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Humans Behaving Badly

I am a host with AirBnB, and have had the misfortune of accepting a bad guest. That said, my experience with this guest is nowhere as terrible as the experience of another far more unfortunate host that had her San Francisco property vandalized, looted, and destroyed.

No, in my case, it is merely a case of a human behaving badly. But still, what I’m astounded by is how disruptive one person is still able to be and how easy it is for communication to break down when one person is not open to anything external to their viewpoint.

As a little context, this particular guest was traveling to Canada from Australia. My error was in accepting her booking directly, without asking for additional information and communication. And because of my error in judgement, my last 24+ hours has become infinitely more challenging… and I have another nine days to go.

I initially thought that something was a little unusual about this particular guest when I started receiving late night voice messages around two months prior to her arrival. I told myself that perhaps she was just unaware of the time difference between Toronto and the Australian city she was calling from. The reality is that she’s just not all that considerate. Additional calls followed, urgently asking about specifics like whether there was an elevator in my building and a water kettle. Most guests get in touch or I with them about a week before their travel to sort out details, and specifics about key pick-up and lockbox codes a day in advance due to security considerations. More communication followed in the coming weeks along the same line – some of which bled into my honeymoon. It slowly dawned on me that this particular guest was a little more high maintenance than I had experienced in the past… but honestly, how bad could it be?

Several days before her scheduled arrival, I received a call from a gentleman in Australia around 11PM at night asking for my guest. I gently explained that not only was she not with me, but that she wasn’t scheduled to arrive for several days. My answer was unwelcome, but begrudgingly accepted. I soon realized why the gentleman was calling me… as there was an urgent email waiting for me from my guest asking for my lockbox code to be sent to her two email addresses and a temporary Canadian phone number… a number I quickly recognized as my own. He had likely been provided the same number.

I emailed my guest back asking for the correct phone number, and provided her with the code ahead of schedule to the two email addresses she had requested. Within 12 hours, I received a strongly worded text requesting I send information immediately to her cell phone. The right one. I complied. There was no apology about the mix-up.

Fast forward three days to my guest’s arrival. She called, yes, yes, she’d made it in, but was quite distressed at not having been successful in locating the electric water kettle. “You told me there would be one in the apartment,” she quipped. I apologized and asked if the existing water kettle in the apartment was a viable solution. She continued aggressively that it was not as it took too long to boil water on the stove: ten minutes and the water was still not boiling. I told her I would have to purchase one for her and could bring it by the loft that evening – but that I was in a meeting, so it would need to be later. She promptly retorted that she also needed instructions on how to use the washing machine, and after a great deal of back and forth with her initially asking for my arrival within 30 minutes, we settled on meeting in the next 90 minutes.

Upon arriving, I found myself hammered relentlessly with question after question, complaint after complaint. The washing machine wasn’t useable as it didn’t say “Colour” on it like the ones in Australia do. (I suggested a “Cold/Cold” cycle.) The absence of a microwave was a major set-back – I gently explained that it was not listed in the original listing as an amenity provided. The wifi was confusing. Public transportation, how the system worked, how much it cost, where to pick up tickets or tokens, how much of a discount there should be were all explored at length despite the handbook I shared with her that outlined all of these details. The rain showerhead was an unexpected unsatisfactory feature as it wasn’t what all other hotels have where the showerhead comes out of the wall, meaning all showers would get her hair wet. How come the showerhead was installed in the ceiling? She would need a showercap, and no, the convenience store wouldn’t have it and it would be very difficult to purchase. More frantic muttering. Baths were out of the question as she was on vacation and did not have the time to take baths. The two towels in the washroom were definitely not enough. I showed her the closet with additional towels. And finally, of course, the electric water kettle. All the shops were closed when I had ended my meeting, and so I promised to return the next day with one because… not having an electric version of a water kettle was… intolerable.

And suddenly, it was the following day. Just over 12 hours since my guest first arrived. My wake up call came at 7:40AM – an urgent question about how much water to put in the steam iron and whether it was in fact a steam iron. Upon realizing she had woken me up, she scoffed saying “I would have thought you’d be up getting ready for work right now. Also, I had to put foil on the windows as too much light comes in.”

One thing is for sure. The woman knows what she wants and apologizes to no one.

Then my evening visit to drop off the kettle. There on the countertop were a slew of post-it notes on a pizza box with more demands. Something about a bathtub that drained too slowly and the A/C getting jammed but having been solved – amongst other things. I think I may have started hyperventilating at the sight of the list of demands sure to be backed by an aggressive disposition, not to mention the growing workload I still needed to get done that was getting displaced by my guest’s endless requests. Could it really have only been 24 hours since she’d arrived?

Tick tock. I was getting sick. My sore throat expanding into my chest, head, and the tenderness edging into my eyeballs and limbs. Surely, a shot of ginger would help.

10:35PM – the phone rang. Here we go! I picked up on the second ring – I had been expecting the call. My guest launched into it: the bathtub wasn’t draining and A/C switch had been jammed, but wasn’t anymore. I asked if my guest had tried to unplug the bathtub. She didn’t know. She needed me to come back to take a look. I explained how she could check the plug – she said she had. I said I would come, but also that the volume of requests needed to be moderated to emergencies. She felt that they were… emergencies, that is. Such as the steam iron. She hadn’t known how much water to put in and needed to iron. I re-explained what AirBnB was – humans helping humans by renting out their homes to travellers – and that her long laundry list of demands, requests, and questions were becoming unreasonable. Her answer: she was the customer and all I should care about was that she was happy… that I was running a business. And the bit about humans helping people out of the goodness of their hearts? A load of bull not to be believed for a second. More words that included AirBnB sounding like it is actually a third-rate service and that I and all my other guests before her had low standards and obviously hadn’t cared about things working. I agreed to disagree, and offered her a refund on her stay and she could book a hotel with the concierge and Maitre d’ service she required. She didn’t want that. I confirmed I would be back in the morning to check the drain. In the meantime, I turned off my AirBnB listing. I needed a break.

How does a stranger cause so much battery and duress to another?

7:00AM – I was definitely sick. Through and through. And so was my husband. But still, we had a guest to assist.

8:05AM – We arrived. Knock knock. My husband and I went straight into the washroom to solve the “emergency” that was the drain first. We had brought Drain-O in case that was the problem, but I didn’t bother pulling it out. I didn’t think there was an actual problem. I looked in the tub, plunged my hand into the water and voilà. The plug for the tub had in fact been pushed in. “It’s fixed,” I mused flatly. “What else?” The iron – it was leaking water. I plugged it in, all the while hearing a flurry of words about this place not being anything like Australia, everything is different and makes no sense, and in Australia, one doesn’t need to plug anything into the outlets, you just push a button, and even the water tap handles turn the wrong way in this place. I silently stood waiting over my iron as it heated up until it steamed. Double voilà. It started steaming beautifully and no water leaked. She just hadn’t waited for it to heat up. “What else? A/C?” “No, no – the A/C works – but in Australia, we use Celsius and I don’t have any idea what I should be setting the temperature at with this other system you have.”

That system is called Fahrenheit.

“Enjoy the rest of your stay”, I heard my husband say. He is a much kinder, nicer person than I am. I told him so.

And it led me to think… some humans just behave badly. And I wonder whether they realize how they are coming across or why people are alienating themselves from them. Does anyone tell them?

In my particular situation – it quickly became clear that it wouldn’t matter what I said in any attempt to reason with my guest. There would always be a retort, reason, excuse, or explanation to justify my guest’s viewpoint. In her mind, it all made sense. My new strategy wasn’t to reach consensus or mutual understanding anymore, it would be to agree to disagree… all the while, minimizing the disruption and casualty. Sometimes, good communication still breaks down and it becomes an exercise of balancing between some semblance of boundaries and meeting the base obligation.

In the meantime, I have spoken with AirBnB as a sanity check of what is expected of hosts – or is it a limitless length of rope we extend. A number of the agents I initially encountered stuck to the script and brushed me off: perhaps I needed to be more open and transparent in my communication? But since then, I’ve been lucky enough to encounter two fantastic agents that have been compassionate in talking through the situation with me, although they are asked to remain neutral. It demonstrates humanity – and as another human, that’s really all I need. (Thank you, Fernando and Kristopher.) And as of today, my guest has nine more days of shelf life until she departs. She told me she’s going on to Montreal tomorrow and is using my loft as a homebase, so I hope optimistically that I will have a brief reprieve. I don’t think I could stand repeating the last 24 hours nine more times.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ouch!

    By chance, I’m staying in a “borrowed” home in Vancouver right now with my mom and son (we didn’t use AirBnB, but another similar service to find it). And, yeah, there’s weird stuff here (like a disastrously disorganized kitchen, and strange furniture organizations), but we’re just dealing with it because, you know, that’s what you do when you stay in someone’s home.

    But it’s led me to start wondering: what am I in this role? Guest? Customer? Acquaintance? Friend?

    Services like AirBnB have introduced a new role for us that straddles interpersonal and business relations and I don’t think it’s quite totally fleshed out, either in terms of marketing or reality (another weird space is the car co-op — am I a customer? a partner? or just an automotive communist…?).

    It’s tragic that your current guest has dragged the relationship scale so far towards “customer” — any reasonable person would understand that this is completely unacceptable. Manic, even. (It make you want to yell at her, “Just get a hotel, already!”). And she’s obviously totally missing the point: borrowing someone’s home is all about experiencing and absorbing the idiosyncrasies of their environments. It’s not perfect. But whose home is?

    But, on the bright side (sort of), it’s a good academic lesson in yet another role that we’re all learning to play in this evolving decentralized world. The basic rule of life was never more important: be nice. Your guest/customer seems to have forgotten that though.

    August 2, 2012
  2. It certainly goes both ways for guests and hosts alike. We recently had a friend tell us about their Chicago AirBnB rental experience where they were essentially rented an illegal commercial space and had to “keep the curtains closed” so as not to be found out. They were later locked out a day early as the host took another booking early. Crazy-making everywhere.

    The question of role in all of this is an interesting one – and I agree with you. As things evolve to be increasingly flatter, more social and communal – the lines are blurring. And a universally understood or accepted/practiced set of roles hasn’t been developed yet.

    I think where it all started to make sense for me was when my guest made the comment about the taps – that they turn the “wrong” way here in Canada and she didn’t even know how to use them… of course she needed to call me to ask. She needed help. It was an interesting insight. Classic. A frame of reference that is entirely self-focused – with everything else that doesn’t fit into that paradigm being automatically categorized as wrong. And also how frightening that is.

    On another note, sorry to hear of your recent Van-city experience. But… did it have an electric water kettle? 🙂

    August 2, 2012
  3. keltieneville@gmail.com #

    what an absolute nightmare for you! By the sounds of it, that woman lives in a hell of her own making each and every day and to your point, has just about zero self-awareness. You’re a better person that I am, I would have tossed her out by now. I’ve been hosting on aibnb this summer and have only had super terrific experiences, however, i’ve turned down more bookings than I have accepted. To be perfectly honest, out of fear of something going horribly wrong. I hope this doesn’t sour you on hosting. You’ve definitely given me lots to think about.

    August 3, 2012
  4. Hi Keltie, that’s great! I’m sure you’re an amazing host. 🙂

    It’s unfortunate, but I do think this last experience I’m going through is an anomaly. I’ve otherwise had absolutely fantastic guests. I had seriously considered not being a host after this because of the distress this was causing me, but for the 1% this guest was and all the other incredible people who have both passed through and are booked in the coming months, I’ve decided it probably isn’t worth taking such extreme actions. 🙂

    I normally screen really carefully, but was obviously careless this time. I’ve since updated my listing so guests must contact me first before booking – which I think will help avoid a repeat of this in the future. The main thing was I didn’t talk to her or ask her more questions when she booked – she just booked directly and sent a short note saying she had tried to book (although at the time, the initial booking hadn’t gone through). I think doing that could have given the opportunity for some of the signs to peak through.

    August 4, 2012

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