December 08, 2014

(Someone Else’s) Home for the Holidays: The Difficulty of Defining the Situation

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

As I recently blogged about, necessity led me to stay at a room in someone’s home I found on a peer-to-peer travel website. I had never done so before, and considered the experience a sort of brief ethnography. Overall, I found the experience strange, and something I’d probably do again only as a last resort. Neither purely guests or customers, the difficulty of defining the situation left us wondering exactly how to act in this new experience.

My husband and I stayed in a room in a private home and arrived while the homeowner had company. We felt like we were interrupting, although she had encouraged us to arrive at that particular time. We were shown our room and the hallway bathroom we were to use. Our host explained that the shower in the guest bath was being retiled and could not be used, but we could use the shower in her bathroom if we wished, requiring us to walk through her bedroom at a time when she was awake and of course not currently using the bathroom.

We then left for a family dinner.  If we were staying at a traditional hotel we wouldn’t have worried about what time we returned, but here we needed to be sure we didn’t return too late and disturb our host. When we came back for the evening, tired and hoping to get to bed, her guests were still there, talking and playing music. Someone was also in the guest bathroom. We felt a bit like intruders—allowed in the house but not exactly welcomed by those who were there.

When it was our turn to wash up and go to sleep we really noticed the difference between staying in someone’s home and a hotel room. The bathroom was dirty, with hairs and a dirty tissue on the sink. The toilet paper was almost gone. The bedroom felt stuffy and warm, with no fan to control the climate as we would find in a traditional hotel room. The bed was soft, and we could hear voices from the party outside our door. Once they left, I fell asleep only to hear neighbors’ dogs barking—throughout the night—waking me up so regularly that I couldn’t fall back to sleep. As dawn arrived I heard roosters. I got almost no sleep the whole night.

When we got ready to go in the morning, I saw that the bathroom had been straightened. Our host was in the kitchen, ready to offer us breakfast. We had tea, cereal, fruit and muffins, and found our host and her adult son to be very nice people. My husband and her son happened to have attended the same college (although many years apart) and so they had a common topic of conversation.

I had hypothesized that staying with a stranger who set boundaries in advance might be easier than staying with family. It might have been easier for the host—we were there less than 12 hours, made no requests and did our best to stay out of the way. But it wasn’t necessarily easier for the guests.

Staying at a stranger’s home—and paying to do so—created contradictory expectations that shaped my interpretation of the experience. On the one hand, we had paid to stay there, creating an expectation that the experience might be similar to a comparably-priced motel. The bedding was fresh and clean, but the bathroom wasn’t, despite a $15 cleaning fee we paid online when we booked the room.

And yet because we felt almost like intrusive guests, we were too sheepish to ask for a fan or for the others to lower their voices. That would have been easy to do in a more formal setting, where we could have called the front desk. We wouldn’t have felt like we were ungrateful or as if we were insulting someone personally. 

I was glad that the host didn’t ask how I slept because I didn’t want her to feel bad. I knew that we would be asked to rate our stay online, which would be posted along with our name and sent to the host. I couldn’t in good conscience write a good review—she was nice but I’d never stay there again—and I also didn’t want to offend her by writing a bad one. While part of me feels that I have a duty to warn other travelers to avoid my bad night’s sleep, the personal nature of staying in someone’s home would have made a negative review feel rude. We were reviewed online as well, but we haven’t looked to see how our host rated us.

I know that many people use websites to find private rooms or rentals all the time and do not find it uncomfortable at all. Most of the time when I’ve traveled I have either stayed in hotels or in the home of family members. I have never stayed in a hostel, which can be a very informal way to travel; the experience often involves sharing a large room with many strangers, and in most cases a bathroom. This never appealed to me, but millions have seen the world this way without great expense. For others the fun of travel involves meeting new people and making new friends. This is seldom my expectation, but I recognize its appeal.

As I wrote in the original post, sociologists explore how people define social situations through interactions with one another. Because I struggled to define the situation—as a customer who paid for a service within a private, informal setting—I was uncomfortable. It was both someone’s home and someone’s business, yet the rules of each didn’t quite apply.

What other contradictory, hard-to-define social situations have you experienced? How would a less ambiguous social situation have been easier for those involved?

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