Don’t you wonder sometimes ’bout sound and vision – David Bowie (you have to hum it)

Since doing this research in the field – rather than just thinking around it, musing on it – it has become increasingly obvious that sound (‘noise’ and/or its absence) when it comes to manners, and vision (of something supposedly offensive) are experienced differentially. In addition, it seems that representations of them (how they are reported) are often distorted and exaggerated by the offended.

Cultural differences throw up all sorts of behaviours that are effectively both invisible and silent to the home culture yet visible and heard by others. In South Korea, for example, slurping noodle/other soup direct from the bowl usually results in louder eating (despite other chewing being done more quietly) and this will be the norm and as such I suspect this is essentially ‘unheard’ by other Koreans in the same way that hocking loudly in public toilets is unheard in Malaysia or spitting in the moat of public swimming pools is unseen in Indonesia. In the UK, ‘noisy’ eating is heard by many and the open-mouthed root of this is then also seen. Relative levels of disgust will then result depending on whether those nearby are also noisy eaters or not as they will/will not hear/see it happening. This latter example is complex in the UK. In my experience more middle-class people chew noisily than working-class people whereas more working class people spit on the streets than middle-class people. One is considered worse than the other and some insight as to why this might be the case is considered briefly below.

Manners then, depending on social norms, make things unheard and unseen. If the social conventions of the onlooker and listener are different they are both heard and seen, if social convention accepts them they disappear. They have less obvious presence. This provides us with some insight into how acts such as spitting can be embedded culturally and goes largely unnoticed except by those that notice them. As such, I am also interested in the reasons why, within a culture, some are disgusted and others cannot even ‘see/hear’ (in practical terms) the thing being opposed. My survey is increasingly suggesting that in many cases – for those cultures/nations such as India/Korea/China – where respondents answer: ‘Used to accept it until you became aware of other cultures’, that spitting only became heard and seen for these individuals when it was made so by being aware of how other cultures/nations perceive it. Most of those that are educated abroad/live abroad/travel abroad from countries such as India and China are ‘elites’ in the sense that they are the comparatively wealthy middle-classes. Elias, in his book The Civilising Process, has argued that a history of manners is essentially about fashion and power. Elites determine what is fashionable around etiquette and manners (when in history did the poor determine how the elites should behave?) and ‘power’, because over time, the preferences of elites in relation to manners, percolate down defining acceptable behaviours. I am interested in the extent to which this continues to happen around spitting in those cultures where it is heavily embedded.

When something becomes ‘other’, when it is singled out as something people want to change, it is rarely the case that people say ‘well it is a bit risky, and it might lead, in some cases to….’ or, ‘well some people spit fairly inoffensively and quietly and they try to do it in the gutter or in a bin’ – there is emphasis on the worst case scenario when describing what is risky/offensive. When people/governments want to change behaviours there is a tendency to exaggerate risks, to exaggerate the behaviours themselves and if at all possible to attach it to some (again often exaggerated) medical or scientific reason for curtailing it as this deflects away from the idea that it is manners that are being challenged rather than the health of the individual or society. In this way spitting is represented almost exclusively to be loud and visibly disgusting when in fact this is so only some of the time to only some of the people, and the evidence for outdoor spitting significantly contributing to the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis is not, in reality to be found.

Did you find yourself humming it?

[International spitting survey. To help me compare spitting worldwide, please fill in this brief (approx. 6-7 minutes) survey on spitting experiences. ]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s