Entertaining Rule No. 16: Don’t Make the Bed

New rules for guests and hosts.
Sept. 25 2013 7:30 AM

Rule No. 16: Dishevel the Sheets

Don't Make the Bed

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For me, it’s always been the most stressful aspect of being an overnight guest: What to do with the bedclothes come morning. Do you make the bed, in the hope that your expertly executed hospital corners will erase any evidence of your having been there? Or do you take the opposite approach, stripping the bed down to the Serta and acknowledging that your host will want to launder the sheets before her next guest arrives. Neither approach is ideal: The former might telegraph a cavalier attitude about hygiene—a little drowsy-drool never hurt anyone!—the latter condemns your host to a chore: Thanks for having me—you’re going to want to wash these.

There are further complications, particularly for those of us who suffer from mild to severe folding impairment. Occasionally, I’ll be pushed into the strip-it camp purely by dint of a bed’s complexity: A guest room featuring an elaborate layering of sheets, blanket, and duvet, along with an array of pillows of various shapes and sizes, leaves me feeling like I need to make a scale drawing of the bed if I want to have any hope of recreating the effect come morning. How in hell did she get this afghan folded into a right triangle with the tassels on the hypotenuse? Was this cylindrical pillow even here last night?

But bed stripping brings its own irritations. The whole point of this approach is to facilitate the laundering of the sheets you’ve just slept in, but good manners call for you to leave them in a neatly folded stack, as if you don’t know their next destination is the chaos of the spin cycle. What’s more, once you’ve stripped the sheets, the convention is to make what’s left of the bed, neatly tucking in the blanket, arranging the comforter, and fluffing the pillows as if your host could somehow teleport a clean set of sheets onto the bed without undoing your handiwork.

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These two imperfect solutions to the bed-making problem have a common flaw: They are both, in essence, pantomimes. They are efforts to prove that you are a good guest not by actually making life easier on your host, but by demonstrating that you are aware of the conventions of hospitality and are willing to abide by them however annoying it may be to do so.

I hereby propose to ratify a new bed-making convention: Just leave it. It sounds radical, I know, but in the current hospitality climate, no one is winning. Guests are wasting their time making beds so they can be unmade or folding sheets so they can be balled up and doused with Tide. Hosts are refolding afghans or doing laundry they’d rather have put off till the next guest arrived. What’s the point?

I realize, of course, that the guest/host relationship is not a purely utilitarian one—there need to be shows of good faith on both sides, and these shows don’t always make hard economic sense. (The dinner host surely knows best what vin to pair with her coq au vin, but the guest should still bring a bottle of a wine.) When it comes to making the bed, however, everyone’s time is being wasted. As a host, I’d rather my guest roll out of bed, pack, brush his teeth, and help me make some eggs than to fidget in the breakfast nook while he tries to remember whether my stuffed Larry Bird lives at the foot or the head of the bed. (Foot.) As a guest, I’d rather show my gratitude for a night of shelter by writing a nice thank you note or sending a small but thoughtful gift than exposing my host to the horror show that is my attempt to fold a fitted sheet. (I’ve watched the videos—it’s impossible.)

Let’s come together, then, and lift the stigma of rudeness staining the unmade bed. What if, when confronted with tousled linens, we hosts saw not an act of disrespect, but of kindness: I can deal with this as I want, when I want. (And look, how adorable, he seems to have spooned the decorative cylindrical pillow!) Let’s free our guests of this burdensome charade. We’ll all sleep easier.  

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.