IN a wine-enhanced moment during a Caribbean cruise, you invited that nice couple from Ohio to stay with you if they're ever in Los Angeles.
And now they've called. You are about to have houseguests.
The first thing you need to do, said Peter Post, great-grandson of the late etiquette maven Emily Post, is to "set an end date for the visit. The houseguest from hell, I think, is the person who stays forever and a day." The smart host finds out "when they're coming and when they're leaving," said Post, director of the Burlington, Vt.-based Emily Post Institute and author of several etiquette books, including the new "Essential Manners for Couples." And, yes, Ben Franklin was right when he said that "fish and visitors stink in three days," Post added. "After three or four days, it's a real disruption to your normal routine."
If visitors show no signs of leaving, he suggested, "You just have to be honest about it" and tell them -- ever so politely -- that time is up or "you can end up with somebody on the couch for weeks."
Even under the best of circumstances, hosting houseguests can be stressful. Genevieve S. Brown, editor of www.independenttraveler.com, said hosts must "be clear about what they need to accomplish while the guests are there so they don't monopolize your time."
"You don't want to start driving each other crazy. Some downtime is always good for both parties."
Before the visit, Brown said, hosts should tell visitors of any house rules. Is smoking banned? What about use of four-letter words in front of children?
Sue Fox, the author of "Etiquette for Dummies" and founder and president of Etiquette Survival, www.etiquettesurvival.com, said that hosting houseguests is a "balancing act" between too much togetherness and having guests feel they're being neglected.
"It's not necessary to feel like you need to entertain them throughout the day, but you want to do a little more entertaining than you normally would," she said. "If you're an active person and know these people are not active, invite them, but don't be offended if they don't go with you."
And, she added, it's not a bad idea to make an excuse, such as needing to run an errand, to give yourself a break. "That gives the guest time to be alone as well."
Most important, Fox said, is for hosts and guests to communicate their expectations beforehand. Hosts should know if guests intend to bring a pet "or maybe a new boyfriend or girlfriend" or if they have food allergies or dislikes.
Fox, who switched to a career in etiquette after working in Silicon Valley with people who had "lots of money but no manners," said hosts need to be "honest and diplomatic and let [guests] know if they're doing something that's offensive to them."
Dealing with unruly visiting children is a challenge, Brown said. "You should never reprimand somebody else's children, even if they're little monsters. .... Talk to the parents in a nonconfrontational manner."
What to do if a child, or adult, breaks a priceless household object? "You have to recognize they likely feel terrible about doing it," she said. "A gracious host will clean up the mess and move on as quickly as possible."
Brown thinks that, during the visit, it's fine for the host to let guests know what's expected -- for instance, asking, "Would you mind stripping the sheets off the bed?" She doesn't think it's necessary for hosts without a guest room to give up their bedroom for the visitors. But "you need to tell them beforehand: 'If you come, you'll be sleeping on a futon or a sofa bed.' "
Planning is all-important, Post said. "To invite somebody and then, when they get there, say, 'What would you like to do?' doesn't make it." He suggests asking yourself ahead of time, "What can I offer them that they don't get at home? Maybe they live in the country and this is the city, so let's do a city-type thing."
Here are some tips from various sources on making your houseguests comfortable:
* Take a cue from proprietors of bed-and-breakfasts and give guests a good local map, together with information on local attractions such as museums and theaters.
* Provide a reading light, house keys, maybe a unisex bathrobe, a clock radio, a bottle of water, some books or magazines and a luggage stand. Fresh flowers in the guest room are a nice touch. (I'd add a choice of pillows -- foam or feather.)
* Don't forget to clean house before your guests arrive. "A clean home makes you feel welcome," Post said.
Just as your guests should thank you for having them, Post said, you should thank them "for the effort they made to be with you." And, when you open the gift they will have brought (if they have good manners), let on that it's just what you wanted "even if it's ridiculous."