Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Southern manners: Be a good guest

It's easy to be a good house guest.

Really. You don’t have to memorize a list of rules.

I'm no expert on manners, but I can tell you that most of it boils down to this: 
Be considerate and thoughtful of the people around you.

No matter how good of a guest you are or how easygoing your hosts are, having a guest in the house changes the dynamic. And that means the hosts have more to deal with. Don’t feel guilty about it—just understand, acknowledge, and try to minimize it.

First and foremost:
Know how long is too long. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after 3 days.” The exact number of days might depend on the circumstances, but the sentiment is universal. You can have the best visit ever, but if you stay even a day too long (for THEM, not you), it will sour the whole experience.

Assuming you’ve got this fundamental concept worked out, here are some simple things you can do to make yourself a welcome guest:


Bring a thoughtful hostess gift. The point is to start off your stay with an acknowledgement that you appreciate the extra work your hosts are about to take on. A small token is all you need. I like to bring something consumable or something that might make my visit easier for my hosts. Pull it out and present it as soon as you arrive. NEVER direct how or when the gift should be used.

Yes: Bring muffins or coffee cake that can be served for breakfast the next morning. If you’re traveling very far, you could bring a bag of gourmet coffee (don’t buy whole beans unless you know they have a grinder), a scented candle, or fancy soap.

No: Don’t bring something you’ve scavenged from around your house, catalogs you got in the mail, or brochures you picked up at the garden center.

Be prepared to entertain yourself. Pay attention to whether your hosts need some time away from you. No matter how glad they are to see you, there are bound to be times when they just want to get away from you. It’s not (necessarily!) personal. If your conversation comes to a stopping point and your hostess leaves the room, she might be looking for a break.

Yes: Pick up a magazine or a book, get up and look out the window, or just be still and alone with your thoughts.

No: Don’t follow your hostess from room to room, follow your hostess into the bathroom, or continue chattering from the other room.

Respect your hosts’ boundaries (i.e., don’t be nosy). We’ve all got our own boundaries—don’t expect that theirs are the same as yours. Assume that anything not in plain view is private. Resist all urges to peek or pry any farther. 

Yes: Check out the family photos that are on display. Help yourself to a glass of water or a drink from the fridge (after your hostess has offered).

No: Don’t open all the kitchen cabinets to get a better look. Don’t memorize (and recite) the contents of the family calendar posted on the fridge.

Don’t make yourself at home. No doubt your hosts want you to be comfortable, but it is important to remember that this is not your home. They probably do some things differently than you do. As a guest, you should try to fit in and help out, without forcing yourself (or your opinions!) on your hosts or trying to take over their role as hosts.

Yes: Adapt and go with the flow. Try to fit in and do things the way your hosts do. You might even learn something new.

No: Don’t comment on the things your hostess does differently (sounds critical and judgmental), or suggest other ways of doing things (can be bossy). If someone else drops by during your visit, don’t offer them a drink (or anything else)—it is very rude to play hostess at someone else’s home.

Finally,
Make a graceful exit. When you leave, thank your hosts for their hospitality—no one should need to be told this. I’m a believer in also sending a note after I get back home. Something handwritten on nice stationary will show your hosts that you really did appreciate everything they did for you.

See, just be considerate, and it's easy! You can be as well-mannered as any Southern belle.


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