Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Ancient Greek culture put a lot of value on the virtue of xenia, or guest-friendship.  Nowadays, we'd call it hospitality, but hospitality is about the behavior of the host only.  The Greeks used the word xenos for both the guest and the host, and each had duties.  For either the guest or the host to harm the other in any way was considered extremely evil.  For Paris to steal Helen away from Menelaus was bad, but for him to do it when an invited guest at Menelaus' house was just evil.

John is a Benedictine oblate -- that is, a layperson attached to an abbey -- and part of Benedictine spirituality is hospitality.  I'm all about that.  I don't really like going places, but I love having people over.  I'm always paying attention when I visit someone else, trying to learn what specific things they do that make me feel so comfortable and welcome.  I have a few hospitality idols, like my grandma and my friend's mother, who seem to have it in their blood.  It's something I want to learn.

Hospitality has gotten more complicated as I get older.  Having someone crash in your college dorm room is no big deal.  You know they will ask for what they need, or just root through your stuff.  If they didn't bring their own towel, they will go without because they know perfectly well you only have one.  When you have a house of your own, people expect a little more.  And then when you have kids, things get even more complicated -- how to visit another house, or entertain people at yours, without unduly disrupting the kids' lives?

After a few times traveling with kids and many times having guests at my house (despite having very Spartan accommodations), I'm sort of getting the hang of it.  So here are a few tips.

For the host:

When someone arrives at your house, whether for a short or a long time, you show them where to sit and offer them something to drink.  This is just our custom, but I always forget the drink part!  In some cultures, you would not dream of having someone over at any time of day and not feeding them.  In ours, food is always nice but not required unless they're staying for a good amount of time around mealtime.  But if I'm having people over with kids for more than an hour or so, I always provide a decently healthy snack.  Kids get hungry often, and it just would seem rude to me to expect a friend to pack snacks for their kids when they are at my house, with a functioning kitchen.

When someone is staying overnight, go over policies soon after they arrive so they know what to do.  Show them where they will sleep, give them a clean towel, explain anything they need to know about the workings of the shower or your family's schedule.  If the house gets noisy at six, you want to tell them that ahead of time so they know not to stay up late!  And if they come in very tired, it'll be a relief to them to have everything out of the way.

Make the accommodations as comfortable as you can.  All we've got is a couch, and that's a bit unfortunate and does limit whom we can have over.  If you have a guest room, that's great, but if not, alter the room where they're staying to make it as comfortable as possible.  Try to make it dark -- cover flashing electronics and shut the curtains.  Confine pets if you can.  Provide several blankets so they can adjust how warm they are.  Tell the guests what the accommodations will be while they're still planning their trip.  I would hate to have someone come out here expecting to be comfortable and sleep all night when really they will be on the couch with the cats getting in their face.  If the guests have kids, you're just going to have to ask how they want to sleep.  They are likely to be comfortable sharing a room with their kids, if they're little and wake at night.  But ask to be sure.

Make sure food is readily available.  When I'm having a single person over, I usually just make sure to have good meals at regular times and everyone's okay with that.  I also make sure to offer coffee and tea in the morning.  If kids are coming, though, it's best to show the parents the kitchen and what they can eat.  I always feel great when a host has thought of my kids' needs and has collected some kid-friendly snacks in advance: fruit, milk, crackers and cheese, whatever.  Since kids' schedules are all different, especially if they're jetlagged or thrown off from traveling, you won't be able to stay on top of feeding the kids snacks.  Just make it possible for the parents to do it.  And never feed someone else's child without checking with the parents.  Feeding a kid is a complicated job and the parents are pretty much guaranteed to have some preferences about it.

Entertain the guests.  This can be really hard if they're around for awhile and your life isn't super interesting.  It's my main challenge.  But I've found that everyone who likes us enough to visit just loves playing with my kids.  So that's one fun thing.  For a long visit, it's pretty much impossible to chat the entire time.  Let the guests know they can use your computer, give them your wireless password if they need it, and tell them they can browse your bookshelves.  Nothing more boring than sitting in someone's house and not being sure if you can poke around and find something to do.

Make sure the guests know to ask for anything else they want.  I don't know why people are so reluctant to do this, but sometimes it takes me asking a few times before they admit they actually do need something.

For the guest:

In my mind, gifts are optional.  Sometimes guests bring them, and sometimes not.  For a family with toddlers, some fruit is a great gift.  No extra "stuff" in the house, healthy, and pretty much all toddlers like fruit.  Or bringing a small toy will endear you to the littles.  However, I think the custom of the hostess gift is dying out a bit, so if you don't have anything to bring, it's fine.

ASK for what you want.  This isn't just being nice when the host tells you that.  It's really exhausting to spend your time guessing what your guest might want when they are sitting around shrugging every time you ask.  It makes me feel like I have to keep making more food, planning more entertainment, because if they won't say what they want, there's a possibility they want those things.  I know I have sat quietly in someone's house wondering when the next meal was because I was starving but didn't want to be rude.  I would hate a guest of mine to be in that bind.  If the host keeps asking if you are comfortable and you really are, don't just shrug and say you're fine.  I always suspect people are just trying to stay out of the way but they actually need something.  Try saying, "I am just great and it's so nice to just sit here playing with your kids!"  Or something expressing clearly that you aren't hungry or thirsty or bored, that you are comfortable and enjoying yourself.

Entertain yourself some of the time.  Even extroverts need some downtime, and when two households are stuck together, it tends to take away everyone's downtime.  If you have your own room, retiring to it for awhile will take the pressure off your host to entertain you and might give them a chance to do some housework.  If not, have a book you can bring out when things get quiet and dull, or something else quiet to do.  That will let your host know that you are taking some quiet time and she doesn't have to engage you in conversation at the moment.

Try to be tolerant of inconvenience.  If there are kids, they will shriek at night and wake you up.  They will probably be in your face at six a.m. before their parents can stop them.  They may reach across at mealtimes and smear something on you.  If you laugh it off and show you don't mind, it will reassure your host.

Offer to help with the housework.  Better yet, just jump in and do the dishes.  You don't have to take over or spend your whole day on it, but your presence does add to the workload, so it's nice to offset that if you can.  If you ask "Can I help with anything?" they might say no just because they can't think of something off the top of their head.  Just start clearing dishes or offer to help with a specific thing.  Even if you're only over for dinner, helping clean up can save the hosts the unpleasantness of a giant tower of dishes at 10 pm when you go home.  If you're over for a long time, offering to make dinner a time or two can be nice.

Be considerate of bedtime.  Most families have very set times and routines for going to bed.  You probably can't help much with this (though you can offer), but it's a good time to stay quiet and out of the way.  Don't have loud conversations with the other guests while the parents are trying to rock a baby to sleep in the next room.

Hospitality is hard

I love having guests, but sometimes it's hard too.  It's a level of intimacy that can be uncomfortable, inviting someone else into your space, the place where you retreat from the world.  Your home is the place where you're used to letting it all hang out -- it's scary to let another person in there, especially overnight.  I'm always afraid guests will judge me for the things I let the kids get away with, for their behavior which isn't always stellar, or for how messy the house gets sometimes.  It's awkward to be nursing all the time and wonder if the guests are thinking my kid is too old for that.  And the embarrassment of potty training accidents!

Meanwhile, there's nowhere left to retreat when I'm feeling tired or overwhelmed.  I instinctively drift back to my quiet activities -- reading or the computer -- and then feel bad because I'm neglecting my guest.  You feel the same as a guest -- since you're in someone else's house, where do you go when you want to be by yourself?  There's a reason why most house visits are under a week .... it's tiring and difficult to do much longer, for everyone involved.

And yet, it can be a very heart-opening experience too.  You see how other people live -- and despite the fears of the host, I don't think guests usually judge.  When you really see how someone else lives every day, you see how their life works and the choices they make make a little more sense.  Single people can learn a lot about life with kids by living it for a few days -- and maybe be more prepared for possible future kids of their own.

Any time you open your heart and mind to someone else's view of the world, it makes you a more compassionate person.  Suddenly the distance out of your way you have to go to practice hospitality doesn't seem so far.  It all seems worth it because you are serving someone you love.

Do you like having houseguests? Do you like to be one?


Alaina said...

I love this post, Sheila! I feel like part of it could be an excellent guide to not being awkward for introverted houseguests and hosts. I have difficulty finding my space when I'm a guest for a long time in other people's houses. It helps to just go for a walk or have an activity to go and do, and then I can return refreshed and ready to socialize again.

Also, I think it's really beneficial for kids to see how to treat others when there are visitors. It might be a good learning opportunity that as nicely as we treat guests, we should also treat our family, the people we say that we love.

And as disruptive as houseguests can be for kid's schedules, it's good for me as a parent to realize that there are sometimes good reasons to change the schedule, to see relatives that you don't normally spend time with, or to enjoy a special occasion that only happens once a year.

Enbrethiliel said...


The last two times I had a guest over (both times a friend from uni who was passing through the Philippines before flying to her primary destination), I didn't think about how important it is to go over policies. But it's true that people need to know where the boundaries are before they feel comfortable "going with the flow." Another mistake I made was thinking that I had to be "baby-sitting" my friends all the time.

The second friend had a laptop full of movies with her, and she ended up entertaining me. LOL! Later, my mother remarked that this friend was a great house guest because she could be alone and didn't disrupt the household. What my mother really meant was that I was a better host with the second guest, because I didn't insist on disrupting the household. =P

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