Your guide to world-class manners. 

By Catherine Newman and Michelle Slatalla
Updated May 23, 2016
Couple waving at family on lake
Credit: Westend61/Getty Images

I invited a friend and her family (her husband and two children) to vacation with us at my parents’ home this summer. Then, at a party at my friend’s house, she began discussing the trip in front of a friend of hers, who said our plans sounded like fun. My friend invited her—and her two children—to join us. She then turned and asked me, in front of her friend and others, if it was OK. I was caught off guard and said yes. But my parents are older, and I cannot expect them to feed all of these guests. How do I handle this situation without upsetting anyone? — A.M.

I’m a little stuck on the fact that your friend publicly discussed your plans, then offered up your parents’ home without asking you first. She shouldn’t have. And ideally you would have responded, “Oh, wouldn’t that be nice? But my parents can’t deal with such a huge houseful.” But you were understandably taken by surprise. So call your friend and explain the situation, then call your friend’s friend, apologize, and call off the plans. “I’m so sorry,” you can say. “It sounded like fun, and I got caught up in the moment. But my parents are older, and it will be too much for them to have so many people in the house.” You can suggest alternatives: Perhaps they might like to rent a nearby Airbnb place. Another thought: I once booked my parents a nice hotel room while a big group of us took over their apartment. We then reverse-hosted them for meals. Everyone had a great time—especially my parents.

My husband and I have started skiing with our 19-year-old boys. The first time we went, we also took their girlfriends, and my husband paid for everything—equipment, lift tickets, meals, etc. If we continue to go skiing with the girlfriends, is it our responsibility to keep paying for them? — J. R.

The short answer is no, it’s not your responsibility to keep paying for the girlfriends. But—and you knew this was coming—the situation is more involved. Nineteen is a tricky age. The girls might still be financially dependent on their parents but in charge of their own spending money, which would probably make skiing prohibitive. And it could be that, regardless, their families simply can’t afford to chip in for such an expensive hobby. (If only we were talking about mini golf!) I’m sure you would prefer not to keep shelling out so generously and extravagantly, but if you can readily swing it, you should. Because here’s the other thing that’s complicated about 19: Nobody is married yet, but if these are serious girlfriends, you should probably practice broadening your definition of family to include them. Eventually there will be women in their lives whom your sons put first, and if you make them feel as if they have to choose, they will probably not choose you. If the cost is too steep to keep everyone on the slopes, have a conversation with your sons. They might feel comfortable asking their girlfriends to chip in, or they might prefer a compromise: bringing the girlfriends but skipping a few days of lift tickets. The more seamless it is for everyone to go, the more of your sons’ company you’ll get to keep enjoying.

Our friend, a hedge-fund manager, invited my family to join him at a resort time-share. We are not paying for the residence, fortunately, since we are nowhere near their income bracket. But they mentioned some plans for our family and theirs that sound extravagant. Are we expected to contribute half of those expenses? How do we broach this gently? — Name withheld by request

No subject is more socially delicate (or interesting) than that of how much money other people have and how they spend it. What you consider extravagant—a daily massage, the full-time services of a resort’s concierge—another traveler might consider essential.

On this trip, your family will travel as guests of your friends. As such, you shouldn’t be expected to split all expenses down the middle. Address the topic delicately by saying, “Thank you so much for including us in your exciting plans. It’s a real treat for us. We appreciate your hospitality.” Be considerate of your hosts, be good company, and be sure to make a small financial contribution when you can, by picking up the tab at a restaurant or on a group excursion, such as a museum visit.

Once you get home, send your hosts a thank-you note and a small gift. The object itself doesn’t matter; just make sure it’s something that will remind them, pleasantly, of the time you shared. If you choose to go further by, say, splitting the cost of the concierge even if you barely used his services, you are very classy. And if I ever get rich, I am so taking you on vacation.

A friend and I plan on taking a “bucket list” trip this summer (think Great Wall of China). We have a third friend who would probably like to take this trip, too, but neither of us wishes to travel with her. She is a good friend, and we do many things together—concerts, movies—but she can be difficult and critical, which would make traveling with her for two weeks unenjoyable. As an aside, it might be financially difficult for her to afford this trip. We are very fond of this person and do not want to hurt her feelings. How can we let her know that we wish to go on this trip as just the two of us? — M. S.

While it’s totally understandable to want both things—excluding your difficult friend from a dream vacation and not hurting her feelings—that doesn’t mean you can do both things. This really is the most challenging kind of conundrum, and it comes up a lot: When do we assert our own desires, even at the cost of someone else’s happiness? In this case, given that travel can strain even the most harmonious relationships, you should take this once-in-a-lifetime trip without your difficult friend along. Don’t explain to her why she’s not included—the premeditatedness will just make her feel worse. But do expect her to be hurt when she hears about the trip, which she will. You won’t want to treat it like a secret, because that would humiliate her, even though you will be at pains not to discuss it in front of her. (Hello, tightrope!) “I’m so sorry,” you can say, if she asks about it. “It’s a trip the two of us had been dreaming of for ages, and we didn’t end up including anyone else in the planning.” Ultimately, she might pull back a little bit from the friendship. And, if she were writing to me for advice, I would probably suggest that that’s a healthy, self-preserving strategy.

My mom has a good job and disposable income. I am 28, have little disposable income (plus student loans), and live in a tiny apartment with my boyfriend. But my mother expects to sleep at my apartment whenever she visits. It makes both my boyfriend and me quite uncomfortable; we end up stressed and miss sleep. She doesn’t seem to care too much about our work schedules and cannot understand why we would feel put upon. Am I wrong to think she should book a hotel room? — C. M.

Your mother should book a hotel room. It sounds as though you’ve spoken directly with her about this, since you mention her awareness of how uncomfortable you are. So you’re going to have to be even more direct, and that will be difficult to do without hurting her feelings. I would frame it—because this is true—as an issue about maintaining your closeness, which matters a great deal to you. “Mom, I love you, but it’s not working to have you stay with us. It’s too cramped, we end up losing sleep, and it’s awkward. I’d rather you stayed in a hotel than risk straining our relationship.” If she is feeling lonely in her stage of life right now, this might be even harder. Offer to meet her for breakfast or walk her back to the hotel after dinner so she doesn’t feel as if she’s missing out on time with you. And try asking her about her first serious relationship, to jog her memory about young love. The thing is, even if this boyfriend is not “the one,” you are practicing putting your adult, homemade family first—ahead of your family of origin. You are setting limits, establishing priorities, and flexing the muscle of your independence. This is an inevitable part of growing up, and it isn’t easy, but it is vitally important.

My dad and his wife recently bought a lovely lake house. Unfortunately, they treat it like a museum: no wrinkles on the sofa, strict shower times, etc. We respect that it’s their house, but the rules make it no fun to visit, especially for my kids, who are 12 and 14. I don’t want to hurt my dad’s feelings, though. And him visiting us is not an option, as he has a bad back and doesn’t travel well. — H. D.

Your father is lucky to have you—a daughter who respects his way of life, cares about his feelings, and wants to visit him. But this does not sound like a tenable way to vacation. Can you afford to book a nearby hotel or rental house? If so, then do it, and use the kids as an excuse. Tell your dad that you’re eager to spend time with him but that the house rules (which you respect) cause too much strain, and it’s just easier if you don’t stay over. You can spend most of the day at his house, but having somewhere to escape or retire to after dinner—where you can shower at leisure and not worry about wet swimsuits—could make that rule-bound time bearable. Ideally, your father will be relieved. And if he’s not? Or if you raise the issue in lieu of a plan to stay elsewhere? Then at least the conversation will cue him to reflect on his values, maybe mellow out a little, or explain to you the awkward juggle between old and new family cultures. “Relationships are more important than stuff” is a mantra of mine—and is, I can’t help thinking, a good reality check for everyone.

What is the proper thing to do when someone offers you a place to stay for a week at no cost? Should you pay her money anyway? Or should you present her with a gift at some point during the stay? — Name withheld by request

No to the money, yes to the gift. You don’t want to chill a warm gesture with cold, hard cash. But given the fact that you’re saving money on lodging, this is the perfect occasion for a generous present. Splurge on something related to your host’s hometown: say, a gift certificate to a nice restaurant in the area. Or consider picking out fun items for her house, such as a set of plush beach towels or a collection of classic board games. (Once, after struggling to slice an apple at a home I visited, I was tempted to buy the host family a set of sharp knives. But I didn’t, since this kind of double-edged gift could easily suggest that I found something lacking.)

On the day of your departure, offer the gift with a note of thanks. Give it directly to your host, or if she’s not present, leave it in a prominent spot. Most important, extend your host the same courtesy that she granted you—namely, to provide her family with a free place to stay should they ever desire it.