Saturday, July 11, 2009

Don’t let the cleaner see the mess! or My own apparently strange behaviour.

So I’ve been writing about other things that strike me as a little strange at first sight, and didn’t see why I should be excluded from that. So what is (one of my many) strange behaviour?

I have a lady who comes in to my house once a week to clean/do washing etc. (Being a class-shy Brit, and feeling slightly guilty about it, I can’t quite bring myself to call her a ‘cleaner’). I noticed that the day before she comes in, I find myself cleaning the house to make sure it is not too dirty. When I caught myself doing it, I thought I must be crazy, and started to ask myself why I do it?

I admit that I am not entirely impartial when pondering the answer, but a bit of self-introspection can go a long way (it’s the ultimate observant-participant methodology), but I have come up with three reasons, all under the assumption that I do what makes me happy (or perhaps, less unhappy).

1. I care about what people think about me (I don’t think that is a bad thing – it helps to keep our behaviour in check). Even though I don’t like cleaning, and that makes me somewhat less happy, I like even less the idea that she might think I am messy. So I do the cleaning.
2. My own happiness depends on other people’s happiness. I particularly find myself doing the more unpleasant things so that she doesn’t have to. Even though I don’t like doing the most unpleasant things, knowing that she is suffering doing them makes me even more unhappy than doing them myself. (This behaviour can me problematic – it means I can be taken advantage of easily.)
3. I am British, and the British don’t like ‘class’. Even though we are aware of it, we try to deny it. Hence, we include the barman (I have been a barman) with our rounds to make it feel like we are drinking together as ‘equals’ (“and one for yourself, mate” or “and whatever you’re having”*) or we get slightly embarrassed about giving too openly to charity or we appear to be very interested when someone tells you they do the most menial job (I have done many of these!)**. By doing a part of her job, it makes me feel like we are ‘in this together’ as equals, and allows me to deny in a true British way, any differences in class. So, again, although I don’t like doing the cleaning, the idea that we are somehow not equals makes me much more unhappy than doing some of the cleaning.

I’ve tried to write this in economics (it’s a language of its own!) below***. When thinking about it, I realise that this is not the only time I have caught myself doing these things. People doing things for me in an obvious way seems to make me uncomfortable. So, although I don’t mind consuming goods and services that other people have worked to produce, I don’t like it being produced in front of me (any relation to my meat-eating habits?). I don’t like people packing my bags in supermarkets for example. I still feel very slightly uncomfortable being served food in a restaurant, or having my hair cut, and am only just getting over the (so far) life-long annoyance I feel when a shop assistance asks if they can help me.

And yet, in a totally hypocritical way, I have no problem consuming goods that I know people have worked in factories to produce, warehouses to store, lorries to ship it to me, shops to stock (but not the selling bit), offices to organise. Strangely, I have worked in many crappy jobs in factories, warehouses, shops and offices, but none of these feelings have changed.

Maybe these reasons help to explain my apparently strange behaviour. I am sure that there might be other reasons, but these three come to my mind. Has anyone else caught themselves doing anything similar?


*I can’t actually remember the last time I bought the barman a drink, but I am considerable more likely to do so in a crowded bar in order to ensure quick service the next time – again my behaviour is mainly explained by increasing my own happiness. (It might also be because I am both more likely to be in a crowded bar after having consumed a certain quantity of alcohol and become overly generous in such a state.)

**Read ‘Watching the English’ by Kate Fox for more examples of how the British (she talks about the English but a lot of her points are more widely applicable). Notice how interested you are next time you meet someone who tells you they clean toilets for a living.

***My happiness = depends on {amount cleaning I do (-); what other people think of me (+)=f(how clean my house is) (+); other people’s happiness (+)=f(amount of cleaning they do) (-); overt class divide (-)=f(joint cleaning effort) (-); other things}. – This must even be a solvable function to find out how much cleaning I do! At least in theory...

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