy ass and cheapskate, and – the kicker – introduced fleas to my friend’s apartment.
But like most things in life, it could have been much, much worse (except for the fleas, of course). All manner of disastrous bodily functions, sex, thievery and crimes against guest towels topped the list when Reddit readers were asked “What’s the worst thing a house guest has done in your home?”
When people ask about my recent eight-week summer roadtrip with kids, I say that it was great. For the starry-eyed and uninitiated I add this nugget of wisdom: Vacation is life, but on the road.
Unless you go to an all inclusive resort or hotel without kids, there is no such thing as a ‘no work’ vacation option. There’s always work – clean up, shopping, cooking, laundry, research, scheduling and balancing the needs of all the players. And bunking in with friends or family? It can be complicated and free it is not.*
Don’t ask “Can I help you clean up?” Find the dish soap, find the sink and start scrubbing, motherfucker, because that’s what the perfect guest does.1
There are at least a hundred articles on the internet describing how to be the perfect houseguest. Here’s the consensus on how to behave if you want to maintain a relationship with your host friends/family and be asked back:
1. Arrive and depart according to an established plan
2. Research your destination, entertain yourself, share your schedule with your host, include them in your plans
3. Arrange and pay for your own transportation
4. Clean up after yourself
5. Shop for groceries and/or cook and/or take your host out for dinner(s); BYO alcohol
6. Pitch in
7. Mind your business and be respectful of the space and the schedules/habits of the host; keep the critiques of the house/accommodations/city to yourself
8. Make use of a pet hotel unless your host is explicitly pet-friendly
9. Bring a gift, send a thank-you, offer a reciprocal stay
10. Unless commiseration is the prime purpose of your visit, bring your best and charming self with you. Treat Debbie Downer to her own vacation.
Special rules apply if your host has young kids, is in her final trimester, or if you’re bringing children of your own. Naptimes, habits, temperaments, prized possessions and general territorialism require due consideration. And regardless of how genuinely well-behaved your children are, this is what you will sound like: “Take your shoes off. Take your shoes off. Take your shoes off. Take your shoes off. It’s not our house.”
There’s a fine line between persistent anxiety and enjoying time with people in their space. You will know how well you’ve tread that line when you’ve loaded up and pulled away.
*Because as an adult you know there’s no such thing as free.
Was Mr. Franklin just a logical man of science, favouring the rational over the emotional? Or does his exhortation reflect a truth that we choose to ignore at our own peril? Experience says: it depends.
Brevity offers a particular magic that arises from the urgency of a hyper-finite schedule, while the blessing of extended time is revelation and depth. So the question, really, is this: How much do you want to know about the people you are staying with?
Apparently there is science to back up Mr. Franklin’s wisdom. According to researchers Norton, Ariely and Frost in their paper Less is More: The Lure of Ambiguity, or Why Familiarity Breeds Contempt, we put people we haven’t met, or hardly know, up on a pedestal. Then, as we get to know them, with all their habits and peculiarities, the familiar contempt creeps in.
We place such a heavy role on similarity as our proposed mechanism for two reasons. First, similarity to the self—from shared personality traits and values to trivial factors such as shared birthdays — has been shown repeatedly to be highly diagnostic of liking. Second, as with liking, perceptions of similarity are relatively high early in the acquaintanceship process, both because people (falsely) assume similarity with others in the absence of other information and because people tend to emphasize or exaggerate their similarities with others when preparing to meet.2
So three days or less – a Friday to Sunday weekend – is a short enough period for a no-holds-barred love-in with acquaintances or friends you don’t see very often. It’s short enough to ignore the unexpected discomfort or awkwardness of almost any situation. It’s easy to be the bon vivant or Miss Fun ‘n Clever so long as the masks remain in place. More than three days, things start to slip, and less charming traits – impatience, narcissism, contempt, passivity – appear. If we bunk in with friends for shorter periods, we get to learn about them in easily digestible bite-sized pieces.
But sometimes more is, well, more. If you opt for a longer stay there can be a magnificent pot of gold waiting at the end of that rainbow. Extended time allows for mistakes to happen and be corrected, meaningful conversations to unfold, longstanding issues to be hashed through, trust and empathy to be built, the quirky bits of our individuality to be appreciated, and the simple pleasure of waking up to the people we love. We get to slow down, breathe, and live as our true selves.
As for family? I can only come up with one reliable generalization: Every family has it’s own dynamic based on complex common history. The calm before the storm may be shorter or longer than three days, but it is stunningly predictable: For most of us it will come.
I have this notion about house swapping. I would like to implement regular weekend swaps with friends and friends-of-friends in places not too far from home. Toronto for film festival? Montreal for weekend markets? New York for a concert? Hiking in Vermont? It’s neither a new nor particularly innovative idea; we’ve used AirBNB a number of times for paid stays in local homes and I’ve heard great things about companies like HomeExchange.com. It seems ridiculous to have an idle asset – an empty house – that isn’t being used to give pleasure to friends, expand our social network, and reduce our travel costs. My inner Mary Sunshine screams “Great Idea!!!”
It’s thrilling to pack an overnight bag, do a quick grocery shop, and walk into a fully-stocked house without the Big Prep and weather-sensitivity of camping. Bikes! Kayaks! Books! Veggie gardens! Pots and pans! Beds! How generous and amazing to have a bounty awaiting one’s arrival. It is one of the most intimate, satisfying gifts we can offer one another.
My house is 125 years old and I can say that the older the house, and the more rural the location, the more quirks and peculiarities are enfolded in its charm. Old homes require an awareness, a finesse that isn’t present in their modern, and urban, counterparts. I pulled out the house handbook I created a few years ago which is 18 pages long and took several days to compose. The theme of the tome is water management – keeping it in the well, keeping it out of the house – appropriate being that we’re on well and septic vs. city services. The handbook also covers HVAC, appliances, wildlife, pets, shopping, transportation to and from, using our vehicles, garbage and recycling, things to do in the area, contacts for professionals including the plumber and the vet, and instructions should the cat die in our absence. I ask myself as I read: What’s rational vs. irrational when I’m telling the tale of our house? How much do guests really need to know? I’m satisfied that there’s just enough in there to be well-informed but not terrified.
Most of us are invested emotionally and financially in the form and idea of home; it is our reflection of self, our safe space, our nest egg. Within it we cling to our habits and rituals without recognizing our fixations and resistance to deviations from the norm. Think I exaggerate? Think about your morning coffee.
Think about the cup you choose, where you sit, what time you drink it, alone or in company, indoors or out. Repeat this with all the other prosaic bits of life: How do you stack your dishes, roll and place your toothpaste, make your bed, manage your bathroom schedule, watch tv, read, vacuum, fold bath towels, clip your toenails, deal with spiders, arrange plastic food containers in the drawer, and manage your morning and nighttime regimes? How annoyed are you when these routines are disturbed, when the spoons are in the forks slot, when books are on the wrong shelf, or the kicker, when someone has sex in your bed? We are an easily-annoyed lot.
Husband is reticent about house swapping. I’ve always chalked this up to conservatism, but I realize his reluctance is a reasonable calculation of “hassle factor”: What is the (potential) cost (pain) vs. (potential) tangible benefits? For me Novelty, Adventure, Meeting Strangers, and The Potential for Magic are at the top of my scale for almost every experience. As he points out his scale is different for a variety of reasons. He’s happiest hanging with the core family and friends and finds comfort in familiar experiences and places. Mainly, though, he doesn’t want his stuff touched. He’s not alone. I know there is risk in everything we do, but there’s risk, too, in clinging to one’s comfort zone.
And maybe being a houseguest, or lending your house requires this: [A] willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.3
If Ben Franklin was the dutiful house guest, Khalil Gibran cuts to the heart of the matter: Hosting is about the greatness of having people you love (or want to love) sharing your space and your table, wading through the petty bits to get to the heart of friendship and kinship, which sustains us like no logic can. Friends and family bring our houses alive. It’s why we (usually) miss them so much when they go.