Nobody likes a houseguest who critiques the arrangements, announces his likes and dislikes, refuses to participate in planned activities, uses the place only to sleep or remains constantly underfoot, never offers return treats and expects to be waited upon without having to lift a finger to help.
But there are more ways than these for a houseguest to become a household pest. That can also be accomplished by praising everything in sight, refraining from admitting to any dislikes or special likes, being ready to do everything proposed, dropping everything to follow the host's schedule, helping out around the house and reciprocating generously.
Miss Manners hates acknowledging this. If only the etiquette business consisted of setting out rigid rules requiring obedience but not judgment -- which most people think etiquette is, anyway -- her life would be simpler. She could bark out orders and retire to her porch swing without the nuisance of dealing with nuances.
But then you might be stuck with exasperating people who follow the rules scrupulously, such as the Perfect Houseguest.
This type can be identified first thing in the morning, when he refuses to choose among the options offered. That may be a relief after the houseguest who announces that his breakfast needs include kiwi juice, eggs Florentine, bread with no preservatives, boysenberry jam and a specific brand of coffee with fresh cream. But not after the following dialogue:
Host: "What do you normally have for breakfast?"
Guest: "Oh, anything."
Host: "I have eggs, bagels and cereal. What would you like?"
Guest: "It doesn't matter."
Host: "But what would you like?"
Guest: "Oh, I like everything."
And so on. Inquiries as to whether he slept well bring a reassuringly positive answer, and it is only later than the host discovers that rather than ask for an extra pillow or blanket, the guest went out and bought one.
Praise for the household is gratifying until it has accumulated to the point where hardly a stick in the house has not been favorably appraised, and the host is beginning to feel as if he is running a shop.
If the host seems momentarily occupied, the Perfect Guest puts himself under house arrest in his room. When the host proposes an activity, he unfailingly acquiesces, and may be overheard canceling any independent plans he was encouraged to make, such as sightseeing or visiting other friends in town.
But he can also take the initiative. He jumps up to clear the table while people are still eating, washes up while no one is looking and puts things away where no one can find them. Instead of bringing a small luxury in the way of a present, he brings groceries and other staples. In the most extreme cases, he leaves money behind to cover the host's costs.
Such a guest may sound good to those who suffer from the inconsiderate guests, but Miss Manners assures them that guests who are trying too hard to be perfect can be perfect nuisances. It is nerve-racking to try to please someone without receiving any reliable feedback. Having one's every gesture of hospitality anticipated and thwarted eventually seems insulting. And then there is the irritant of not being able to find where the guest put the washed spoons.
It can almost -- but not quite -- seem to be a high price to pay for not finding hair in the guest bathroom sink.
Dear Miss Manners:
My best friend is getting married and we want to know if there is a proper way to ask for donations to the newlyweds in lieu of presents. They have everything they need, but the cost of the wedding is going to put her in debt for a long time.
First we thought of opening an account for family and friends to make a deposit into, but we wouldn't know who gave what. Then we thought of having a nice decorative box for the envelopes to go in. We feel this is tacky asking for money, but it's really what they need. Can you help us?
Yes, because Miss Manners knows what your best friend really does need. She needs to know that there is no polite way to say, "We plan to spend beyond our means and want to stick you with the bill."
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
(c) 2005, Judith Martin