It's August, These Must Be Houseguests

Illustration by Kate Feiffer

Bemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse. Her combined knowledge of both this Island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Nicole’s latest novel, “Stepdog,” has recently been published. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to

Nicole’s note: Perhaps because it’s August, we’ve received a bunch of related questions. I’m going to take a stab at addressing them all in one go.

Question 1: It’s August, and we’re inundated with houseguests. By this point in the summer, after the initial day or two of reunion joy, being hosts is starting to feel almost like a chore. What is the most gracious way to ask houseguests to pull their own weight?

Question 2: Certain houseguests of ours tend to show up with their own agenda and expect us to accommodate it. We have wonderful things planned, and they are completely indifferent to it. We find it rude that somebody would want to be a houseguest and then plan nothing to do with their hosts. Don’t you agree?

Question 3: Our hosts were very warm about inviting us, but now that we’re here, they never seem to do anything with us. We feel rude going to the beach without them, but we don’t want to not go to the beach because of them. Any suggestions?

Question 4: Last year I was a houseguest here on the Vineyard, and it wasn’t like any other houseguest experience I’ve ever had. I felt obligated to do a lot of stuff — helping with cleaning, cooking, etc. I don’t want to seem ungracious, but I came to the Vineyard to be on vacation and get a break from all that. How can I express that to my hosts without being rude?

Dear hosts and houseguests:
As with most tricky topics, the host-guest relationship is very context-dependent. It’s especially fraught when it is of the Martha’s Vineyard In August variety.

The single biggest consideration is the hosts’ own relationship to the Island. Do they live here year-round, and have jobs and routines that they are not taking a vacation from? Or are they seasonal residents, who come here primarily for a change of scene and to socialize?

If you’re visiting a year-rounder, then even if they love you tons and truly enjoy your presence, you are something of an imposition — especially in August, which could very well be the month when they are working hardest. It doesn’t mean they don’t want you here, but even if they are too polite to say it, they will be incredibly grateful for your self-sufficiency, and even your assistance. Cooking the occasional dinner, airing out the occasional clump of beach towels, taking the occasional bus instead of asking for a ride … these are a small price to pay compared with staying in a hotel full of (puh-leeeze) tourists. Don’t feel neglected if they’re doing other things. If they weren’t doing those things, they might lose their house, and you would have noplace to come visit. It’s really not like visiting friends in other places — summer on Martha’s Vineyard means 80-hour workweeks for a lot of people. They would probably like to go to the beach (for instance), but trust me: If you are here, they want you to go to the beach, even without them. Yes, really. They love you and want you to have a good time. Go ahead. Just please don’t ask for a ride there if you can possibly help it. And if you could pick up some swordfish on the way home, that would be really awesome, thank you.

If you’re visiting a seasonal resident, then the dynamic is different, but you’re not off the hook. You’re here to have fun? Great! So are your hosts, and they’re the ones paying property taxes. They’re also the ones with local connections, commitments, and routines. They are delighted to hang out with you and do lots of summer-on-the-Vineyard stuff, but it will be their summer-on-the-Vineyard stuff, because this is actually their summer on the Vineyard; it’s your cameo appearance on the Vineyard. They are delighted to have you here, they really are. But if they’re committed to an annual cocktail fundraiser on the same night you want to hear a hot local band, it’s not open for negotiation — they’re going to their annual fundraiser, and while it isn’t required that you go with them, it would be pretty classy if you did. Part of what they are offering you is Their Wonderful Vineyard Summer.

So as a general rule of thumb (and I know there are plenty of exceptions, so please don’t flood my inbox with them), year-rounders love their guests by giving them free rein, while seasonal residents love their guests by bringing them along for the ride.

And both of these are wonderful things.

Only it can get a little tricky when the guests’ expectations run counter to the hosts. Some guests want to be entertained, and expect they will be, because they are visiting friends (who clearly want them around or they wouldn’t have invited them, right?). Other guests don’t want to impose, or don’t want to be imposed upon (because friends don’t impose, right?).

All these different agendas can play out in so many different ways. The best, perhaps only, actual advice I can give is: Know thyself, know thy host/guest, and find some comfortable and gentle way to try to communicate what the collective expectations are, hopefully before the visit even starts.

Final parting thoughts:
For guests: Don’t treat your hosts’ house like a hotel. Be your best selves, even on vacation.

For hosts: Be patient with them. They are stupefied by how lucky they are to be here, so they might sometimes be a little thoughtless. As hard as it might be to remember it this week, you are actually very fond of them — no, you really are, or you wouldn’t have invited them. And they are taking home memories that will paint you in a heavenly light for decades to come.
That’s my take.