Ah, the holidays. Tis the season for family gatherings. For many of us, that means traveling long distances and spending a lot of quality time with family. Her family. This may seem obvious, but during these extended stretches of family time we should act different than we would in our own homes. I don’t mean that you should be disingenuous. I don’t mean you should pretend to be “best friends” or worse “roommates”. I mean that you should make an effort to act like your best self. Perhaps even like a gentleman. Fact of the matter is that whether you mean to or not, you are going to make an impression on her family during this visit. Here’s how to make it a good impression.
A big part of the impression you make will be based on how you act as a houseguest. When you stay in someone’s house, they get to see many of your more private and revealing habits for themselves. And believe me, they will notice them. If they don’t like you or don’t know you, they are going to be watching you with an eagle eye. Now is the time for best behavior. As my friend Hilary would say, “You better act right.”
Keep it clean
The easiest way to make a good impression is to be a tidy guest. You are sharing their space. They may need to get something from the spare room you stay in, so make sure to keep it neat. Put your dirty clothes in a laundry bag. Keep you clean clothes in your duffel or hanging up. Don’t bring 4 suitcases just because you wanted a different pair of shoes for each day. Bring a tote bag to hold your books, magazines, spare battery and headphones. Every time you get ready to leave the room, stop at the door for a moment and glance around. Is the bed made? Are the lights turned off? Are your shoes out of the way? Are there clothes spilling out of your duffel? Are there water glasses from last night on the dresser? Take just an extra moment to tidy up so when your host has to go into your room for something, they are struck by how clean it is.
While tidiness is key in your guest room it is even more important when it comes to more common areas. The guest bathroom should not end up looking like your bathroom by the end of day 2. Keep your toiletries in your Dopp Kit and keep it zipped up and out of the way. Make sure to wipe down the sink after you brush your teeth or wash your face. And for goodness sake, hang up your towel and wipe up any wayward water after your shower. Nothing sets a Pa’s teeth on edge like a giant puddle of water soaking into his 60 year old linoleum flooring.
Next on our list of acting right is showing some common courtesy. Family members are not going to be impressed by your witty boxer shorts. A wife beater does not say “I’m someone who shows respect.” And hells bells, do not think that “just this once” it will be ok to dart from the bathroom to the guest room in just your towel. This is a good time to err on the side of being too modest. It will not kill you to wear a t-shirt and pajama pants during the early or late hours when you are hanging out. No one wants an inadvertent glance of your special parts.
Speaking of hanging out, remember that this is supposed to be family time. Don’t spend the whole stay with your head bowed over your phone checking Twitter like a prayer ritual. Don’t take your sweet headphones out of the guest room. The message wearing headphones sends is “I am shutting you out” and while you may want to do that, now is not the time. In the privacy of the guest room is a great time for headphones. Her parents or siblings or grandparents may not enjoy you rocking out in your nightly unwinding ritual at 11:30 p.m. Put on your headphones and blast your tunes to your heart’s content. Don’t take your phone calls in a room where everyone is hanging out. Step into the guest room or outside for your conversation.
If there is a lot of downtime, bring out your book or magazine. People will often ask what you are reading and this is a natural conversation starter. Remember that a big part of being a good conversationalist is listening. So ask some questions and let people talk to you. I have now heard my wife’s Pa tell me about his TV system set up, including how he can get a station from Toledo on the old antenna if the wind is right, about 37 times. But he loves to talk about this subject, so I smile and I nod and I still ask him questions. I’ve made it a personal goal to get him to reveal at least one thing he didn’t tell me during the last visit. People like it when you listen to them. And you may find that a conversation takes on a life of its own once it gets going. So put the phone in your pocket and hide behind a book or magazine instead. People will ask you about it and then you won’t need a distraction because you will be talking. And talking is a great way to connect with her family.
Go with the flow
One way to take some of the pressure off of your hosts is to be as easygoing as possible. During your stay, try to align yourself with the household’s timeline: if they get up at 7:30 a.m., don’t sleep in until 10. If they go to bed at 11, don’t hang out until 1:30 a.m. You don’t have to follow their schedule precisely, but by making an effort to keep nearly the same hours, you will make things much easier on them. If they are waiting for you for breakfast, they are going to get a wee bit antsy after 2.5 hours of checking to see if you are up yet. If they have family activities already planned, don’t make a big deal out of wanting to do something else.
If you have special dietary needs, let the host or hostess know ahead of time. It’s upsetting for someone to spend time cooking a big breakfast and then find out you are gluten free or a vegetarian or allergic to nuts. Oh, and by “special dietary needs”, I mean allergies and things you can’t avoid or a vegetarian lifestyle. Not “I-don’t-like-to-eat-vegetables-so-please-order-pizza”.
You only get what you give
In all of life, generosity builds bridges. Never more so than when sharing days on end with people you are still getting to know. Make sure you make an effort to help out. Offer to make breakfast one morning. Go get the morning newspaper so they don’t have to go out in the cold. Salt the sidewalk. Offer to start the car so it will warm up before you all head out on an adventure. If your hosts mention something they need from the store, offer to run out and pick it up for them. If they decline, offer to go with them to help. If they are doing some yardwork, pitch in. Offer to watch the baby while your brother-in-law goes to shower. Clean up the dinner dishes and start the dishwasher.
Giving is a great way to express gratitude to your host. When we stay with my wife’s grandparents, we sometimes take them containers of frozen soup to stock their freezer. Another easy gift is to take a special food item. A specialty cheese plate from where you live might have things they wouldn’t be able to find in their area. Or maybe your apple season is several weeks later than theirs so you can take fresh apple varieties that they don’t have. A simple bag filled with your local baked bread and a jar of jam is easy too. If all else fails, bring some flowers or a small plant. If your host is a craft beer nerd, take a mixed six pack of favorites from your town or a growler of a special seasonal beer from your favorite brewery. Take a small (small) bottle of good spirits with you and offer a nightcap one night. Obviously, don’t use this as a time to get piss drunk. Have a (one) drink with her dad or grandpa. Let them do the talking.
When you are honored enough to be invited to spend a holiday with her family, put your best foot forward. Do everything you can to make the girl you love proud. She wants her family to see your best side. She wants them to like you. So be a gentleman. And act right. You can make a big impression in a few days. Use this holiday with her family as a way to make connections and let them see you at your best.