25 May 2023

Golden rules for guests

We’ve all become much more assertive about our needs and requirements. We think nothing of reeling out long orders at cafés that embrace oat milk, gluten free bread, vegan options. We boldly state that we are lactose intolerant, have peanut allergies are avoiding carbs. We have no compunction when staying in hotels about complaining when we find the feathers in the bedding allergenic or objecting to the non-availability of decaffeinated coffee and sugar substitute. An increasingly consumerist society, access to targeted specialist advice online, an ever-increasing focus on well-being, health conditions and dietary requirements, as well as an expanding availability of products that have been created to cater to every human taste and condition, have all conspired to make us uninhibited about own peculiar sets of desires and requirements. Sometimes we can turn into over-demanding bulldozers.

A few weeks ago, Debrett’s conducted an informal survey on social media, posing a simple question: When invited to somebody's home for tea, is it rude to take your preferred brand of tea bags with you? 86.5% said yes, 13.5% said no. We were delighted to hear that a very substantial majority agreed with us: it is a fundamental precept of good manners that the guest is flexible, non-demanding and never does anything that will make the host feel inadequate about their hospitality. However, we were surprised to see that quite a few people thought this was acceptable behaviour.

Whilst transactions in shops, cafés and hotels should always be conducted politely, you are undoubtedly the customer and you are entitled to make polite requests and, within reason, for your expectations to be met. You are paying for a service after all.

However, when you are invited to somebody’s home the whole transaction changes fundamentally. While it is delightful and gratifying to be plied with excellent foods, a range of tea and coffee or tempting drinks, you must remind yourself that it is not the primary reason for visiting your friend’s house. You are visiting as a guest because the hand of friendship has been extended to you. The purpose of your visit is to enjoy a social interaction, participate in a conversation, get to know a new person, cement a friendship. The catering is secondary.

We all welcome signs that a host has taken trouble before our visit – a tidy house, laid table or tea tray, and signs of preparation in the kitchen are all encouraging indicators that your host has made an effort. As a guest, it is your primary function to show your appreciation and, as far as possible, to take what you are given and be gracious about it. If you suffer from a severe allergy, it is acceptable to refuse a dangerous offering, but it would be more polite to warn your host beforehand, rather than springing your condition on them at the last moment.

If it is a case of your host supplying a brand of tea that you do not favour, or only having caffeinated coffee available, then the polite thing to do would be to accept what is offered courteously and drink it without any fuss. If you really don’t like the drink on offer, say something like “just a small cup for me, please” and do your best to sip it slowly and finish it. Being obliged to drink a cup of breakfast tea when you actually prefer a cup of Jade oolong or Hibiscus blossom tea is hardly a terrible sacrifice.

If you are having dinner at someone’s house and you don’t drink alcohol, don’t turn up brandishing a bottle of sparkling mineral water or elderflower cordial for your own consumption. At the very least, tap water is always available; most hosts will have already catered for non-drinkers and will find your offering somewhat reproachful.

If you’re on a special diet, the politest option is to do your best to negotiate the food on offer with the minimum of fuss and eat what you can. If you feel your requirements are more all-embracing (eg vegan) or complex (relating to severe allergies), then it would be best to warn your host when you accept the invitation. In rare circumstances when you feel that the only sensible thing to do is to bring special items of food for your own consumption, leave any untouched food at the end of the evening; do not take it home with you, unless specifically requested to do so by the host.

Ultimately, when you are invited to someone’s home, you must block out the ever-louder cacophony of demands and desires that relate to your personal comfort. Take a moment to consider why you have been invited and accept it as a compliment, which should never be diminished by an inability to behave courteously. Discard your inflexible list of requirements, fall into step with your host, and be grateful for their hospitality – that way you’ll be able to concentrate on human relationships, which are what really matter.


MPA House
66 Baker Street
Weybridge KT13 8AL
United Kingdom
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66 Baker Street
Weybridge KT13 8AL
United Kingdom
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