An American friend has invited you to visit his family. You've never been to an American's home before, and you're not sure what to do. Should you take a gift? How should you dress? What time should you arrive? What should you do when you get there? Glad you asked. When you're the guest, you should just make yourself at home. That's what hospitality is all about: making people feel at home when they're not.
The question of whether or not to bring a gift often makes guests squirm. Giving your host a gift is not just a social nicety in some cultures-it's expected. But in American culture, a guest is not obligated to bring a present. Of course, some people do bring a small token of appreciation to their host. Appropriate gifts for general occasions might be flowers, candy or-if the family has small children-toys. If you choose not to bring a gift, don't worry. No one will even notice.
American hospitality begins at home-especially when it involves food. Most Americans agree that good home cooking beats restaurant food any day. When invited for a meal, you might ask, "Can I bring anything?" Unless it's a potluck, where everyone brings a dish, the host will probably respond, "No, just yourself." For most informal dinners, you should wear comfortable, casual clothes. Plan to arrive on time, or else call to inform your hosts of the delay. During the dinner conversation, it's customary to compliment the hostess on the wonderful meal. Of course, the biggest compliment is to eat lots of food!
When you've had plenty, you might offer to clear the table or wash the dishes. But since you're the guest, your hosts may not let you. Instead, they may invite everyone to move to the living room for dessert with tea or coffee. After an hour or so of general chit-chat, it's probably time to head for the door. You don't want to wear out your welcome. And above all, don't go snooping around the house. It's more polite to wait for the host to offer you a guided tour. But except for housewarmings, guests often don't get past the living room.
Americans usually like to have advance notice when people come to see them. Only very close friends drop by unannounced. This is especially true if the guests want to stay for a few days. Here's a good rule of thumb for house guests: Short stays are best. As one 19th century French writer put it, "The first day a man is a guest, the second a burden, the third a pest." Even relatives don't usually stay for several weeks at a time. While you're staying with an American family, try to keep your living area neat and tidy. Your host family will appreciate your consideration. And they may even invite you back!
Most Americans consider themselves hospitable people. Folks in the southern United States, in particular, take pride in entertaining guests. In fact, "southern hospitality" has become legendary. But in all parts of America, people welcome their guests with open arms. So don't be surprised to find the welcome mat out for you. Just don't forget to wipe your feet.