Cleanliness culture

No cleaning required here! Chris on Mt Rosa, our property is mostly between his feet.

In the realm of New Year’s resolutions (or lack of them as I don’t find them helpful), I have been musing on cleaning. Dad used to say ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’. He was joking, mostly. Maybe that saying is the reason I gave up on religion aged thirteen, because cleaning is one of my least favourite occupations. Here’s me trying to think of what I like doing less than cleaning…thinking…thinking…maybe driving to the supermarket to go shopping because that would combine two things I don’t enjoy doing. Aha, I know, I would rather clean than kill a live but maimed rabbit the cats have brought in.

Why did I come up with this topic in particular? Because we finally learned a way to clean windows streak-free aged close to sixty (How could it take so long? Not enough practice?) and because we got a low score for the cleanliness of our barn accommodation from a recent HomeExchange points swap (a system where you can exchange houses with people or earn points from loaning out your house to ‘spend’ on exchanges at other houses). This HomeExchange experience annoyed me for a number of reasons:

  1. The people begged to have a place to stay the weekend before Christmas, when we had five friends staying already. I told them our house was unavailable but the barn was a possibility, however the barn is a lower standard than the house.
  2. They rated us two out of five, which would suggest our cleaning standards are pretty low. I leave barn cleaning to Chris and his cleaning is not that awful!
  3. They couldn’t be bothered talking with us, although the intent of the HomeExchange site is exchange of human interaction, not just a transaction.

Anyhow, beyond being annoyed, it got me thinking about the obsession with cleanliness in regard to home exchanges, AirBnBs and the like, and rental cars, and what the point of this all is.

In the first instance, cleanliness is about hygiene, which is about not getting ill. This type of cleanliness makes a lot of sense and is something humans have learned more about as our knowledge of bacteria and viruses has developed. Even with this type of cleanliness, however, it is not always clear where the boundaries lie. When is something clean enough not to make you ill? We have few yardsticks, or metresticks, for that matter. In the absence of metresticks, we tend to rely on social norms to determine how much we clean i.e. we base the degree of cleaning we think is needed on what other people do. This sort of works, and sort of doesn’t. In Indonesia, you might think that people need to be cleaner – we found out when we worked there that people constantly have vomiting bugs. However, the prevalence of illness doesn’t seem to change people’s behaviours – they are all ill so they don’t think anything of it!

In Switzerland women have told me they feel an expectation to clean daily. Daily! Many particularly begrudge this because daily cleaning is an additional expectation on top of whatever else they might do – Switzerland dragged the chain in terms of giving women voting rights (full rights in 1990 c.f. New Zealand in 1893) and also appears to be dragging the chain on other rights for women. This degree of cleaning expectation might beat Indonesia’s, in that people don’t constantly have vomiting bugs, however it is differently negative.

I think that expectations of cleanliness are higher for women than men in many countries, not just Switzerland. Chris wasn’t bothered in the slightest by his two out of five HomeExchange score. I was bothered, even though I didn’t actually do the cleaning (or not do sufficient cleaning, as it were)! This brings me to the other side of cleanliness, suggested by the ‘Godliness’ quote, which is morality around cleanliness. Lack of cleanliness, which blends into lack of tidiness, is equated with laziness. Further associated words that come into my mind are ‘slob’ and ‘slovenly’.

I think that we mix up the hygienic necessities with the moral judgments and one of the results has been an obsession with holiday/rental properties/hotels requiring degrees of cleanliness few people would aspire to, let alone achieve, in their own homes (based on my observation of a wide variety of people’s homes). What is it we are seeking? It’s not like we are going to feel an obligation to clean a rental space if it isn’t up to standard – that’s the problem of the person who rented it to us, not ours. Are we hoping to be morally superior when we occupy a temporary space? Do we hope that the morality of the cleanliness will rub off on us? To me a rental space that isn’t immaculately clean can be a relief – there is no sense of expectation, neither when you are in it nor of keeping it ‘up to standard’ when you leave it.

The related challenge in one’s own home is to be sufficiently clean to have a functional space that you and others can enjoy being in, without wasting too much of your precious time and energy on cleaning beyond the call of hygiene. I think I can make a safe bet no one on their death bed ever said, “I wish I had cleaned more.”

Published by janecshearer

I'm a self-employed life enthusiast living in Gibbston, New Zealand

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