Spitting and disease transmission – effectively an urban myth?

As regular readers of this blog will know I have referred to the lack of real evidence that links spitting with the spread of disease/viruses (as opposed to the idea that both can be present in spittle etc.)despite it being generally accepted and widely believed. One consequence of such beliefs is that they can impact on policy and even sentencing for acts of spitting. Such a situation is evidenced here where a Canadian judge refused to sentence a spitter harshly on the basis of what is currently little more than an ‘urban myth’.

Urban Myth and Spitting

Exaggerated health risk claims (witness drug use in sport, and the early panics around mephedrone and crack) as opposed to evidence based ones (which might reasonably still point to meaningful risks) are commonly used to bolster knee jerk policy that is dealing with ‘deviant’ behaviour that people would like to stop. Spitting it appears is no different in this respect.

Spitting around the world: meaning, practice and understanding

I have decided to bring an end to the research travel blog on cross-cultural spitting as presented in previous posts but the research itself continues. Occasionally I will update the blog with information on how the research is progressing.

For those new to this blog please scroll to the first couple of posts at the beginning (below) for a rationale and introduction to the research and click on the About link (above) to see who I am and how to contact me. Alternatively I can be found here: http://www.plymouth.ac.uk/staff/rcoomber

Don’t forget – if you haven’t already – please fill in the brief (approx. 6-7 minutes) survey on spitting experiences. https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/spitting

Some media observations from China and Chinese academics

The research has attracted some further media attention and some Chinese academics, whilst not directly contradicting my notions of the ‘unheard’ and the ‘unseen’, relate what might be another important aspect of Chinese ‘character’ – the sensibility of not wanting to confront others’ anti-social behaviour.


I do find this both interesting and important but cannot help feeling that for many Chinese (and the survey seems to be backing this up) spitting is not a problem for them, anti-spitting campaigns are not widely known about and even if you (in essence) would prefer spitting not to be prevalent you can still, if e.g. Chinese/Inidian/South Korean, not see/hear it. An example of this was evidenced by each of my guides in Kuala Lumpur, Seoul and Shanghai who all ‘learned’ to see/hear spitting (as much as me) only once they were more sensitised to it. What I mean by this is that Liew, Eunice and Isabelle each noticed less spitting than I did at first but then noticed more and more as our observations went on. In Shanghai in particular it wasn’t uncommon for me to ask Isabelle ‘did you see/hear that’ and for her (she is a non-spitter from a non-spitting family) to reply simply that she had not.

Spitting research update: translations of survey

Just by way of progress information – the International Survey of Attitudes Towards, and Experiences of, Public Spitting has now been successfully translated into Korean and Chinese with a Japanese version shortly to follow. Our challenge is to now attract (through social media, known contacts and other routes) ‘home’ respondents to the surveys so that we can build up as broad a picture of public spitting experiences throughout these nations as possible to compliment the observations already made.

Cross cultural observations, spitting, and international tensions around etiquette more generally

Originally, my blog was aiming at being a ‘research travel blog’ looking at spitting in particular but with a researcher’s ‘eye’ at other cross-cultural aspects. It has however, been far more of the former and less of the latter. In part this was because the blog was actually quite time-consuming (and mind-consuming) as even small posts had usually involved a careful process of analysis, thinking through, and writing up and I quickly became aware that sensitive, informed cross-cultural observation was not easy.

Okay, it’s easy to notice that in Tokyo and South Korea that the cars are white/cream/metallic beige or silver (see earlier posts) or that there is a sliding scale of driving/traffic disorder/order (Japan most ordered and composed, India then China the least) but these are surface level observations that certainly signify much if analysed fully but can be reported with little fear of (much?) offense.

Cross-cultural observations however often start with ‘differences’ because that is what a visitor unfamiliar with a culture notices most of all and the differences that are noticed most forcefully are, understandably, those that make a traveller feel less within their comfort zone. Because I was observing spitting (as a white, male academic from the West) I already had to contend with making sure that my motives were not misconstrued and not intended to ‘look down’ on ‘less developed’ behaviours. I feel that I managed this successfully in relation to spitting but I felt far less comfortable commenting on other differences, and was (and continue to be) concerned not comment freely without first being somewhat more informed.

Hopefully my comments on spitting over the last two months indicate how simply viewing spitting (in let’s say India) and reflecting on it simply with ‘western eyes’ will produce a different understanding (perhaps some lesser tolerance) of the behaviour than if more knowledge about it, its various manifestations, and how it fits into different cultural contexts is present. Further perhaps, the posts that point out that manners and etiquette are not only culturally located but that they are also less about some kind of natural human ‘development’ or even ‘cultural evolution’ towards greater and greater civility (higher civilisation) than many think, may have also shifted – perhaps just slightly – how spitting might be experienced by readers if they now visit India even if they continue to dislike spitting. Will they/you dislike spitting in quite the same way, will they/you experience it differently, will the sliding scale of ‘disgust’ be lower than before, and the sliding scale of acceptance (in that context) be higher?

In just this way there were many differences I could have commented on – and hope to later – that on a surface level and to those unfamiliar with it may seem plain rude, such as many South Koreans ‘barging’ unapologetically into strangers in the street and elsewhere; Chinese pushing their way onto trains before letting disembarking passengers get off (this happens everywhere but just as with the sliding scale on traffic and indeed spitting, in some countries a few people do this – Malaysia or England for example whereas in China most or in the absence of empirical data, a great many do), but these behaviours are not to be understood simply as ‘rudeness’. They are culturally located and involve understanding cultural difference as it relates to personal, private and public (inter)personal ‘space’ as well as acceptable behaviours. Later posts will try to relate some of my cross-cultural observations but through a sociological or cultural lens rather than that simply of the traveller suffering so-called ‘culture-shock’.

Making sense of spitting in China II: ‘Cleansing’ beliefs and swallowing as ‘phobia’

Spitting as ‘cleansing’ or related to historic ritual / or traditional/cultural beliefs.

I have seen a number of comments and musings whereby people have suggested that spitting in China is related to ingrained beliefs about bodily fluids such as spittle being ‘bad’ and needing to be expelled and/or in specific notions of ‘cleansing’ through spitting. I have not so far however found any corroboration of these ideas. If they are present it is likely that they are superficial (a general feeling that this is so) rather than ‘meaningful’ (i.e. contemporarily attached to ritual/traditional belief systems) belief.

Swallowing as anathema?

In the discussion following my presentation at the University of Shanghai, one postgraduate student asked simply ‘what do you do [in the West] when you need to clear your throat? [if you don’t spit]’. The question was a straight-forward, simple one but it arguably spoke volumes. My response that ‘you swallow’ was met with a combination of (mild) disbelief/disgust. Swallowing of phlegm was not something immediately obvious to this educated female student and numerous others around the room clearly felt similarly from the looks on their faces and the muted hum that followed my suggestion that you ‘swallow’. It may well be the case that even for those that do not spit in public that they do so in bathrooms and toilets in private.

This possible ingrained cultural aversion to swallowing spittle is supported by recent communications with a US dentist that has numerous Chinese immigrant patients. She has related to me that a dental session with these clients is often extended because they are very uncomfortable with the accumulation of spittle when being ‘worked on’ (more than non-Chinese patients) and that they need regular ‘breaks’ but are less disturbed if a suction tube is permanently in place. I’m not suggesting that swallowing phlegm/spittle is a phobia for many Chinese (although it may be) but it is, it appears, to be something that makes many feel uncomfortable in comparison to expectorating and may be (in part at least) at the root of the commonality of spitting in China and it’s comparative (elites apart) acceptance.