Coping with Nonstop House Guests

(Archived from “Personal and Confidential,” an advice column that ran on this website for two years.)

Dear Personal and Confidential,

We are at an attractive post and have non-stop guests — and I am going crazy! It’s expensive to feed and entertain everyone, and we’re all irritable and exhausted. Help!

–Crazy in the Caribbean

Dear Crazy:

I sympathize with you completely. The main problem here, unfortunately, is a conflict in perspectives — your guests naturally consider their trip (not to mention themselves) unique and special. Surely you should drop everything, for such a limited time, to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime visit with them!

But to you, these special folk are just the latest in a long parade. What you’d really like to do is get on with your ordinary life. But how can you do so without offending your guests?

The first point to keep in mind is that slightly offending your guests — by neglecting to be with them every minute or to fulfill their every wish — is not the worst thing you can do. The worst thing you can do is to let yourself become so frazzled that it shows, leaving you miserable, your guests feeling guilty, and your whole future relationship on shaky ground.

It sounds as if you are getting dangerously close to this point, so I would recommend that you set aside the noble but unworkable ideal of full-service hospitality and try some of these sanity-saving measures:

Find alternative lodgings. See if you can strike up a relationship with a local guesthouse, bed-and-breakfast, or similar. Your endless stream of guests could mean lots of business — and perhaps a reduced rate. If the cost is still high, your guests might spend some of their stay there and some with you, to cut down at least a bit on all the togetherness. They may be as relieved as you are to gain privacy and avoid imposing on you.

Send them off on their own. Research activities like guided day trips, short cruises or side trips to an interesting destination, and then suggest that your guests attend — without you. If you know your guests have a special interest (e.g. history, birdwatching, art), so much the better — hook them up with a local expert. A trusted general-purpose guide with a van is also a terrific asset, exposing your guests to the local culture while you take a much-needed break.

Make sure there’s something in it for you. A bit of “quid pro quo” can go a long way toward making the visit tolerable for you. Don’t be shy about asking visitors to bring special things you miss from home. If you have children, consider asking your guests to babysit while you and your spouse enjoy an evening out. Close friends or relatives may even be willing to stay with the kids for a weekend while you take off on a romantic trip — but it won’t happen unless you ask.

Do things you’ve been wanting to do. Instead of visiting the same museum for the tenth time, send your guests there alone and then invite them to do something else that is interesting and new to you. One of the best aspects of having guests is that they inspire you to get out and discover your host country. Make the most of it!

Take them grocery shopping. Shopping for food in another country is always an adventure. It can be doubly enlightening for your visitors — who may have no idea what things cost, or why you served instant coffee with breakfast and didn’t offer their favorite low-calorie sweetener. Most guests with rudimentary social instincts will also offer to pay a reasonable bill at checkout.

Equip them for independence. Think like a hotel manager and stock your guest room with items that will help your guests take care of their own needs and reduce their demands on you. Some ideas: maps of your city and neighborhood; tourist guidebooks; advertisements for local attractions; restaurant reviews; language handbooks with translations of common words, phrases and menu items; lists of phone numbers for guide services and taxis; and a phone card and/or cell phone.

Head them off at the pass. A posting at a “vacation destination” can attract self-invitations from distant relatives and friends you’d forgotten you had. When the next breezy e-mail asking about possible dates comes in, ask yourself two questions: Can you imagine yourself staying at this person’s house? And is it possible that you would enjoy having this person stay with you? If both answers are no, politely direct your potential guests to the bed-and-breakfast you identified above. Or fall back on that useful old social rule — when people make unreasonable requests of you, white lies are perfectly permissible. The plumbing in your government housing can’t handle extra visitors … your children have a contagious illness … you can’t get the bedbugs out of the mattresses.

It’s all for a good cause: your sanity, your enjoyment of your overseas posting, and your future relationship with the guests you do care about. Be brave, be bold, and stand up for yourself!

— P. and C.

Longtime AAFSW member Patricia Linderman is co-author of The Expert Expatriate: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad, with Melissa Hess, and co-editor of the AAFSW book Realities of Foreign Service Life, likewise with Ms. Hess. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Tales from a Small Planet.

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