As a child, I was a bit socially awkward. OK, really socially awkward. I got better, really.
However, even today, I find myself often unsure of what to do in new and unfamiliar social situations. The wonderful thing about traveling is that you're almost always in an unfamiliar social situation. Especially when you frequently find yourself a guest in the home of another, as I did in my recent month-long stay in Peru.
Being a guest is a wonderful opportunity, though! A chance to meet new people, see new lifestyles and values in action, and understand a people, culture, and city from a deeper, wider perspective compared to staying in a hotel or youth hostel. Or, it could simply mean a chance to reconnect with an old friend you haven't seen in ages. And now that I'm older and wiser (don't laugh), I love the idea of being a great guest, too. A guest that enriches the lives of their hosts, whose presence is a present.
The act of being a guest in another's home gives us a unique view not only into how they live their lives, but into how we can live ours. George Steiner has a wonderful essay on Jewish Identity (Zion and Jewish Identity, from My Unwritten Books) that is worth quoting:
It is my conviction that the Jew in the Diaspora must survive in order to be a guest among men. All of us are the guests of life, thrown into life beyond our volition and understanding. We are now being made grimly aware that we are the guests of a vandalized planet. Unless we learn to be one another's guests, mankind will slither into mutual destruction and perpetual hatred...
From this perspective, learning how to be a good guest means learning how to live convivially, sharing and creating mutual value with one another. Beyond fostering the empathic bonds necessary for our social and environmental survival, Steiner also sees the act of being a guest as leading to a personal state of perpetual curiosity:
If he is forced to resume his wandering, he will not regard this experience as a lamentable chastisement. It is also an opportunity. There is no language not worth learning. No nation or society not worth exploring. No city is not worth leaving if it succumbs to injustice. We are accomplices to that which leaves us indifferent. Judaism is Exodus, the spur of new beginnings, of the morning star.
For the curious guest, each new host is also a beginning, and an opportunity to learn, create, and enrich.
To return to how to be a good guest. I'm a great fan of simple rules of thumb. In light of my oft-lacking social skills, I decided to develop my own rules of thumb for the fine art of being a good guest. Some of these, most of them probably, will be obvious. Sometimes we forget to do the obvious, though- perhaps you'll find it useful, as I have, to have them written down and crystallized. I know I've had my share of embarrassing moments with hosts that I'd rather not repeat.
In the end, I think they can be summed up as: How can I leave my host's home as a good friend, or as a better friend than before? The principles of doing this are basic (clean up after yourself, share moments and give gifts, and over-communicate), though the application is particular. Let us commence.
My (by no means original) Rules to the Art of Being a Guest:
These rules of thumb are not hard and fast. To quote Orwell, "Break any of these rules sooner than say [or do] anything outright barbarous".
Are there any you would add?
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much