The Call to Hospitality: “Houseguests are Like Fish”

All Christians are called to hospitality–we never know when we’re entertaining angels right? My husband and I also really enjoy having dinner guests and houseguests, most of the time, assuming we’re not in pre- or post-baby survival mode.

But I’ve been startled a few times at how my patience and generosity begin to run very, very thin when guests stay for more than a couple of nights. Even the dearest friends. I start measuring what I’m giving; I start resenting the extra cleaning and cooking; I lose interest in thinking of good conversation topics, even though there is always so much heart-to-heart catching up that could be done.

We have an expression in the South, which is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “Houseguests–like fish–begin to smell after three days.” [And often added in at the end "and need to be pitched out."] This one’s best quoted in a thick southern accent. And the South is known for hospitality!

But the reality is some houseguests ask to stay longer and need to stay longer than 2 nights/3 days, and I would like to find ways to pace myself so that I can be patient and generous to the end.

The openness toward guests in Italian, Latin American, Filipino, and other cultures is really appealing–they expect to have people in and out often, and everyone’s more relaxed about it. Guests don’t get pitched out like rotten fish, but somehow the moms don’t become burned out and passive-aggressive after 3 days. (Maybe it’s because moms in some of those cultures typically have several household servants :  )?)

Seriously though, any tricks?

  • Hologram Tupac

    What is hospitality for you? Are perfect standards of thought and emotion generating unnecessary anxiety here for you? Does the injunction to “Be angry but do not sin in your anger” relieve some of the stress? Would it be ethical according to your standards to have nasty thoughts pop up now and then but then let go of them without encouragement, extension, or action? What triggers your anxiety or anger? Do you have clear, agreed upon expectations with guests about their length of stay, logistics, meals, etc.? Do you feel comfortable asserting what you consider ok requests? In other words, how do you distinguish between sources of hospitality you freely endorse from manipulative pressure (false fear, obligation, and guilt) generated by guests, culture, or yourself? How does all this apply to you as a guest? Who or what do you hope to trick?

  • Hologram Tupac

    Hologram Tupac should admit that he never keeps fish or houseguests for more than 48 hours, so he finds your question angelic.

  • Ana

    How about letting them help you out, assign them chores, let them be responsible for cooking one of the meals? I don’t live close to my family and would give an arm and a leg if I could have visits often.

    • Juris Mater

      Ana, you’re right, having family close enough to visit is such a blessing.

  • Melinda

    Hey, JM, I have given this some thought, since we have a beach shack that has seen a lot of guests and even a builder or two. ;-) My two cents are that you should not be shy about asking for help from your guests. I am the kind of person who loves to pitch in but can never, ever figure out what is needed in someone else’s kitchen. I have such admiration for people (LG comes to mind) who seem to intuit what is needed and have it done before the hostess has thought of it herself. That is definitely not me! So if you feel like a houseguest isn’t pitching in, assume she is wishing for a way to help out, then tell her what it is! Keep food simple, don’t try out any new recipes, and stick to your regular routines, especially sleep routines. Nothing makes my guests stink faster than if I let them screw up the baby’s nap. If you are feeling like your guests are completely blowing your food budget, ask if they mind picking up a few things you are missing for dinner. They will be happy to contribute. Also, if guests stay for longer than a couple of nights, ask them to watch your kids for an hour or two while you and Mr. JM go out for a drink. It can even be after bed time, if you are nervous about your guests’ ability to handle your lively brood. It is a great way for you to get a little “free” babysitting and for both you and your guests to have a little down time. After all, you can only be engaged in round-the-clock witty and meaningful conversation for so many days in a row.

    • Juris Mater

      Melinda, thank you, these are such great suggestions. In particular, asking for concrete kinds of help and… let’s not forget the real kicker… being OK if it’s not done my way/to my level of efficiency or cleanliness. I tell you, the polishing of the controlling side of me is a painful purification!!

      And I love the idea of taking an hour walk to our nearby pub, just my husband and me, and letting the guests have down time too. That hour could pay amazing dividends.

  • Kellie “Red”

    I completely agree with the sentiments of asking for help from your guests, especially if they are staying for multiple nights. I think asking for some assistance with preparing meals, serving, and clean-up is often important in making your guests feel comfortable–as though they are not imposing. I would also second the babysitting suggestion, and asking them to pick up a few things for various meals. Finally, I think it is important to make a distinction between the virtue of hospitality and entertaining. We are not called to entertain, but to offer hospitality. The one involves putting on a show, the other is a gift of ourselves and our home to make our guests feel loved and cherished. Whenever I get worked up about having guests over, I often realize that I am trying to entertain or impress, rather than to host. I have a friend who is an excellent hostess, and it is because she is VERY focused on creating a loving environment, not serving a perfect meal or appearing to have it all together. She goes about her normal day, and opens her home to others in a way I truly admire. The food isn’t perfect, things are not always clean, but the company is amazing.

    And for what it’s worth, I happen to think Melinda is an EXCELLENT hostess, and her advice was spot on!

    • Juris Mater

      Kellie, the distinction between entertaining and being hospitable is so important. Thank you for that reminder! My competitive side wants so much to entertain and impress, but I swear it’s going to be the death of me. If we ever get ourselves out of survival mode and host again, I’m going to spend time reflecting on hospitality beforehand–I found it interesting that you said your friend who is an excellent hostess is “very FOCUSED on creating a loving environment”. Spending that focused energy, both before and during, on the people rather than the trappings would be a very significant shift.

      Also, I think feeling freedom to go on about my normal day, as much as possible/necessary, would be really helpful when the time exceeds 3 days. But are guests really OK with that, if they’ve come from a long way away and don’t visit that often?

  • maryalice

    Not to be a wet blanket, but I also think it is fair to limit the amount of hospitality you are expecting of yourself these days. I am a big one for saving what I have (in patience, etc) for my own children right now, and while you sound very generous, you are not a running a B&B. I am assuming that in order to have guests you either have to change the kids’ sleeping arrangements or have the person sleep on a hideaway in the family room, either of which get old fast. Other than immediate family who are coming in part with the intention of helping you, don’t have guests for more than 3 days.

    Maybe it is just my need for privacy, but I couldn’t feel truly free to go about my normal day when someone else was in my house — to do my prayer routine, or choose whatever stupid thing I want to watch on TV, or be alone after I put my kids to bed, and that would wear me out quickly if it happened more than very rarely.

  • KT

    I find that I have to just let go of my expectations for my daily routines and give up a fair amount of control. I often find that makes the visit more relaxing (for instance, I feel less pressured to get my daughter doing constructive or educational activities in the morning and let her roam the backyard or watch an extra show if it means catching up over coffee in pajamas with my guest). This summer we have a lot of family staying with us in a small house for a long weekend. This will mean my husband and I sleep on an air mattress in my daughter’s room. While the thought of giving up my bed and privacy for 4 days isn’t exactly appealing, I am comforted by the thought of embracing the crazy and enjoying having my home full of people I love and don’t see but maybe once a year, if that. I also find that it’s easier for me ask guests to pitch in with meals or drinks when they are staying for more than a few days. I am also lucky that many of our friends want to treat us to dinner as payment for not getting a hotel, so that has been nice. I’d say if having guests for more than a few days is very stressful you have to assess your expectations and decide what isn’t negotiable (ex. naptimes are a must but extended bedtime is ok, etc.). Good luck!

  • http://www.NancyFrench.com Nancy French

    Ha! I linked to this article on the Faith and Family landing page BEFORE I read it. I wrote something like “Click through to find out how to be hospitable.” But you really are asking for tips! :)

  • http://icaskey.wordpress.com Adina, mommy to three plus

    Your feelings are valid. Proverbs 25:17 says, “Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor’s house, lest he have his fill of you and hate you.” The issue is, what is “seldom” and what is “his fill of you”??

    My husband and I were not raised in similar cultures, so we have come to our view of what hospitality is through much trial and error. Here are a few things we have done to make our visits with family and friends sweet and enjoyable, keeping in mind that it is a blessing to have people visit:
    1. Remember that it is a compliment that people feel comfortable to stay with you. God can use that.
    2. Consider the needs of your guests. Sometimes what they want (to stay longer with no responsibilities for example) may not be the best thing for them or their relationship with you.
    3. Think about your family priorities and express them to the people visiting, ie., “we would love for you to come visit, but this is a really busy time, so we can only host you for a day or two.”
    4. Decide together as a couple and be clear with whoever is visiting what you expect.
    5. If someone offers to help, TAKE IT!! We have family that love to come, and we have a tradition that she brings the junk food, cereal and sodas and I cook the main meals. It works well, and everyone is happy. I will also start sweeping a room, hand the broom to the person standing there and say, “do you mind finishing this, I really need to get the children in the bath.” The same with dishes, or other duties. Sometimes I have fond that people are shy to help because the feel they are intruding or will make you feel like you aren’t cleaning enough, or doing things right.
    6. Remember that this is your house, so keep your routine as best you can, this gives your family stability, and gives other people time to do what they need (like going for a walk, or reading a book, or whatever they do to unwind)
    7. Remember this is your house, so you can ask people kindly to do things or participate with your family as much or as little as you would like. We include guests in on our family devotions, we make mealtimes family events just like they are when people aren’t visiting.
    8. Enjoy the time with your guests, remember that it’s about serving them and loving them. The best conversations are often had late into the night as people reveal what is really going on in their lives. Take these opportunities to point people to Christ, to encourage love for God, love for the Body of Christ and love for each other.
    9. Finally, PRAY about how to handle visits. Every person is different, and has different needs. There’s not one way to handle every situation – except with LOVE of course. . .all of our interactions should be filled with love because of the GREAT love that has been poured out on us in Jesus Christ!


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