While my husband Michael packed our suitcases in preparation for our return trip home from five wonderful vacation days in London, I gathered all of our used sheets and towels, stuffed them into a single pillowcase (as my Jewish male Martha Stewart-like husband had taught me) and carried the sack into kitchen where my friend and hostess Lisa was having breakfast before attending a class. “Do you want me to wash these?” I asked her. “Just leave them,” Lisa said. “I’ll get to them later in the week.”
“Really?” I asked, feeling guilty that I was giving her one more thing to do – especially after she, her husband Jonathan, and their young son Aidan had shared their home, their food and their toys with us for the better part of a week. When it came to fulfilling the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim – welcoming guests – our friends had done it with open hearts and an open home. They had taken time off of work to be our tour guides, given us the keys to their apartment so we could come and go as we pleased, and had even handed over their shiny new MacBookPro (without even flinching) so that we could email our kids at sleepaway camp. Theodore Herzl once said, “Build your home in such a way that a stranger may feel happy in your midst!” They had done that – and more – and so it seemed like washing a few towels was the very least we could do.
“I can’t just throw a load in?” I pressed.
“Really.” Lisa gently insisted. “And by the way, Jonathan said that you guys were the perfect guests. And you were.”
The perfect guests? Us? What an incredible compliment to receive, considering all of the things that could possibly have gone wrong (from minor irritations to major annoyances) – and considering that I, in fact, have a shaky track record as a houseguest.
Yes, it’s true. Despite my natural charm, my friendly disposition, and my unyielding humility, I haven’t always been the most thoughtful guest – for friends and family alike. As a child, I recall my failure to hide my distain whenever a host would serve something that involved onions or mushrooms. “Yuck!” I would assert. “I’m not eating that. What else do you have?” I’d ask, while my parents apologized for my behavior and shot me looks of horror and outrage. (I know this because I have those looks as part of my own parental repertoire today). As a young guest, I cared more about making sure my palate was pleased than I did about the feelings of our hosts who had put time and effort into making a meal, or about my parents’ preference not to be humiliated.
My tour of tactless guest behaviors continued into my early twenties, when I visited my my older brother Scott, his wife Debra, and my niece Shira, who was a baby at the time. As I sat on their sofa, watching their TV and eating their snacks, my brother came out of the bathroom from which I had recently emerged post-shower, clutching a handful of long, beautiful, wavy strands of black hair. Hey – I knew that hair! That was my hair. As Scott handed me back my tresses, he calmly reminded me that my young niece used that tub for her baths, and that he would prefer she neither marinate in nor strangle from a bath made up of my locks left behind. I had been more concerned with my own grooming that I hadn’t thought about the potential health, safety or “ick” factors I was leaving behind.
As an adult, I am still a work in progress. When I stay with my mom and stepdad, my mother is constantly scooping up my piles of evidence left behind in the wrong place – sunglasses on the sofa, magazines on the kitchen counter – and bringing them back to the guestroom where they (and my stuff) belong. When I stay with my mother- and father-in-law at their summer house, I know for whom the bell tolls when they ask, “who left all the lights on downstairs?” It tolls for me, and after 14 years of this, I’m surprised they haven’t started collecting a toll on my stay to help cover the electric bill. My mother-in-law has subtly hung a needlepoint sign in the guest bathroom that reads, “You did say you were leaving Sunday, didn’t you?” I don’t take it personally, of course — even though I probably should.
And of course, I am the mother of two works-in-progress. As houseguests, my children have been known to dismantle a thousand-piece Lego structure in two minutes that took hours for their cousin to build (sorry, Mark.) They have sulked over meals that were prepared with the finest gourmet ingredients, hoping that some Kraft macaroni and cheese would magically appear in place the wheatberry salad with scallions, pecans and cranberries in a champagne mustard vinaigrette (our apologies, Connie). And as a family in toto, we have, ahem, stopped up a particular piece of plumbing across the North American continent (with our regrets, Oksana, Matthew, Wendy, Becky, Laurie, Tom, etc.)
Pirkei Avot tells us to “Welcome everyone—with joy.” I must admit that we – I – have probably made it challenging for some to follow the Ethics of the Fathers. From leaving organic and inorganic traces behind to kvetching about the menu, there was clearly room for growth. And apparently, on this recent trip, we were able to apply the wisdom of poet Arthur Guiterman who quipped: “Good manners may in Seven Words be found: Forget Yourself and think of Those Around.”
While I really, truly wanted to ask my hosts what made us such good guests, it seemed a bit self-aggrandizing (not to mention fishing for compliments as well as a future invitation, which was offered nonetheless). So, I thought about what made this night (well, five of them) different from all others. What became clear to me was that, in thinking about what makes a good guest, I realized that these aren’t just guidelines for stays in someone’s home – these are solid principles for getting along with anyone, anywhere, on any turf. While the Talmud advises, “Whatever your host tells you, do,” I recommend that you don’t wait for you host to tell you to do something (or worse, wait until your host tells you to stop doing something). Click here to learn the three keys to making everyone feel welcoming and welcomed.