Holiday Visiting Etiquette

Whether you’re single or happily coupled up, follow this advice to avoid any unforeseen disasters when friends and relatives come home for an overnight stay during the holidays.

By Ronnie Koenig

t’s the most wonderful time of the year — when relatives, friends and sort-of acquaintances pack up their belongings, hit the road and arrive at your doorstep, ready to treat your house like their own five-star luxury hotel for the week. Whether you’re
Everything was fine… until they said goodnight and went up to our guest room.
the host or the guest, we’ve all had to deal with those awkward, middle-of-the-night kitchen encounters and not-so-comfortable sleeping arrangements at some point.

“Staying overnight is not like going over for dinner,” says Kathy Bertone, author of The Art of the Visit: Being the Perfect Host/Becoming the Perfect Guest. “The dynamics of overnight stays are more complex. First, many hosts really don’t know what to do to make their guests comfortable; they are terribly afraid of insulting their guests, so they don’t say anything when their guests behave badly. Second, guests often don’t know how to properly behave in another person’s home. I see that time and again.”

But overnight holiday visits can be a pleasurable experience — as long as everyone plays by the (unspoken) rules. Learn what not to do as we reveal the most embarrassing overnighter stories imaginable — and always, always remember to bring your own underwear!

“Our guest room turned into their honeymoon suite”
Marisa*, 34, of Greenwich, CT got more than she bargained for when she convinced her husband to let her host an old college friend the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. “I hadn’t seen T since our wild college days, and she emailed me to say that she was coming to town with her new husband. Even though I was hugely pregnant at the time, I extended an invitation for them to stay with us. We had a nice dinner together and hung out for a long time catching up. Everything was fine… until they said goodnight and went up to our guest room. At first, we thought they were having a fight, but we quickly realized they were having sex — really loud, passionate sex — in our home, while we were still awake! We were both too embarrassed to say anything to them, and then it happened again the next night. Maybe I’m a prude, but part of me wishes they had just checked into a motel.”

The expert’s advice: “The friend being too embarrassed to address the situation is a problem that hosts often have,” says Bertone. “It is absolutely appropriate for the host to take her college friend aside and privately tell her that she has to keep it down. This can be done is a light-hearted way, but it needs to be done. The bottom line is that if one party is upset (for a legitimate reason), [he or she] should let the others know — nicely, of course.” As for guests who want to get frisky in a friend’s house, it’s best to temporarily curb your desires. “If they absolutely must, it has to be done quietly… i.e., with hands over mouths!” advises Bertone.

“Our guest was under-dressed for breakfast”
Geri, 55, of Lenox, MA is used to hosting guests at the home she shares with her husband — especially during the winter holidays, when everyone wants to hit the ski slopes. “A couple we became friendly with on a trip was staying with us for a long weekend. I woke up early to make waffles for the four of us. When our friends came downstairs, they were still dressed in their pajamas. The wife had on a nightgown which was very revealing — the top was see-through, and she didn’t have on a bra. I even offered her a robe, but she declined! I never wanted to see that much of my friend. Sad to say, but it’s soured the relationship — at least for me.”

The expert’s advice: “In this situation, the host (if she has enough nerve) should go to her own bedroom, get a cover-up of some kind, come back and sweetly say, ‘You look cold, dear. Here is something for you,’ and drape it over at least her top half!” suggests Bertone. “The point will be made, and if the guest has any class, she will go back to her room to change. The host doing this demonstrates graciousness: If the poor thing did not realize the nightgown was that revealing, she will not be more embarrassed than is already possible. And if she did know, and only wanted to entice… well, mission still accomplished!”

“She was in the right apartment, but the wrong bed”
Everett, 43, of New York, NY reluctantly put his cousin and one of her friends up at his place over Thanksgiving one year. “I’m generally not a person who likes to share his personal space, but all the hotels were outrageously expensive, so I offered,” recalls Everett. What happened next left him wishing that he had paid for a hotel room — for
Thankfully, he didn’t see anything… but it was very awkward.
himself. “I gave my cousin and her friend, Patty, my bedroom, and I slept on the fold-out couch. During the night, I felt someone next to me under the covers. I looked up and saw Patty lying next to me. I yelled out and she jumped out of the bed, claiming that she had somehow gotten mixed up. I was in a relationship at the time, and told her in no uncertain terms that I did not want her near me. I haven’t had a houseguest since.”

The expert’s advice: “It could have been an honest mistake, or it could be that the female guest had either too much to drink or was lying,” says Bertone. “In either case, he should simply tell (not ask) her to leave, lock the door, and not have her back. If hers was an honest mistake, she must own up to it the next day and apologize. It is then the male host’s decision whether to accept it or not.”

Always knock before entering!
My family and I are usually the ones who travel during the holidays, but last year, we stayed local. A friend of my husband’s came to stay with us — I’d never met him before, and he seemed like a strange character. On Christmas Eve, the two of them went out to meet up with some friends. When they got home I was in the bathtub, and the friend barged into the bathroom without knocking first. We didn’t have a lock on the door, but it was pretty obvious that the light was on and someone was in there. Thankfully, he didn’t see anything… but it was very awkward. The next morning, he came into our room and asked my husband if he could borrow some underwear because he had forgotten to pack his! I refrained from yelling at this guy because my husband likes him, but it left me wondering — what are people thinking when they go visit someone and behave this way?

The expert’s advice: “The guest should apologize profusely to both husband and wife and send either flowers or a sincere note the next day asking forgiveness for the awkward intrusion and thanking them for the underwear loan,” says Bertone. “Perhaps he will be forgiven if it was indeed an accident. One must give the benefit of the doubt, but there is little excuse for no underwear. He could have gone without until he got back to his own place. I don’t think one ‘borrows’ another person’s underwear. If the poor guy really needed a pair that badly, the husband could have just given him one.”

Remember, hospitality is a two-way street
If you are traveling to friends this holiday season — or playing host yourself — keep these simple tips in mind:

1. A good host is cool under pressure, gracious, and able to nicely let guests know what is expected of them and what just won’t fly,” says Bertone.

2. “A good guest needs to be mindful that their friend’s house is not a B&B,” advises Bertone. “They are expected to be neat, cook a meal or take their host out to dinner (if they are staying longer than one night) and that they should speak up in a polite way if they need something or if there is something that is wrong.”

Both the host and the guest can benefit from being even more kind and generous than they normally would be during the yuletide season. Before you book a hotel, remember: If both parties are respectful of one another and keep the lines of communication open, overnight stays can not only be tolerable, they can be great opportunities for fun, bonding and making special memories together.

*All names have been changed to protect the contributors’ privacy.

Ronnie Koenig is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Visit her online at
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