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The (New) Rules for Houseguests

Post-vaccine stay-over visits are starting, but expectations have changed

cartoon illustration of a family houseguest being welcomed

Salini Perera

En español | After months of holing up in our homes with only family members or pets as companions, confidants and entertainment, it’s no surprise that some of us are jumping off our well-worn couches at offers to visit extended family and friends. But before you retire the sweatpants and pack your bags, consider this: Being a gracious houseguest requires an etiquette update when we’re rolling out of a global pandemic with rusty social skills and evolving health care concerns.

Here is some updated advice from etiquette and mental health experts that will help make sure your first invitation in a very long time isn’t your last.

Have the (COVID) talk. It’s not the most fun you’ll have together, but you should discuss coronavirus comfort levels with your host before you arrive. Will you be going to restaurants or dining at the house? Will other guests be coming over? Should you hug upon arrival or maintain your distance? “It’s best to just be honest and get it all out there before you arrive,” says Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life. “Not everyone is on the same page, and you want to make sure you can get it out of the way and have a good time or — worst-case scenario — take a rain check until things settle down more.”

BYO sheets and towels. “In the age of COVID, some people may be wary about other people using their personal items,” says Anita Barbee, professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Louisville. “Bringing your own alleviates any anxiety they might have about sharing or washing these necessities.” Plus, you’ll score points for being a low-maintenance visitor.

Steer clear-er of sticky subjects. Keep in mind that the list of hot-button topics has gotten a little longer — and more heated — over the past year. “Politics and the COVID vaccine are not dinner table chatter; it’s not your job to chastise the host if they are not getting vaccinated,” says Gottsman. “And boasting about a new boat or second home, while always boorish, is even more taboo. Many people are struggling financially; just be sensitive, and stay away from topics that will hurt feelings or cause tempers to flare.”


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Pitch in … but sanitize first. As tempting as it may be after a year of doing everything for yourself, this is not the time to sit back and let your host wait on you. Offer to make or buy a meal, do the dishes, help with food prep. “But make sure they’re OK with the help you’re offering first, and even let them see you scrubbing up,” Barbee suggests.

Don’t be clingy. No matter how thrilled you are to reunite, give your host some space. “We’re not used to being in the same room, let alone the same home for several days,” says Lynda Lambert, spokeswoman for AAA East Central. “Give your host some breathing room by planning some time on your own. Take a walk; read a book; take a nap.” Let your host know that you don’t need to be entertained 24/7. If your host wants to be your full-time social director, he or she will offer!

Know when to go. While we’re all remembering which fork to use and how to have a face-to-face conversation, we need to pace ourselves. And that means that after three days, no matter how charming you are, you’re pushing it. “People are trying to get back to their daily routines, reorganize their lives and ease into a fuller social life again,” Barbee says. Some may be so excited that they want you to move in; others may feel exhausted. But it’s better to be missed than to be hastened out the door.

Remember what your mother taught you. It’s still good form to bring a gift for your host, clean up after yourself and write a thank-you note. Says Lambert, “Many social norms have changed over the past year, but being thoughtful and grateful is always the best way to get invited back.”

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