How Not to Be a Jerk to Your Friends with Messy Houses

A dining room table piled several feet high in laundry.

A while back there was an article going around about why you shouldn’t hold yourself to super high standards before having people over. I can’t find the particular one I had in mind, but I remember thinking, “That’s sweet, but oh, his definition of ‘messy’ is precious.” I’ve been on many points on messy-house spectrum over the years, and have had friends and family at many more points along it as well. It’s a symptom of how strong the judgment can be that I wrote this years ago and only feel comfortable publishing it at a moment when I’m on a clean and purge kick.

That said, here’s my list of do’s and don’ts. Judgy comments will be gleefully deleted.

  1. DON’T contradict us when we tell you that our house is a mess/dirty/a disaster and you haven’t been there or have only seen it at times when we have probably done a lot of cleaning, like a party. Especially don’t say things that start with “I’m sure,” such as “I’m sure it’s no worse than mine” or “I’m sure it’s only disorganized but not dirty.” Stop and think what you are saying there. You are saying “Because I like you, I’m assuming you couldn’t possibly have a house that doesn’t meet what I would consider minimum standards. That means I think housekeeping is tied to character.” Now imagine how we feel knowing that we almost certainly do not meet your minimum standards.
  2. DO be reassuring when we apologize for the state of the house, and be as casual as you can. “I’m not concerned,” or “It’s a pleasant chaos” or “I’m a friend, you don’t have to clean up for me” are good sorts of things to say. Refrain from anything that implies a guess about how it compares to normal or how much time they spent cleaning.
  3. Unless you come over on a very regular basis, DON’T assume that you can tell how what you are seeing compares to normal. Depending on what you are used to, it can look like chaos to you and we’ve actually lost sleep cleaning for you. Or it might really be an unusually bad day and you’re just a friend we’re not embarrassed to show it to. Also, these things are not etched in stone; they can change over the span of years (though not because you opined that they should).
  4. DON’T assume we don’t care, or don’t know how to clean, or don’t have our own limits that we never let things pass. In our heart of hearts we may spend more time than you know longing for a month free of other obligations to just get caught up and sort through all this junk and put functional systems in place, so it’s, if not a model home, more pleasant to live in.
  5. DON’T assume we do care. What freaks you out might not freak us out. We might place a really high value on socializing after dinner and figure the dishwasher can handle it if the dishes have sat on the table for a few hours. Dust? Not an emergency. Surfaces not disinfected daily? It’s called a strong immune system. Seriously, there are so many more important things in life to spend time on, and the health value of hypercleanliness has been seriously disputed.
  6. DON’T assume we will leave other places a mess. Most of us will pitch in to a group effort with as much or more gusto as anyone else. In fact, many of us are likely to be hyper aware of leaving a borrowed space pristine. It’s different when it’s not your own house.
  7. DON’T assume anything about our families of origin. Some of us grew up with hoarders, some with crazy neatnicks, some with perfectly well balanced housekeepers. Some of us did chores from a young age and some of us (especially men) were never taught how to clean a bathroom.
  8. DO take responsibility for your own boundaries. You are allowed to have conditions you don’t want to visit—whatever it is that crosses your line, be it odors, pests, safety hazards for your baby, dust bunnies, crooked pictures on the wall. Whatever your own comfort level is, own it. But then recognize that is your limit. You make the change—Be the one to host. Suggest third places to meet. Enjoy the nice day on the stoop. Don’t imply that it is your friends’ job to meet your standards or make you feel at home in their home.
  9. If you want to help and that help has been accepted, DO trust us about what would be most helpful. It might not be the thing sticking out to you as needing doing. We likely know what things we have blocks about, what things would make the biggest difference if we could get out from under. Remember being helpful is not about bringing in your superior housekeeping knowledge, it’s about providing support.
  10. DO keep coming over as long as you are ok doing so. If you are comfortable, or even if your discomfort is mild enough that you can keep it to yourself, then keep showing up. Either it gives us motivation to clean, or it gives us reassurance that we aren’t being judged, or both. In fact, hanging out with you is probably one of those things we place a priority on above cleaning.