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How to Be a Gracious Hostess

Philemon and Baucis give hospitality to Zeus and Hermes.

Most cultures have accepted hospitality as one of the greatest womanly virtues since their earliest recorded history. In Ancient Greece, hospitality (xenia) was supervised by no lesser god than Zeus.

Being able to play hostess is also one of the great pleasures of wifery. And following a few simple guidelines can turn your house from a place for your guests to crash into a warm, welcoming home.

Offer a clear invitation. The guest-host relationship is like any other relationship—it thrives on communication. The best way to avoid disappointment and hurt feelings is to have clear expectations before a visit begins.

  • Clearly establish how long your guests will be staying, including exactly when they plan to arrive and leave. (Be sure you are home or at the airport to greet them!)
  • Be clear about what you’ll be doing. If you’re planning a fancy night out on the town or a long hike, your guests will need to pack appropriate attire. It’s okay to improvise once they arrive, but the stay will be more pleasant for everyone if guests feel prepared.
  • If your guests are an unmarried couple and you are uncomfortable offering them a shared bed, discretely discuss whether they will be staying in the same room before they arrive. While the conversation will be awkward a few weeks in advance, it will be much more awkward if you wait to show your friend’s fiancé her air mattress in the basement after she arrives.

Make your home welcoming. Adam makes fun of me for stressing out about cleaning the house before company arrives, but nothing makes me feel more unwelcome in someone’s home that dirt and clutter.

  • Your home should be clean and neat when you have company, no matter how you normally live.
  • You should also provide whatever your guests will need to feel at home. At minimum, stock up on snacks and beverages. (Ideally, ask before if your guests have a few favorite foods you can provide as a special treat.)
  • Show your guests how to use the technology in your home, especially if you have a complicated home entertainment center. This also means remembering to give them the wireless password for the internet before they ask.
  • Tell your guests how your home normally runs. (What time can they expect you to wake up? When do you normally eat meals? etc.)
  • If there is anything in your home you don’t want to share with your guests, either move it to a private space—such as the master bedroom—or politely explain to your guest why you don’t want to share. A little awkwardness in the short run often prevents serious embarrassment in the long run.

Make your guest bedroom welcoming. Emily Post suggests spending a night in your guest bedroom (or improvised guest bedroom) to find if anything your guests might reasonably need is missing or broken. That may be a little extreme, but it is a good idea to do a mental inventory a few days in advance of your guest’s arrival.

  • Make a list of what you need to be comfortable at night. Your guest bedroom should have at least clean sheets, an extra blanket, and two or more pillows per person. A reading lamp (or two), an alarm clock, and tissues are always helpful. One friend always provides a few, well-chosen books for us to read when we visit—a gesture that makes us feel so welcomed we now copy it in our own home.
  • Be sure to check the guest bathroom, too. Adam and I learned the hard way that plumbing that isn’t in regular use may unexpectedly fail when you have company. Flush the toilet to make sure it flushes and doesn’t run. Use the sink and shower to make sure the water heats up and the drains don’t clog. Ideally, your guest bathroom should have soap, shampoo, and conditioner. Stocking the medicine cabinet with basics like ibuprofen, Tums, and Band-Aids will prevent your guest from feeling like a bother if she doesn’t feel well. An extra toothbrush, still in its packaging, and toothpaste can save you a last-minute run to the drug store.

Make your city welcoming. As much as your guest probably wants to see you, he may be visiting to sightsee nearby as well. Adam and I live in Washington, DC, so we expect guests will want to explore the city, both with and without us.

  • Have a list on hand of fun, unconventional places to visit. If your city has mass transit, it’s a nice touch to provide resident or loyalty cards preloaded with train or bus fare.
  • Even if you don’t live in a tourist destination, plan to show your guest what makes you love where you live. Take them to the local art cinema. Go for a walk in a nearby state park. Be particularly conscientious about providing entertainment to guests without cars in a suburban or rural setting.

Be sensitive to your guest’s needs and fears. Nothing makes someone feel more unwelcome than feeling like a burden.

  • Never complain to your guest about the expense of hosting or how your normal routine has to change to accommodate her. Even if your guest does become tedious, remind yourself that her stay is only temporary. After she leaves, you’ll probably miss her sooner than you expect.
  • Be sure to build alone time—for you and your guest—into his stay. Retire to bed early one evening. Go for a walk. Provide some reading material for your guest, or suggest fun things he might like to do nearby. It will be easier to enjoy each other’s company if you include a few short breaks.

Graciously accept your guest’s gifts or help. Traditional etiquette dictates that guests should always bring a gift, but it is never appropriate to expect a present. Never try to refuse a gift.

  • If your guest brings you a gift, thank him.
  • If the gift is something consumable—like a box of chocolates or a bottle of champagne—it is up to you whether you share it with him.
  • Take up your guest’s offers of help. If she wanted to be waited on, she would stay at a hotel. It is also appropriate to ask for help. Inviting your guest to dry the dishes while you wash can actually make her feel much more at home.

Don’t let limitations stand in the way of enjoying your company. When Adam and I moved into our home, I was seven months pregnant. I was too ill to devote much time to making our guest bedroom comfortable. When my parents came to celebrate our son’s birth, they had to buy their own guest bed. My mother-in-law later scrubbed every bathroom in the house.

The lesson I learned is that it isn’t possible to be a perfect hostess. There will always be something you’ve forgotten to prepare, a meal that burns, a toilet that stops running… Keep a good sense of humor and try to enjoy every moment with absent friends or family.

What makes you feel especially welcome in someone else’s home? Do you have any tricks for being a gracious hostess?

7 responses »

  1. Pingback: Lessons in Wifery from Homer’s Odyssey « Experimental Wifery

  2. Pingback: How to Write Great Thank You notes « Experimental Wifery

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  4. This is great! My parents hosted a lot growing up. My mom often would leave a small token gift on the beds of our guests. (We lived in France and especially if we had visitors from the US, a token of French chocolates or something like that always made the room feel extra welcoming!) Great tips!

  5. Wonderful website. A lot of helpful info below. Me sending this to some close friends ans additionally sharing in scrumptious. And clearly, thanks a lot to the efforts!


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