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Bad behavior

How to be a terrible houseguest

What to do to guarantee you are never, ever invited back (and how to make sure you are).

For decades, my family and I were lucky enough to spend the summers in a house on Martha’s Vineyard, and we liked being able to share the pleasures of the island with friends. 

After I divorced, I moved there full time for seven years, and welcomed the company of houseguests even more. Most of them were great, and I have many happy memories of their stays. But a choice few? Every day felt like a month—I never knew I had such a capacity for quiet seething. 

Here, then, is a guide to how to alienate your host, based on my experiences and those of my girlfriends, who supplied me with many useful examples.

Don’t bring a gift.

Did you run out of time to buy a gift? Were you too busy packing your suitcase and getting your legs waxed?

Sorry, but no one’s too busy to show a little gratitude.

Your present doesn’t have to be extravagant or impressive. A bottle of wine is a little generic, and we’ve all been given enough lavender hand soaps to open our own soap stores. But a book on a subject you know your host is interested in, or something delicious you know they love—smoked salmon, or really good chocolates—is perfect. 

Don’t offer to treat your hosts to a meal

My friend Sally’s former in-laws liked to take long road trips, always staying with friends or relatives along the way. One year they invited themselves to her parents’ house in Miami. During this in-law get-to-know-you, Sally’s mother dropped hints about going out for a meal. “No, not necessary,” they told her. “We love your cooking!”

Take your hosts to a restaurant for lunch or dinner, especially if you’re staying longer than a night or two, and very especially if you’ve invited yourself. Remember, the distance between “guest” and “freeloader” is short. 

Make it clear the accommodations don’t meet your standards

A relative of my ex-husband would arrive for visits, check out her bedroom, and then the complaints would start: There wasn’t any Kleenex in her room; the bedside reading lamp wasn’t bright enough; she needed an extra blanket. 

One year I thought I’d covered all my bases—bright light bulbs, a box of Kleenex on every surface, a second blanket folded on a chair. She arrived and surveyed her bedroom, then moved onto the bathroom, where she pointed to the extra roll of toilet paper and said, “Where’s the toilet paper for when I run out of this?”

One friend told me about the visiting couple who each needed three pillows to sleep properly. And they needed to be foam. And they needed to be firm foam. 

My feeling about special accommodations is this: If you’re fussy about the quantity or quality (down vs. foam) of pillows, bring your own. Ditto for noise (earplugs are your friends), need for darkness (hello, eye mask), unusual food regimens.

Especially the food regimens. And—let’s say you’re gluten-free—you don’t need to make it part of your scintillating dinner chitchat. There are few subjects more tedious than the details of your diet, and what it does for/to your digestive system. 

Many people, like me, don’t have house cleaners. So for God’s sake, clean up after yourself. Wipe down the sink, strip the bed, empty the wastebasket. Didn’t your mother teach you anything?

Helpfully point out that you could do a better job raising children

Long ago, a fortyish couple came to stay. The wife approached me the morning after their first night to ask me to keep my then six year-old daughter quiet until 9 a.m. Apparently, they’d heard her tread on the stairs when she woke up at 7 a.m. and came looking for me in the kitchen. I could keep her upstairs until 8 a.m., I told them, but not much after that. The wife frowned and said nothing. The next year they rented their own house.

Offer to be helpful, and then act helpless

Another relative used to visit and show up in the kitchen as I was making dinner, asking anxiously how she could help. I’d say something like, “You can make the salad,” and set out the ingredients, the salad spinner, a cutting board. Then the questions would begin. How did the salad spinner work? How thick did I want the carrots cut? Should she slice the tomatoes lengthwise or sideways? It took me a long time to realize that she didn’t want to help. She was so much happier when I told her I’d do it myself. So was I.

A good houseguest is a resourceful one. A few years ago, my friend Sarah insisted that she wanted to make a gumbo for the dinner party I was planning for her visit. She brought the spices and various ingredients with her, found the fish store and the supermarket for the rest, and made a glorious gumbo. The next year, she did another hugely thoughtful, useful thing: she took all of my dull knives to the fancy housewares store downtown and had them professionally sharpened.

Bring your unruly dog

A couple my friend Ava knew invited a friend to come stay with them at their lovely farmhouse in Connecticut. She brought her Shar Pei. What? Shar Peis are aggressive? Never mind the rumors; her Milo was just an adorable, wrinkled ball of love! The husband of the couple had just bought some kind of fancy purebred cat. The dog attacked the cat—and killed it. The guest refused to admit that the dog had done it, in spite of the fact that another guest had actually witnessed the attack. There went the friendship.

That may be the worst houseguest-bringing-pet story ever, but there are plenty of others. Unless your host is Caesar Millan, don’t bring dogs that are prone to barking, growling, pestering everyone for food. If you have to think about whether your dog is this kind of dog, you already know it—you have this kind of dog.  

Decide to play with the TV remote

No. Just no. Your host barely understands how it works, and now you’ve done something that none of you can figure out how to undo—like putting all subtitles in Polish or getting the screen stuck in Menu mode.

Assume there’s a housecleaner who’s coming right after you leave

While staying at a friend’s house a couple of years ago, I shared a bathroom with two other guests, a lively, smart couple. Our bathroom had a tub with one of those hand-held shower attachments. There was no shower curtain, so you had to be a little mindful about where you directed the flow. Every morning I waded into a pond of used water and towels. It was incredible, and a mystery—how could they not see what they had wrought?

Many people, like me, don’t have house cleaners. So for God’s sake, clean up after yourself. Wipe down the sink, strip the bed, empty the wastebasket. Didn’t your mother teach you anything?

Don’t say thank you

Truthfully, I’ve never had a house guest who didn’t send a thank you email, or a note. Even the bad ones (I’m including the person who came for days but wouldn’t join us at the local beach because ours were “too sandy”) wrote some kind of thank you. It’s too prissy to insist on a handwritten note these days; an email is enough. (A text isn’t, unless the guest is 15.) But put some thought into it. You can do better than, “Thanks for a great weekend!”

Even if you had a mostly terrible time, find things to mention that you enjoyed. If you didn’t enjoy anything, just lie about it.

Hero image by Jen Grantham via Stocksy

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