There is a pile of filthy pots and pans in the corner of the kitchen, and it’s tearing us apart.
For six weeks I have been living in a hostel in Te Puke, New Zealand, the kiwifruit capital of the world. Te Puke is not a tourist attraction, so travelers generally only come here to spend a month or two working in the orchards, then they hit the road again. This means there is very little accommodation in town, because it is difficult to make a hostel pay for itself with virtually no tourism.
I am staying in a bunkhouse at the edge of town, with about 30 other long-term guests. Because the turnover is low for a hostel, friendships have time to form and there is a warm social vibe among the guests. But a tense relationship exists between us and the owners, and it has something to do with cookware.
All around, the place is not particularly spiffy. I don’t want to run it down too much — I mean, it is my home for the time being and I have a healthy fondness for it, but let’s just say it is distinctly less clean than any other hostel I’ve been in. And I’ve been in a few.
The epicenter of the uncleanliness is the far corner of kitchen. Twenty-four hours a day there is a fly-ridden greasy heap of dirty cookware. Pots, pans, spatulas — slick with filmy residue, caked with dried sauces, or worse.
A Monster Born of Good Intentions
It’s quite… uh… inappropriate. It’s the last thing you want to see while you’re preparing food. By anyone’s standards it shouldn’t be there. But with a bit of thought I can see how this monster came to be.
Every morning, the owner dutifully but unhappily cleans the kitchen, scrubbing the floor, sinks, counters and elements. He does a fine job of it too. But he will not clean pots and pans. Out of protest he puts them all on a disgusting, teetering pile in the far corner, which has been there since I arrived.
I can see where they’re coming from. Every night, pots and pans are left uncleaned on the counter, or in the sink with bloated instant noodles in them. A remarkable number of people don’t clean up after themselves here, even by hostel standards. By cleaning the pots for them, it’s almost as if they would be saying, “It’s okay not to wash them, someone will do it for you.” Naturally they don’t want to send that message.
The thing is though, all of the guests here are from the same population of backpackers that I’ve seen in all the other hostels I’ve stayed in here. Why do they make such a spectacular mess here, but not elsewhere? Obviously it’s not just a random spell of extra-sloppy backpackers than happen to be here at the moment. It’s a problem with the policy.
By refusing to clean the pots and pans, they are making the problem worse. It’s an understandable way to respond — I mean who wants to clean up after people who won’t do it for themselves? — but it is not an intelligent approach to the problem.
Other hostels have cleaning staff that will clean up the mess every day, no matter how bad it is. There are always a few people who leave dishes out. But I’ve seen the kitchen at the end of the night in many hostels, and it’s never as bad as this one.
A Different Approach
Recently the owners took a ten-day vacation in Fiji, left their live-in babysitter in charge of reception and maintenance, and one of my fellow guests in charge of cleaning (for a free bed.) Both did an excellent job and the staff-guest dynamic brightened considerably.
One day I had a long chat on the porch with my friend (the one who did the cleaning.) She told me she wanted to clean the pots and pans in the corner, but had been left with instructions not to. She agreed when I told her that I thought that pile of pots and pans is the reason people don’t clean up after themselves. So I explained the Broken Window Theory.
In case you didn’t read “How to Fight Crime By Making Your Bed“, the Broken Window Theory states that something in an immaculate state greatly inhibits people from messing with it, while something that is already in a compromised state only attracts more disrespect. People are naturally more respectful of something that is clean and tidy, so they are less likely to make a mess of it, and more likely to clean it up if they do. New York authorities employed this principle to help them reduce crime dramatically in the 1990s, by persistently cleaning up vandalism as soon as it was discovered.
When I went to make dinner the next day, I was stunned at how clean the kitchen was. There were a few dishes left out, a few drips of sauce here and there, the odd macaroni elbow in the drain, but it was far from disgusting.
Most notably, there was no pile of dirty pots and pans. It actually looked strange without it.
As I ate, I watched people making dinner. It was a completely different scene than the chaotic spectacle I was used to. People were washing things up, checking if they’d left anything behind. They were moving slower. Even known mess-makers were cleaning out their pots.
When the owners returned they dismissed my friend, and the next day the kitchen was disgusting again. The greasy pile reappeared, and is still there.
The Two Philosophies
The same dynamic happens in many parts of society, but two issues in particular come to mind: how to respond to drug addicts and how to educate young people about sex.
Of course, most people would be a lot more comfortable if nobody was addicted to drugs, only responsible adults had sex, and everyone left the cookware sparkling every time.
But we’re human, and that’s never going to happen.
We’re never going to completely eradicate problem behaviors. No amount of drug abuse education could ever completely halt drug abuse. There will always be a certain percentage of the populace that will do things that can be harmful to themselves and others, and which no consequence can prevent.
There are two fundamental approaches:
1) reject the behavior and avoid validating it in any way, in the hopes that people will eventually “get the message”
2) figure out the best way to reduce the harm associated with that behavior, given that we do not know how to stop the behavior completely
Blogger Gala Darling just published a post about the dramatically different messages people get about sex depending on who it was that educated them. It illustrates two completely different philosophies about sex ed, and the results:
Reader: I am a freshman in college. 18 years old. Like most other people, I was raised to believe ‘sex is bad.’ I had to take several required courses in high school whose purpose was that of convincing my peers and I that sex is bad and will give you chlamydia and eventually kill you. We were shown pictures of disfigured and disgusting genitals that had fallen victims of numerous stds and were persuaded that this, too, would one day become our genitals if we were to take part in sexual intercourse before marriage. Long story short, we were manipulated into a state of being scared shitless about sex.
Gala: For all its imperfections, I am so glad I was raised in New Zealand where we are given realistic information about sex in school. The way they teach it is, “We know you’re going to do it, so here’s what you need to know”. We were taught about the risks, how to prevent STIs & we discussed the positive effects of having sex too.
Realistic, that’s the word.
When it comes to drugs, the United States is the poster child for the utter inadequacy of the first approach. Nearly one percent of the US population lives behind bars, the vast majority non-violent drug offenders.
The idea is to punish people into smartening up. If they aren’t smartening up enough, then we must not be punishing enough. If some people aren’t “getting the message” then they lengthen sentences, and a certain contingent of the public cheers because they are “finally getting tough on crime.” It doesn’t occur to them that it may not actually be helpful.
Holland’s famously “soft” drug policy has seen much lower rates of drug use than the US. It’s based on the principle of harm reduction, rather than eternally swinging for home run by insisting on total eradication of the problem behavior.
Moralistic policies such as the Drug War approach (or any sort of approach with “War” in the title) are fueled by character judgments and pedantry. It’s not difficult to see that the underlying assertion is that people who don’t do X are better people than those who do.
The Message Isn’t Enough
When someone brings up the obvious point that many people will still engage in certain behaviors whether you reject them or not — and that therefore we should account for the continuation of that behavior in our policies — the argument is always the same: “But it sends the wrong message! We can’t let them think it’s okay.” So drug addicts go to jail instead of treatment. Kids have sex anyway, even though their school’s PTA doesn’t believe in condom dispensers. And some people still can’t be bothered to clean the wok if nobody else does. But at least we didn’t say it was “okay.”
Can you see the difference between these two ideologies: one is based on results, and the other is not. So what is it based on?
“Sending the wrong message” is an understandable fear, as is the fear of validating underage sex or encouraging people to leave their kitchen messes for others to clean, but maybe fear (or any other emotion) is not a sensible basis for policymaking.
I know the owner fears that cleaning up the mess-makers’ pots will encourage more mess-making, but everyone else saw the superior effect of the other policy, and clearly his standoffish response is creating the opposite of what he wants.
Your own policies — not just your positions on public issues, but your established ways of responding to undesirable behavior from others — do they make sense? Or are they just emotional responses that don’t really help anything? Maybe your message is clear, but so what? Does it make a difference, that’s what matters.
When people do things you wish they wouldn’t do, how do you respond? And what happens as a result? Those two questions can dislodge some long-standing messes. Often we get attached to a particular approach because it satisfies our emotional response, but that doesn’t mean it actually helps you or anybody else.
Is there a big greasy mess somewhere in your life that could use a fresh approach?
Photo by blmurch