Here is a vacation bargain: You get free accommodations that are more or less as comfy as what you have at home, only set in a refreshingly different location. Plus you get a trustworthy house-sitter for the time that you are away.
Here is the catch: People will notice little telltale things about your habits and tastes, much beyond the impression your visitors usually have of your quarters. Instead of going about murmuring, "Oh, how lovely," Miss Manners is afraid that (lovely as your place really is, she hastens to assure you) they will be going about enjoying an occasional snicker, and calling out "Hey, come look at this!" to one another.
But here is the saving grace: You won't have to hear them. You will hear nothing but compliments from them in the way of commentary about the way you live.
And here is the guarantee: You know as much about their telltale habits and tastes as they know about yours.
This is the basic deal in a vacation-house exchange. Whether between friends or acquaintances who made the arrangements themselves, or strangers who were matched by a third party or agency, the relationship is a peculiar mixture, and therefore so are the manners.
The situation is not that of host and house-guest, because the hosts are not there to provide those small attentions that please their guests and prevent them from poking around. Yet neither is it exactly that of landlord and tenant, where each righteously registers the shortcomings of the other, untroubled by misgivings about one's self.
The usual niceties and precautions of both situations apply, and Miss Manners trusts that everyone leaves everything clean for the other party, waters the plants and replaces them in kind when they die, provides instructions on how to operate the appliances and whom to call to fix them after you figure you don't need the instructions, takes messages, leaves extra pillows, checks in, and issues warnings about the toilet that is tricky to flush.
In a house exchange, the feeling of closeness you get from living in someone else's house ought to inspire a few extras:
Yes, the owners were supposed to clear out or lock up anything that they didn't want you to see, but don't read the diary and examine the mail anyway, and after you have finished, don't use the information, let alone tell anyone you did. It's a betrayal of people who would be too honorable to do this to you, and they now know an awful lot about you.
It is a bad idea to share your amusement at the decor with your new friends in the neighborhood.
Take out all the trash before you go, even though technically leaving it in the wastebaskets ought to count. One's own trash is revealing, and other people's trash is disgusting.
Finally, when you break something, it is a good idea to confess, if possible before you return to your respective homes. That way, you are less likely to find something of yours set up delicately so that it falls over with the first breath you take.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I was informed that engagements should not last longer than six months, ideally, or a year at the most, due to the strain it might cause.
Has this ever been a rule of etiquette? My fiance and I will not be married until after I get my doctorate, which may take four more years, and I don't think this will be more stressful than simply dating for that time.
GENTLE READER: What about the strain on your relatives and friends? Do you think they can bear four years of listening to you talk about your wedding color scheme and which band you should hire? (That's a rule Miss Manners just made up, but she is happy to grant you an exception if you promise to show some exceptional bridal restraint.)
There have been times that society has encouraged short engagements, so that the couple would not have to exercise a different sort of restraint for a prolonged time, and other times in which it has encouraged long engagements so the couple could get to know each other better. We no longer presume either problem, and therefore leave the length of your engagement for you and your fiance to decide.