Culture Shock, Take 63: Our American Fear of Germs

A recent article by an American expat in Spain about how she learned to battle her germophobia  by living in a country with a more relaxed lifestyle sparked my interest, and reminded me that I had a similar story to tell:

Chaperone without Wet Wipes

It was a few months into our expat assignment in Johannesburg. The kids had settled in at school, I had finally gotten most services installed at our house, and I was very excited to go on my first South African field trip as a chaperone.

In a bus packed with 2nd graders, all in their pretty school uniforms, we rode first through the awful early morning Joburg traffic, onto the N1, past the Soweto mine dumps (which, it is said, look so yellow because they still hold an enormous amount of the tiniest grains of gold dust), and onto winding country roads, all the way to where Boswell Wilkie, a traveling circus, had taken up camp.

kids at a circus in South Africa

Much like on any school trip the world over, my job was to see that the boys didn’t pull the girls’ hair or scream too loudly on the bus ride, and to make sure the same number of kids returned home as left that morning.

It was also my job, just because as an American mom I’d been conditioned that way, to make sure that all the kids washed their hands after the bathroom break and before the picnic lunch.

There was only one rudimentary tap of cold water – no soap, no paper towels, no disinfectant. Some kids washed their hands by rubbing diligently, some kids were more interested in splashing each other than washing, and some didn’t touch the water at all. When I saw that none of the other chaperones or teachers seemed to care one way or another, I relaxed and enjoyed watching the kids run around wildly and generally have a grand old time.

It was the nicest field trip I’ve ever been on, not least because there was such little fuss about everything. I couldn’t help but think how amazing it was that no one had thought to bring any wipes or hand sanitizer, which on the equivalent American field trip would have been hauled out by the case.

kids at a circus in South Africa

Many Americans, in my experience much more so than other nationalities, are afraid of germs or anything “unclean.” We go out of our way to spray our kitchen counters and lather our hands with so much antibacterial soap that its effect has become questionable. We shower at least every day if not twice a day. resulting in water use double or triple that of other countries. We are often disgusted by anything even remotely associated with bathrooms.

In a book I read the other day, the author was using the fact that he washed his visitor’s underwear together with his own in the same load as a token of how close they’d grown, meaning it was out of the question to do such a thing with a stranger. The author seriously meant to convey that having your underwear touch someone else’s in a load of laundry was absolutely gross.

Big packets of Clorox wipes are often the first thing school kids are asked to contribute to the classroom so that all surfaces can be kept germ-free throughout the day.

And yet I don’t think Americans are any healthier because of this. Perhaps even the contrary. Nowhere else, for instance, do there seem to exist quite so many allergies to all sorts of substances.

Of course basic sanitation saves lives, without debate. We need clean water and sanitary slaughterhouses, for instance, or we’d die like flies. The U.S. has pretty good regulations in place that safeguard the basic safety of our food and drugs and all sorts of other things that impact our daily lives.

But to me, the fear of germs is way overblown. While I’ve embraced many quirks of American culture with the acquisition of my citizenship six years ago, germophobia isn’t one of them. My German upbringing was very different, even though – or perhaps precisely because – my mother was a pediatrician. I can’t remember ever being told to wash my hands before a meal. We grew up using cloth tissues to blow our noses, safely stowing them away after use in our pockets until needed the next time. Germs were considered a normal part of life and nothing to be feared. Sometimes they were even welcomed. When the measles were making the rounds in my mother’s practice, she’d make me sit and read my book in her waiting room amongst the other kids, so that I might catch them too and get it over with. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” was definitely a motto in our lives.

Too many of my American friends and acquaintances are of the opinion that “if only every kid was taught to wash their hands properly,” colds and other viruses would finally and forever be vanquished. Quite the contrary, the way I see it: The more that kids are slobs and spread germs around (within reason), the more those germs have a chance to infect everyone so that everyone can build valuable immunity. Keeping your kids away from germs is not a way to keep them safe but to put them at risk – the risk of being vulnerable at an older age. Building immunity by catching the common cold (and yes, the dreaded stomach flu) is an important part of childhood – the more of them you catch early, the sooner you’re done with it all.

When I traveled to Turkey for the first time, and later to Mexico, I was ever so careful to avoid drinking any tap water or eating fruit that might have been washed in it. To no avail – I caught the dreaded Montezuma’s Revenge. But I couldn’t help notice that the locals didn’t suffer from any of it. Why? Because their bodies were used to those germs and had built immunity.

I have four kids who when they were little brought every conceivable virus home from preschool and Kindergarten. And yet I haven’t caught any of that for years. Perhaps I have special powers because of my germ-laden childhood. There was a time, I was told, that I used to scrape chewing gum off the sidewalk and stick it into my mouth. I don’t remember this but it makes perfect sense to me, because my mother, being a frugal German, considered chewing gum an utterly decadent luxury that was not to be had in our house. I sort of applaud my younger self for those problem-solving skills.

Living in South Africa reminded me that most cultures around the world are equally unconcerned about germs as I was as a child.

America is not the norm in this regard. And we’re probably doing ourselves and our children a disservice by going overboard with obsessive cleanliness.

child washing hands at an outside faucet


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