With the holidays upon us, families are criss-crossing the country to visit one another. The likelihood of all this family togetherness devolving into discord is so great it’s become a Hollywood trope. Judith Martin, the arbiter of etiquette known as Miss Manners, dispenses words of advice on how to avoid such scenarios. Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with her on how to be a gracious host and a well-mannered house guest.
What tips can you offer a host entertaining family?
Give a specific invitation, with dates. The problems come out of very well-intended but vague ideas, such as “Come for the holidays”. What holidays? ”Shall I come at Thanksgiving and leave after Easter?” It’s much easier to tell someone when to leave when you’re being gracious and inviting them than it is after they’ve been in your house so long that you’re ready to scream. Then give people a good idea what to expect and what to pack.
“We’re going to opening night at the opera.”
And give some idea of what’s feasible. Rather than say, “What would you like to do?” you say, “Would you like to go to the museum, or look around town?” You’re relieving stress on the guest’s part by setting limits.
What should a house guest keep in mind?
Not to make yourself at home. It’s a very sweet idea from the host, but the guest who behaves as if he were at home, making free with other people’s possessions, is likely to be at home for the next holidays.
Fall into what the hosts are offering you, and be flexible. A grown child returning home or parents visiting their children’s home are still guests, even though particularly favoured ones. The nightmare parent rearranges the household, and the nightmare child abdicates, acting like either a guest or a member of the family who would have chores. Both should realize that the other has been living without you fairly comfortably for a while, and you’re supposed to go along with that.
Offer your help, though that can be tricky. When a host refuses it, you have to be able to sense whether the negative answer is sincere or not.
A question I’m always asked: How to leave the bed. The compromise solution is to take off the dirty sheets, fold them with the towels, and put the spread over the bed so the place looks neat but the laundry is separate.
As Benjamin Franklin put it, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days”. How can hosts and guests keep their good humour during long visits?
A little time apart is a wonderful thing. Going for a walk is a charming excuse; it sounds like you’re drinking everything in. In the old days, the excuse to get away when you couldn’t bear it any longer was, “I have some letters to write”. The modern equivalent is, “I better go check my email”. But it should not intrude into any social activities. It’s colossally rude to ignore the people you’re with and tend to your gadgets.
How do you thank a host?
I send a letter along with a present. The mistaken notion that you cannot show up empty-handed has prevented people from choosing presents the best way, which is staying in the house and seeing what the hosts’ taste is or what they could use.
A very dreadful thing has arisen: people leaving money. There are obligations on the part of the guest to thank and reciprocate, but to treat a host as a commercial establishment is really insulting. Hospitality is a great ancient tradition, and you give it freely. ©2012/The New York Times