Shame, it seems, is the cornerstone of all civilization. At least, that’s what I found out last week while researching the phenomenon of spitting in public.
It began a few days ago when a British coworker admitted that, although he didn’t really know why, he spits every time he uses a urinal (which he pronounces “your-eye-nal,” naturally). “It’s just something everyone does when they go for a pee in England,” he shrugged, seemingly puzzled as to why people do that so much less frequently in American restrooms.
As an American who does not spit in the urinal, I can confirm that I have rarely seen this behavior (I also think it’s gross, but I didn’t tell him that). Anyway, that got me looking into whether there is a disparity between U.S. and U.K. spitting habits, and just the spitting habits of men generally.
Little did I know just how involved this would be.
I started by reaching out to a man who is, pretty much, the authority on spitting, sociology professor Ross Coomber at the University of Liverpool. Coomber has done extensive research into spitting and its cultural relationship, including extensive reporting on spitting in Asia as compared to his native U.K. While he admitted that it’s common in England for men to do this, he was surprised to hear that Americans do not, or, at least, do not as much. He added that this is very common in Asian cultures, largely because spitting in general isn’t considered taboo, but that he figured Americans do it no less than the Brits. He even encouraged me to check again.
So I did, by spending nearly 20 minutes in the bathroom of Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan during rush hour. I’m pretty sure I saw one guy do it, out of what amounted to several dozen pee-ers. Anyway, as unscientific as this is, it does seem that it’s less common in America. As to why, Coomber speculates that due to America’s diversity, it may not be culturally pervasive in the same way.
As for why urinal spitters spit, the best guess Coomber could muster is that it’s “a Pavlovian reaction to the urinal” — in other words, just something they automatically do upon seeing a urinal. He also mentioned that urinal spitting may “simply [be] the opportunity to spit because it’s okay to do so, whereas spitting in public isn’t really permissible.” It’s a good point: Although Diane Gottsman of the Protocol School of Texas tells me that urinal spitting is “unhygienic” and “not sanitary for the person following you,” it does make sense that it might represent a relatively discrete, polite place to spit, as opposed to in the greater public space.
Why then do some people — especially men — spit in public at all? As much as you might regard them as disgusting slobs with no respect for basic human decency, they may simply be hanging onto the cultural norms of yesteryear. Coomber explains that Brits and Americans alike were both prolific spitters once upon a time, citing the famous diary of Samuel Pepys, which he says held “reports of spittoons in courts, parliament and… everywhere.”
Coomber adds, “British pubs were still being built with spitting troughs running under the bar until the mid-20th century.” This is similar to the U.S., where spittoons weren’t only featured in Wild West bars — like you might see in an old John Wayne movie — but also present in the U.S. Senate, where they were still being used up until 1981. (At one point, the House of Representatives had a spittoon for every desk.)
The pervasiveness of baseball and the spitting habits of its players also had an impact on America, as its biggest stars could often be seen spitting their tobacco on the field.
So where did all the spitting go? “The history of the demise of spitting is strongly linked to fashion and the fashions of civility,” says Coomber. “So, over many hundreds of years, spitting went from being really commonplace [until] elite condemnation slowly impacted the practice until it was largely the vestiges of men and the working class.” He adds, “Spitting wouldn’t have diminished as much in the U.S., Europe, Australia, New Zealand and so on if it wasn’t for the marrying up of moral indignation with an association of spitting with spreading disease.”
By that, he’s referring to the campaign to end public spitting in the early 20th century, which claimed it would help transmit diseases like tuberculosis — although, as it turns out, the reality is that there’s little real danger from spitting. “The actual risk to other people in the current circumstances may be very small, but it does represent something unnecessary and unpleasant,” John Middleton, vice-president of the Faculty of Public Health, told The Guardian.
As much as the social pressure to quit spitting was widespread, it had a greater impact on women, who generally face more pressure to be proper and lady-like. Indeed, there’s little good reason for men to spit more than women, according to Jennifer Villwock, an otolaryngologist (aka ear, nose and throat doctor) at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Though she says that some studies have shown that men create more saliva than women, this was only in proportion to their size as compared to women. Instead, she too believes that societal pressures account for the disparity.
For further insight, Coomber points me to a landmark book on sociology: The Civilizing Process by Norbert Elias. Spitting, says this tome, along with other behaviors now considered taboo, became less common in society due to the tremendous effectiveness of shame. That terrible feeling of embarrassment or being judged can account for everything from the reduction in public nudity and decline in violent behaviors, to the decrease in the open display of bodily functions up to and including spitting.
So while there’s no biological reason for my British coworker to “gob every time he takes a slash in the bog,” at least it may be possible for myself and my fellow non-urinal spitters to shame him into stopping.