Public Hygiene and Cultural Differences

handwashingSince I got mono last summer, I’ve been a lot more attentive to public hygiene. It occurred to me that there was no way to know who I got it from because in France, no one hesitates to taste something off your fork or from your glass. As a result, I started hesitating to share things and tried really hard to wash my hands well and not touch bathroom surfaces unnecessarily. It’s gotten me thinking and noticing things.

1) Most French people seem to believe that being cold and getting sick are linked. THEY’RE NOT. I finally yelled at someone about it the other day and then felt really bad. It wasn’t his fault he was the fifth person in a week to say such a thing. But I honestly can’t believe so many people are so misinformed.

2) Hand washing habits in France have shocked me since my arrival in 2006. First, in people’s homes, the toilet often is not in the same room as the sink. Imagine: first you have to ask where the toilet is, use it, and then wander around looking for the bathroom because it doesn’t occur to them to tell you where to wash your hands afterward. Sometimes you end up in the kitchen, where often there is only dish soap, and no dish towel to be found, which is fine—but it does make me wonder how often people in the house can wash their hands. In public bathrooms, including at work, it shocks me the number of times I’ve seen colleagues and strangers stroll straight out of the bathroom without glancing at the sink.

Also, I find it depressing the number of new public buildings that haven’t bothered to put a hot water tap in on the bathroom sinks.

3) The flu shot in France is really not done, as far as I can tell. I remember getting it every season when I was little in the States, and my parents still get it every year. The French were even really skeptical about the bird flu vaccine (which to be honest I didn’t get either).

4) Sharing drinks is done without any hesitation. At least among the people I know, no one even hesitates a half-second to taste someone else’s glass. I used to not really care about this, again, until the mono. It shocked me especially when most people I was hanging out with KNEW I HAD JUST HAD MONO and still were surprised when I didn’t want to immediately let them taste my ice cream.

Stuff like this just seems to happen all the time. When I was in Lille before the CAPES, I was desperate for company and hung out with a friend of ours who was sick. She didn’t do the bise at first, but then I ate dinner with her and some friends and she ATE DIRECTLY OUT OF THE SALAD BOWL. Then when saying goodbye she said “Oh, I’ll go ahead and do the bise anyway….” I understand it’s awkward to not do the bise, but seriously, those were the last days I wanted to be sick!

I hesitate to say this is all French, because it’s been a while since I’ve spent much time in the States. But my one year in Austin, I did get the flu shot, I did work with and hang out with people who all washed their hands after using the bathroom, and I rarely shared drinks.

On the other hand, I did run across this article on the Huffington Post yesterday:

Flu Myths: 7 Common Beliefs, Busted

and also this on

With Boston undergoing a flu emergency, guess who’s not getting the flu shot? A lot of us

So, obviously, Americans can be total dumbasses about public health too.

Has anyone else noticed any of these things? Or did the mono make me hyper-aware?


12 thoughts on “Public Hygiene and Cultural Differences

  1. L says:

    Whenever a colleague is sick at work, all my other colleagues seem to feel obligated to make comments like “Oh, but how could you not be sick with the rapidly changing temperatures we’ve been having! One day it’s warm, the next it’s cold, impossible not to get sick!” And this includes people with PhDs! (okay, in management or finance, not biology) I just kind of do a vague nod and smile.

    I’ve been doing some cross-cultural reading lately (Hofstede, things like that), and was reminded of the fact that each culture has a general take on whether things happen to you because of what you do, or because of fate (more or less). I think the causes of sickness are a good measure of the differences between Americans and the French. Americans view getting sick as a direct result of their actions, such as not washing their hands, sharing food or drinks, touching contaminated things, etc. The French view getting sick as a result of outside conditions they can’t control, such as the weather/temperature.

    • The changing temperatures theory doesn’t make sense to me, yet even a doctor mentioned it to me last year. Of course, this is the doctor who misdiagnosed me with strep throat when I had mono, but still he has a medical degree!
      Very interesting take on the cultural difference though! I had heard about something like that for Moroccan culture in grad school, but I hadn’t thought about it for France.

  2. I’ve never had the flu shot. In Cleveland, it was only for high risk people and the elderly. Never normally healthy people.

    I don’t get the whole not washing hands thing. There’s often no soap at the uni in the student bathrooms (and never paper towels!), and it drives me insane. Apparently, only teachers have the right to soap? I keep hand gel in my purse. I’m not a paranoid Lysol everything person, but after the bathroom… yes.

    • I’ve also noticed that student bathrooms (like the university library in Poitiers) can be particularly scant on the soap. And it seems like the perfect place to spread germs too! I’d feel just as indignant if I were you. I also keep hand gel in my purse these days.

  3. My boyfriend thinks that the chance of developing a cold is related to whether or not a scarf is worn. If you have a scarf on – but no jacket, even when it’s 40 degrees – you’re in the clear. However, no scarf and a jacket in the same temperature means you’re going to get a cold. When I was an exchange student, my host family thought this way, too.

    About sharing drinks, I do think the French are more comfortable with it than we are in the States. One of the girls in my Master’s program has asked me several times if she could have a drink from my water bottle. Other than my immediate family or boyfriend, I don’t even do that back home with people I’ve known for years!

    • Again, back to the mono—when I thought it was just an angine, our elderly neighbor told me to keep a scarf on. I followed his advice and started wearing a scarf (it was July!) though I don’t really know why. Those bizarre old wives’ tales have real power.

      Glad to know I’m not the only one noticing the excessive drink-sharing!

  4. I’ve shared many of those thoughts with you since I first came to France and, to be honest, I still agree with most of them, but just for the sake of debate, here are the other sides of the arguments that I’ve heard:

    – being cold itself won’t make you ill, but it does increase your vulnerability to any germs that do come your way, as your body is fighting cold and sickness at the same time.

    – French houses have separate bathrooms and toilets because it’s not hygienic to put the toilet in the place where you go to get clean.

    – Only vulnerable people, such as the elderly, should have the flu jab, because in young, fit people, the flu effects you suffer from the vaccination outweigh its usefulness. (This is UK public health advice, and I’ve only been offered the vaccination since I’ve been in France, but that might just be my workplace).

    – Finally, I also thought that French people washed their hands after the toilet much less than British people until I read a study about how few Brits do. I wonder if this one is to do with being more alert to other people’s behaviour when you’re in a foreign country, and therefore noticing more often if someone doesn’t do it. The article also said that the best way to get people to wash their hands in public toilets is not a sign that says “Have you washed your hands?” but one that says “Has the person next to you washed their hands?”

    • Thanks for commenting! I too thought that cold made your immune system less effective, but I’m not sure that’s actually true (care to chime in Mom?).

      And honestly, the toilets in a separate room thing doesn’t really bother me—I can see its advantages, since the toilet is still free when someone’s in the shower.

      And for the flu shot, I think part of it’s also a matter of just not wanting the flu. If you could pay $20 (in some cases) to not lose a week of your life, would you? The last time I got vaccinated, I was in the States, working a cash register, touching the germs of hundreds of people a day. But I think right now in the States it is a public health concern, because there are SO MANY cases of it—so it’s not a question right now of whether you want it or not, but whether you can prevent giving it someone who really shouldn’t have it, and thus straining public hospitals.

      I like your last point especially though, because I do wonder if I notice more in France than in the States and am thus hypercritical! It’s so easy to blame the culture when you’re in it and idealize your own.

  5. People in Kazakhstan are OBSESSED with the theory that the “cold weather” gives you a cold. Bus conductors, random women on the street, and pretty much anyone and everyone will get on you about not wearing your hood of the coat, or a hat. On the other hand, people also walk around wearing those masks when they do get sick, so obviously there’s at least some understanding that the illness is communicable even if the cause is attributed to the weather/poor winter clothing. I have also been told that I got a cold because 1. I went out with my hair still wet and 2. I’m a vegetarian.

  6. Hello — first of all, current English teaching assistant here, delighted to have stumbled upon your blog! What a fantastic resource for those of us considering careers in France. Thanks so much for putting up those sections on grad school, lecteurships, and the CAPES. I think a lot of assistants have some difficulty envisioning future career paths after the program, and it’s fantastic that you’ve offered your experiences and knowledge as a resource.

    Second, *yes yes yes* to your observations on the hygiene issues in France. I hate that awkward moment at dinners when you have to ask the host for the toilette… and then you come out and don’t know what to do with the dreaded, soiled hands. I usually shuffle over to the kitchen sink and try to make myself inconspicuous as I dowse dish liquid on them, but I wish the Academie Francaise would issue a ruling on this or something.

    Anyway, a plus! Looking forward to following your adventures.

    • Hi, and welcome! Glad to know you found it useful! Unfortunately (I mean, sort of) my grad school experience wasn’t in France so I dunno if that part is all that useful to wandering bloggers—but the rest of it I definitely meant to help anyone lost in the fog of bureaucracy like I was.

      Also glad to hear that I’m not the only one who finds the constant lack of hand soap so worrying.

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