Guests Are Coming --Time to Bear Up

05/13/2011 03:40 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2011

As the chill of winter fades, more and more people begin to think about expanding their horizons, literally. Spring and summer are seasons that favor out-of-town excursions, and during the months ahead millions of Americans will experience an emotional phenomenon I call "The Goldilocks Syndrome."

It's a feeling of persistent anxiety that can occur anytime you're preparing for an overnight (or longer) visit from someone who has never stayed at your home before. The question facing every prospective host and hostess is: Will the event proceed smoothly to a happily-ever-after ending, or will your guest reenact the final scene from the famous children's tale by bolting out the front door screaming in terror, never to return?

There's no operating manual for this subject. Standards of hospitality are totally subjective. Ditto for the expectations of each visitor. From a betting standpoint, it's a long shot to think all participants in the lodging process will co-exist in 100-percent agreement.

The trio of bears demonstrates my point. Any logical person would assume that a family of three living in a cozy woodland bungalow is going to have simple, rustic furniture including beds that are virtually identical. But that logical person would be WRONG. These bears have sleeping habits that require each of their beds to possess significantly different degrees of firmness. No explanation for this disparity in slumber land sensitivities is ever put forward.

Similar mysteries of personal behavior permeate the real world. And frankly, trying to figure out why some people prefer a pad of feathers while others can find complete comfort on a slab of granite is irrelevant once the visitors arrive. At that point, as Tim Gunn likes to say on Project Runway, you just have to "make it work."

Philosophers in ancient Greece believed that everything on this planet is composed of earth, air, fire and water. Based on personal observation, I believe the four basic elements that affect extended home visitations are heat, noise, odor, and windows.

Thermal compatibility is a subject worthy of ongoing scholarly examination. Are you happy when the interior of your home feels like an equatorial desert, or do you prefer a Polar Express-like atmosphere? If the mercury is a few degrees in the wrong direction the household social climate may become turbulent. Maintaining tempers and temperatures in a condition of non-volatile equilibrium is not taught in any chemistry class. You have to learn it through experimentation on human subjects.

Audio factors present a bandwidth of potential conflict. For me, a bad scenario is being in a house where the TV is always on -- with the volume turned up high -- and the only way to communicate is by not quite shouting. On the other hand, people accustomed to loud environments have visited my house and said the absence of noise after bedtime is like being in a haunted mortuary and made them too nervous to fall asleep. Bottom line: If the sound level is seriously unsatisfactory for the lodgers, you may never hear the end of it.

It's also important to do a sniff test prior to any visit. Potential trouble spots include the laundry room, garbage bin under the kitchen sink, and the refrigerator. Maintaining emotional composure is difficult when visitors detect the scent of something decomposing. Trying to mask the problem with air fresheners can send the collective mood into a nosedive.

Finally, the windows -- people have been arguing about them since our country was founded. While traveling together in 1776, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin stopped at a crowded inn and had to share a small room. Adams went to close the window as they prepared for bed and Franklin said no, it was better to have fresh air coming in. Franklin won that debate and I'm with him. My worst nights have occurred in bedrooms with non-opening windows, because I invariably wake up feeling alarmed and breathless, like I'm trapped in a submarine lying on the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Even when guests make repeat visits, don't take anything for granted about their likes and dislikes. Someone who enjoyed porridge in the past may show up at the breakfast table and exclaim, "Oh, I'm off hot cereal now. Do you have any flax muffins with wild blueberries?"

The word "accommodation" should be on everyone's mind in these situations. I don't want visitors in my house to feel like they've been exiled to the Gulag Archipelago but I hope they're not expecting me to provide a suburban version of the penthouse suite at the Ritz.
Somewhere between those two extremes is a middle area where everyone should be able to find a comfort zone. Hopefully you'll be able to look back on the visit and conclude that it went pretty well. Even better is when you can truthfully say everything worked out JUST RIGHT.