How to be the perfect guest if you're staying in someone's house at Christmas

Staying in someone else’s house can be an etiquette minefield. There is so much scope to disrupt their lives. Bring a gift, be undemanding, and eat what you’re served, says Kya de Longchamps.

NEVER was a phrase so deeply compromised as ‘make yourself at home’. Being a guest in someone’s home can be fraught, especially with the demise of formal etiquette. It’s little wonder Anton Chekov wrote that people are far more sincere and good-humoured at speeding their parting guests than on meeting them.

Being a guest, in particular an overnight guest, you are, by your very presence, a disruptive force. It is up to you to temper the disruptiveness. Follow our simple guide to being a benign, thoughtful Christmas guest, who might even be asked back.

A party without a cake is just a meeting, said celebrity cook Julia Childs.

Never, ever arrive empty-handed to a dinner party, afternoon visit, or overnight stay. The gift should reflect the character of the event and, to a lesser extent, the length of your stay. Put some thought into it. Quality and personal input trounce quantity, size, and even price. Better a great bottle of Irish or a basket of your home-grown courgettes than six bottles of cut-price wine or a box of middling chocolates — people do notice.

Things that help the householder get through the visit are always a win. Observe how the hosts live, their dos and don’ts. For example, if they are not smokers, even e-cigarettes might not be allowed. Ask before vaping.

Reciprocate. There’s nothing more galling than putting up with anyone, either from home or abroad, who is openly using you for meals and weekends away and never returning the favour. If you visit, and

especially if you stay overnight, invite the host and family to come to you within a couple of months. Mean it.

Intimidated? Remember what Khalil Gibran said: If it were not for guests, all houses would be graves. Opening your life at the most personal domestic level can reap huge rewards. There are thousands of

digital invitations to customise, if you correspond by smart-phone, including an RSVP. We love the animated, uptown work of

Eat everything, and threaten the children with iPhone purdah into doing the same. With the exception of medical needs, allergies and meat/dairy-free diet choices, tuck in without remark. If you do have dietary requirements, tell your host by letter or call well in advance and bring some of your own, more fidgety foodstuffs. Oh, yes, and bring snacks in your luggage to avoid creeping through someone else’s house by night. It’s amazing how not having easy access to the fridge stokes the appetite.

Always compliment the house and interiors. The passive-aggressive silent treatment when in your school friend’s gorgeous, million-euro pad, is bad form. It just makes you look petty and covetous. If the place is (in your eyes) a disaster, fix on something you can appreciate (it could be the homely atmospherics) and speak out. The mantra is: always be kind. It takes courage for someone to open their home to you.

Leave your politics and personal life at home, unless you are very close friends.

Digging into contentious world issues — religion and politics, or unleashing the details of your bladder-tuck — is generally not a good idea. Light, convivial conversation, with everyone having time to tell their tale, suits most people. Don’t air your family issues.

Arguing with your partner? Not even on the driveway. Tell the children off when you get home. When things go wrong, it can quickly eclipse every good thing that happened during the visit.

Guiding other people’s children is off limits, bar compliments and genuine, positive chat. I was staying with friends in Sweden some years ago, when their outwardly angelic six-year-old decided to light a spontaneous bonfire in my bedroom. I threw some water on her large, flaming biscuit tin (which was fed with paperwork taken from my handbag) and took her by the hand (she was furious at being thwarted) down to her parents. I then went for a nice long walk in the snow. She’s now a lovely young woman, a darling.

DITCH the phone and other devices (refer to the manual for advice on turning it off; it does turn off).

Unless you are supplying insulin, or are a crew member on the RNLI lifeboat, or have small children left in others’ care, making and taking multiple calls or having a quick round of Candy Crush is just downright rude.

Forget what your teenagers tell you; things haven’t changed that much. Mobiles are the complete phonic buzz-kill for many gatherings. Referring to any electronics while in company says one thing: your

terrestrial companions don’t rate.

Don’t explore private quarters of the house, unless invited. This includes spare rooms, private wings, drawers, outbuildings and, above all else, the kitchen. Offer to help wash up, and then, if sufficiently rebuffed, back off.

There may appear to be utter civility everywhere, but some of us are hiding much of the culinary chaos, crammed behind those shaker cabinet doors. We don’t need outsiders rooting around in there with a simpering smile. As Oscar Wilde reminds us, Frank Harris has been received in all the great houses: once!

Finally, be self-sufficient. It helps a lot to have an en-suite or quick, darting path to the bathroom and (drum roll) your own kettle. Hosts take note. Once the last glass of wine or cup of tea has been quaffed, go to bed, get out your laptop, snack from your own supply, and give the homeowner the run of their house.

If you want to make a lasting impact, take children in the household for a lovely, long ramble or play a board game with them, while their parents handle the inherent bother of hosting you. Bliss.

Clearing dishes and putting them in the dishwasher is helpful.

Strip the bed and put towels in a pile when you go. Leave early enough to gift most of the final day to your hosts — don’t hang over that final breakfast.

Essential table etiquette

  • Utensils and glasses work inward with the courses, forks being on the left, knives and spoons the right (be a good host and set those lefties up correctly). Ensure plenty of elbow room at each setting.
  • The spoon and fork stacked across the top of the plate are for dessert. Spoon bowl facing left, fork tines right. The spoon sits over the fork.
  • Ensure fork prongs are upward and the knife blades facing the plate.
  • Fruit knives are brought to the table with the fruit, as they are served.
  • Side plates are to the left of the main place setting.
  • Everyone should have their own butter knife.
  • If stacking plates at the setting — it’s dinner plate (10”), topped by pudding plate (8”) and/or soup bowl — flat bowls are traditional.
  • Place glasses for wine around 12-2 o’clock. Offer red and white glasses.
  • Put the napkin on the side plate for your guest or to show off a great fold, or on the dinner-plate stack.
  • A diminutive, stemmed glass at a very sophisticated dinner is for sherry. Set closest to the diner.
  • If you put out fish knives, lead by example. Not everyone knows how to use them. Use just the tip of a fish knife for picking out the odd bone. Use the curved side to slide flat between the flesh and skin.
  • Birds in drums and thighs, and tiny birds eaten whole, can be eaten with the fingers. Once sliced, it’s cutlery. Ensure diners have what they need. Include small finger bowls, with some warm water and a slice of lemon.
  • Good hosts serve themselves last and never stretch over the table (Debretts). If you just ensure your guests have everything they need, that’s 99% of the battle.

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