Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Washing Clothes across cultures

While we were in Paris, my family and I went to visit the Parc Asterix. I'm not sure how many of you are familiar with the character of Asterix, but he's quite famous in many countries - a little Gaul from the time of the Roman Empire who loves to cause the Romans trouble along with his friend Obelix. We had fun, and saw lots of statues (and some costumed characters) of the folks from the comic books doing various things like riding in boats etc. One of the things they had was a statue of a Gauloise (woman from Gaul) washing clothes in a river. This was the moment when I had to explain washing clothes in a river to my kids.

We don't exactly pound our laundry on a rock. But there are still quite a few people in the world who do.

I took this as one example of a big difference in technologies surrounding the washing of clothes. However, what impressed me more was the more subtle difference surrounding the washing of clothes that I encountered in France and Switzerland.

Nobody had dryers. When asked, they would say, "A drying machine? Why?"

Well, in fact, it's a good question. I guess you could say that we Americans like to do everything as quickly and easily as possible and never mind the expense of energy or money. Yes, there are times when it rains. In France, there could be rain on any given day, since they don't have the unnatural division of rainy season and dry season that we have here in California.

The interesting thing from a TTYU point of view is the way that different values have been placed on these machines. Everyone has a washer; it's natural (that's another issue, but it's not being called into question in the US/Europe contrast). But what does it mean to have a dryer, or not to have a dryer?

In the US, it's surprising (at least!) to hear that someone doesn't have a dryer. In some cases, the lack of a dryer is associated with poverty. There is no such association (no surprise) in Europe. Having a dryer there is seen as a waste of money, bad for the environment (this view has become strong recently), and damaging to the clothes. Contrast this with Japan, where we had a dryer, but where our washer was so gentle it hardly washed things - and this was because it was believed that a stronger washer would damage the clothes!

So, for those world builders out there - it's valuable to have striking differences in technology, etc. but also good to explore how subtler differences in attitude lead to differences in what people use, like these washing machines. Just because a technology is available doesn't mean that people will want to use it, so consider why it is that people make the technology choices they do.

It's worth thinking about.