How Much Should Houseguests Treat?

Dear Helena,
When I'm a houseguest for a short period of time (two or three days), I buy at least one dinner and usually one breakfast as well—it seems like a nice hospitality thank-you, and it's a lot cheaper than staying in a hotel. If I'm somewhere for longer, probably two to three meals plus some kind of formal gift at the end (nice chocolates, wine, etc.).

Is this just me, or is this conventionally accepted behavior? I ask because we had two friends out interviewing at med schools, they stayed with us for three nights and didn't so much as get us flowers, and I was miffed, particularly since we'd bought them a nice dinner when we'd stayed with them for an equivalent stay. But maybe I have no right to be miffed. What do you think?
—Feeling Used

Dear Feeling Used,
You're right: If a guest stays overnight at your home, a mere "Thank you" isn't enough. The generally accepted rule, which I ascertained via an informal poll on Facebook, is that the guest should take the host out for a meal. And how much should he spend? To put it crudely, the answer depends on how much money you both make.

If you just made partner in your law firm and your guest is a struggling musician, then it's enough if he takes you to breakfast. But if you're the broke one, and your rich lawyer buddy comes to stay, he'd better pony up for a nice steak dinner. As a rule of thumb, one meal is sufficient recompense for a long weekend. But if you're putting someone up for four days or more, he should offer to take you out a second time.

The guest shouldn't insist on treating you by cooking at your house. It's not much of a treat if you have to answer a bunch of questions like, "Where do you keep the soy sauce?" Interestingly, offering to cook a meal in someone's home would be unthinkably intrusive in many other cultures. In China, says Jonathan Lipman, a professor of Asian studies at Mount Holyoke College, "The home kitchen is extremely private space, belonging to the granny, to the adults in the household, or to the servants ... so a guest would be way out of line even to propose such a thing." It's the same in Japan, says Tara Austen Weaver, a writer who lived there for five years. A Japanese host won't even allow the guest to help clear dishes, let alone cook.

A host gift is nice—especially if it's homemade and edible—but it's not required. For one thing, it's not always practical. These days a guest can't bring a bottle of wine in his carry-on baggage, and there may not be a good wine store near you.

The reason a guest ought to show appreciation, of course, is that hosting someone is hard work. You have to stock your refrigerator, wash the sheets, and perhaps pick up your guest from the airport. But people in their early twenties don't always realize this. After all, it was only recently that their parents were doing their grocery shopping and laundry. Case in point: A friend of mine in her late thirties recently hosted a twentysomething friend at her home. He didn't offer to take her out for breakfast, and worse still, he polished off an entire box of Samoa Girl Scout cookies stashed in her freezer. When she expressed mild irritation, he responded as if she were his mom: "Can't you just buy some more?"

As aspiring med students, your friends may not have the cash to treat you to a tasting menu at your local James Beard–nominated restaurant, but they should definitely spring for coffee and pancakes. If they're past their twenties, they're officially old enough to know better.

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