November 24, 2014

(Someone Else’s) Home for the Holidays

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

I just booked my first reservation through, the site where you can reserve a room in a guest house or private home. This wasn’t my first choice; after finding that most reasonably-priced hotel rooms were booked, my husband and I decided to give it a try for a night. We passed on places that had too many negative reviews left by previous guests or if the room seemed unkempt and cluttered based on the posted pictures. The location we selected had many good reviews and is a five minute drive from our destination.

Staying in a stranger’s home may seem like a new Internet-era invention, but taking in boarders for a night or longer pre-dates the twenty-first century. At the turn of the last century, new immigrants often rented a bed in tenement housing with other families until they were able to save enough money for their own apartment and perhaps to bring the rest of their family to the country. Rural families might have taken in passers-by for a night in places where commercial lodging might have been scarce. The Internet definitely makes this process easier, especially when finding a place to stay from out of town.

I am viewing this experience as a kind of sociological experiment: what is it like to stay in a stranger’s home compared with a family member’s or a friend’s? How do strangers interact in private spaces normally reserved for family and friends? Are there advantages to staying with strangers compared with people we know? If houseguests are a major source of stress during the holidays, might houseguests who are strangers be easier to host?

On the Airbnb site, I noticed that most listings include pictures of the space, a profile of the host, a list of house rules including which parts of the home a visitor will have access to, and of course a breakdown of the fees charged (many require a cleaning fee). Some offer breakfast, and if so, usually note what kind of food to expect.

With friends and family, we might feel awkward about providing such explicit rules and boundaries, which might seem inhospitable. Guests might presume that all meals will be included during their visit and that sightseeing or other daytime activities would be included as well. Some hosts might feel overwhelmed by spending lots of time with guests; others might feel slighted if they feel their guests don’t spend enough time visiting and instead seem to be using their home just as a place to crash.

The formality of being strangers requires that people define the situation of being a houseguest. Sociologists consider the definition of the situation something that happens collectively as we gather social cues to understand how to behave in a particular context. For instance, when in a classroom most participants have a pretty clear understanding of the situation: students are expected to follow the instructor’s lead, behave according to the course and institutional rules in order to meet the larger requirements of the institution. But often with friends or family, the definition of the situation is unclear.

Trouble can erupt when the definition of the situation differs between participants. In the classroom, a student who attempts to undermine the authority of the instructor or focus on completely unrelated content can create unease for the participants. Likewise, a houseguest who dictates meal times for the host or insists on monopolizing the host’s time beyond the host’s expectations will be stressful. If the host has extra cleaning to do, that will also make the visit less pleasant.

I noticed that many Airbnb hosts specify the kinds of interactions they are open to with guests. Some mention that they are happy to visit with guests and suggest local activities, while others tactfully note that they “respect their guests’ privacy” and thus plan on little interaction beyond welcoming them when they arrive. Others have third parties, like friends or managers, handle all guest interactions. Payment is made on the website, so no money exchanges hands on site. Ultimately the host is making money from the visit; guests are actually customers.

By contrast, having houseguests we know can be expensive, time consuming, physically and emotionally draining, in part because our definition of the situation—and overall expectations— might differ. Much of holiday-related stress is likely the result of the lack of agreed clarity about the situation. Can this be overcome without hurt feelings?

We’ll see how the actual Airbnb stay goes, and what it is like to stay in a stranger’s home for my sociological experiment. Stay tuned.


The private houses are the best choices to spend holidays if you want to save your money, they are as comfortables as hotels and so much cheaper.


Great blog.. It's really a weird feeling to stay for a night or day in someone else's home.

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