One mark of a civilized society is a code of manners, part of which involves rules of hospitality. How should one behave when one is a guest or a host? We are not usually taught such things at school. There are books of “etiquette” – but, if we learn these rules at all, it is mostly from our parents. The supreme guiding principal is of course the “Golden Rule.” Do as you would be done by. Treat others the way you would wish to be treated.
But what if this involves expense and inconvenience? What if your own comfort has to suffer in order to make your guests comfortable? And just how long should you have to put up with them anyway? I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said that fish and visitors begin to smell in three days.
But, as a general rule, the more harsh the conditions may be outside your dwelling, the more you are obliged to offer refuge to anyone seeking it. That is why desert-dwellers like the Arabs are famous for their hospitality. Some years ago, I had an almost embarrassing experience of this attribute, when hitch-hiking in an Arab region of Israel. Not only was I invited into the tent-home of a family who saw me passing by on the road, to share their simple dinner, but, when I left, the children ran after me, offering coins, which of course I couldn’t accept.
I’m not by nature a compassionate person – but am still haunted by the memory of an incident more than 40 years ago, when I failed to meet the minimal test of being a “Good Samaritan.” Time has erased many of the details, but I had heard on the news something about a big fire on a far edge of our community, with a number of people driven from their homes. And what I remember is that I received a telephone call from someone I didn’t know, but who was in need of somewhere to stay, because of the fire. It appeared that the only reason he chose to call me was that I was a sort of local celebrity, with my name and work in the paper every day. I don’t think our conversation was very long – but it did not end with my inviting this person to come and stay with me – or even offering any other kind of help.
I could offer you excuses, such as having had an upbringing in which I’d always been cautioned to beware of strangers. Or the fact that my wife happened to be away, and it was really her house, and she was even more wary of strangers than I was. Still, after all these years, the memory weighs heavily on my conscience.
Nowadays, along with the debasing of many other words and concepts in our language, “hospitality,” once something of a family virtue, has become a mass- marketed industry, with its own schools, standards, and certifications. Millions earn their livelihoods by accommodating and entertaining others. The comforts of eating, sleeping, and relaxing have become highly homogenized, as represented by chains of lodging-establishments, national and international, in each of which you may expect to find facilities so similar that it is easy to forget just where you are.
Nevertheless, there are no corresponding schools of what I might call the art of “guestmanship.” The trouble is, there’s no money in it. Unless you happen to be a truly exceptional person, very few people will pay for the privilege of receiving you in their house. In most cases, they will feel that the free room and board they’re providing is quite enough. Some people have become so adept at moving about from house to house of friends or family members, that they might be called professional guests.
But being a guest provides its own problems in etiquette. For example, hosts put out “guest towels” in their bathrooms – but is the guest really supposed to use them? If so, why are those towels so inadequate, compared with all the others on display? And how does one resist the temptation, when securely locked in that little room, to inspect the contents of one’s host’s medicine cabinet?
Of course, like everything else in our now-digital world, there are today plenty of online methods of matching hosts and guests, who might otherwise never have met. But, however it has been arranged, the big difference between host and guest remains unchanged: only the guest can go home.