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Reducing Host-Guest Tensions: How to Be a Good Houseguest

Here’s how to avoid being a slap-worthy houseguest resented by your hosts.

Shawn Burn
Source: Shawn Burn

I’ve written many Psychology Today blog posts over the last several years and I have to tell you my 2013 blog “The Trouble With Houseguests” sure hit a nerve. Many readers appreciated understanding why houseguests are so challenging and why they aren’t bad people (or bad hosts) for becoming irritated with their houseguests. Recently, I wrote a follow-up piece called “Preventing Trouble With Houseguests” with some practical advice for hosts (I hoped to reduce the odds of houseguest trouble). But houseguests can also do their part to reduce troublesome conflict with their hosts. Here I provide some practical advice for houseguests.

The theme underlying each of these recommendations is that the home is a primary territory and people are especially reactive to primary territory invasions. By this I mean that a person’s home is a place where they enjoy a high degree of personal control and operate according to very personalized routines and rituals. It is a place where we can temporarily retire our social self and relax as our private self. Guests are thereby experienced as territorial invaders of sorts. Suddenly, we have to share our private space and our routines are disrupted. This requires adaptation, cooperation, extended presentation of our public self, all of which require cognitive energy. Hosts that do not enjoy a close relationship with a guest are especially likely to feel invaded and territorially defensive. Guests may also bring financial and energetic strain whether we’re happy to see them or not.

Don’t get me wrong. Your hosts were probably sincere when they agreed to your visit and look forward to seeing you. But the houseguest guidelines below will increase the odds of a successful visit unmarred by guest-host tensions. Other potential benefits include a lessened probability one of your hosts will throw eye daggers your way or become mysteriously more irritable the longer you stay. It is also much less likely a host will secretly wish for your spontaneous combustion or vow “never again” at the thought of your return.

Houseguest Guidelines

  • Don’t “wear out your welcome” by overstaying.
  • Keep your hosts informed regarding your comings and goings. As soon as you can, share your arrival and departure dates and times so your hosts can plan accordingly. If you are delayed, let your host know immediately. During your stay, if you leave without your hosts, tell them when to expect your return so that they know what to do about meals and can use your time away to run errands, exercise, pay bills, have sex, etc. Hosts find it stressful to be left waiting and wondering.
  • When hosts say, “Make yourself at home,” don’t take it too literally. Stay out of their stuff and private areas. Don’t eat the last piece of pie, borrow clothing, cook meals, or use their computer without asking.
  • Follow the “When in Rome Rule.” Identify and respect house rules, routines, and rituals.
  • Give your hosts some privacy. Periodically make yourself scarce so hosts have time and space to themselves.
  • Pitch in, it ain't a hotel. At mealtimes, offer to be a kitchen assistant, set and clear the table, do dishes, and clean counters. But don’t overstep in the name of helpfulness lest your host feel you are invading their territory.
  • Minimize your household “footprint.” Many hosts like things “just so” and are irritated by guests that don’t respect their home. Clean up after yourself promptly. Don’t sprawl. Keep your stuff together and your designated area neat.
  • Don’t be a parasite. Bring some groceries, a hostess gift, buy your host a meal or two, pay for their gas, pay your own way (at least some of the time), etc. This is true even if your hosts appear to be doing okay financially and you believe they have more money than you. You don’t want them to feel used.
  • How dare you! People get persnickety when guests come into their home and criticize their politics, diet, or living habits, so watch your mouth. Even your “helpful” suggestions may be experienced as criticism by your hosts, and people don’t take kindly to people coming into their personal space and criticizing them.
  • Leave no trace. Before leaving, ask your host what to do with your dirty towels and sheets, and take out your trash, even if your host is your mother.
More from Shawn M. Burn Ph.D.
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