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8 Simple Rules Every Houseguest Must Follow

Stick to the Game Plan

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It’s the hostess’s responsibility to set
 the dates for a visit and the guest’s to determine an arrival and departure time—and then to do your best to adhere to them. “If you say you’re arriving Friday evening, it can be inconvenient to show up on Saturday afternoon,” says Anna Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and author of Emily Post’s Etiquette, 18th Edition.

Even if the invitation is left open-ended, it’s smart for your own sake to put a cap on it so you have an out in case your stay goes awry. How long is too long? Remember Benjamin Franklin’s adage that fish and houseguests begin to smell after three days, and pack it in before that time if possible. This advice applies to family members too: Just because you’re related doesn’t mean you can drop in without notice or stay forever. While this sort of invitation is usually extended more casually, you still need one—and time limits still pertain.

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Be Clear About the Kids

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If there’s any doubt about whether your children are included in an invitation, it’s okay to ask for clarification—provided you inquire in a way that’s non-suggestive and non-judgmental, Post says. “Many parents are offended when Bobby and Sue are excluded, but the hostess is likely just looking for a grown-ups-only visit.” If you’re not willing or able to be away from your offspring, simply send your regrets.

Avoid Pet Peeves

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Unless your hostess specifically invites your dog or cat, assume four-legged friends aren’t welcome. The exception: If they’ve been invited on previous visits, it’s okay to check in case of an omission; just be prepared to hear that circumstances may have changed or that another guest may be allergic.

If Rover or Mittens is allowed to come, be sure to bring everything he or she needs to feel comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings. And to avoid any misunderstandings, find out the details, such as whether your corgi is permitted on the couch, straight from the get-go.

Stay Flexible

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During your stay, it’s up to you to adapt to the host’s lifestyle, says Sue Fox, founder of Etiquette Survival, a Pleasanton, CA–based professional development and publishing company, and author of Etiquette for Dummies. Upon your arrival, gently inquire about any don’ts (for instance, shoes on the carpets and smoking) so you know how things are done. If your hostess hasn’t shared her routine (“Sunday is my morning to sleep in”), you’ll also want to synchronize your schedules to avoid waking people or missing meals.

A big faux pas: trying to run the show. “Be open to her suggestions for meals and recreation,” Fox says. Not the biggest fan of barbecue or antiquing? “Even if you aren’t having the best time,” she says, “act as if you couldn’t be enjoying yourself more.”

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Lend a Hand

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You’re not staying in a hotel, so don’t expect to be waited on. Be courteous and tackle minor chores during your visit: Set the table, load the dishwasher, and tidy rooms you’ve been in. Besides helping around the house, offer to cook or buy your hostess a nice meal and to pitch in with expenses like groceries and gas. She may turn you down, but the gesture is sure to be appreciated.

Take a Break

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Of course, your hostess will want to spend time with you, but she will probably be relieved if you disappear for a bit so she can regroup, take a nap, or simply not feel obligated to entertain you for a while, Post says. Depending on the length of your visit, you might want to spend an hour in the hammock or an afternoon seeing the local sites. If you’re heading out, invite your hostess to join you—but give her the opportunity to decline.

Tidy Up

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When your hostess graciously tells you to make yourself at home, don’t take the request literally, especially if “messy” could be your middle name. A good rule of thumb: Maintain your quarters—whether it’s a private room or a pull-out sofa in the den— as you found them when you arrived. That means make the bed every day, hang up towels, and organize your belongings so they’re not strewn all over the house. If you’re sharing a bathroom, keep it clean.

On your last day, ask your hostess what she’d like you to do with your bed linens and used towels, and then follow her wishes. Standard practice, says Post, is to remove and fold the sheets, place them at the foot of the bed, and pull the blanket and spread up neatly so the bed looks made.

Show Your Gratitude

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Whether you present it upon arrival, buy it while you’re there, or send it soon after you get home, a gift for your hostess is de rigueur. For an overnight stay, a bottle of good wine, a houseplant, a coffee table book, or a picture frame is sufficient. Or consider a specialty from where you live, like the huge bottle of maple syrup that Post—who hails from Vermont—often brings. A longer visit requires something a little more substantial. Post recommends choosing a present that reflects the interests of your hostess (say, a big bowl filled with gourmet popcorn kernels and a set of DVDs for a movie lover) or the theme of the weekend—for instance, monogrammed beach towels if you vacationed at the shore.

The final must is a handwritten thank-you note posted via snail mail within a few days of your return home. “Emailing reduces the host’s effort to the level of a casual lunch or a lift to work,” Post says. Got a spare room or an air mattress? Be sure to extend an offer of hospitality in return: “If you’re ever in Buffalo, let me know. I’d love to have you come and stay at my place.” Then be prepared to roll out the welcome mat.