Cultural Differences: Let’s Talk About Poop


Everybody poops. This is a fact, and there are the kids books to prove it. However, despite the ubiquity of this bodily function, admitting that everybody poops, and talking about it, is one of the starkest cultural differences I noticed when living abroad.

In Italy, everyone believes (especially women) that they are a doctor. When it comes to medical things, there is nothing too disgusting, or too taboo to talk about amongst your friends. Your pooping habits are no exception, and are discussed freely even amongst people you don’t know very well at all. The topic might come up the way that the weather might come up. Even when I was living in Padova, and working with a very shy and conservative technician, who would never discuss anything even tangentially sex-related for fear of shaming herself, would occasionally walk in to work and say “Hi! Sorry I’m late. I had a little diarrhea this morning and I thought it best to wait and make sure that it wouldn’t happen again. I’m fine now, though, so problem solved! Anyway, that’s why I’m late.” As long as it’s medical, it is a topic of discussion, and no one will fault you for bringing it up, and will often jump in the conversation with questions as to why you think you had the diarrhea, how often it happens, and suggestions as to what you could do to prevent it. “Oh, have you tried Immodium? I find that works best for me.” “Oh no, last time I took Immodium it went too far and blocked me up for three days! Tea with lemon works fine for me most of the time…”

That was the culture that I grew up in, and moving to Ireland taught me very quickly to shut up about it.

 

When I was living in Ireland, there was no topic more taboo than pooping. I was living with roommates, and for a couple of years we were four people were sharing one windowless bathroom. In my culture, it is only polite to announce to the room that you intend to poop in the bathroom, so that others can perhaps pee first, or pop in there if they have something quick to do. I rapidly discovered that is not the case in Ireland. Once I said it, and I was raucously laughed at, stared at in shock, and told “eeewww gross TMI Crys!” I was so embarrassed I never brought it up again. The fact was, pretty much everything else was discussed freely and openly. Sex, masturbation habits, and period discussions with men in the room were all far, far more socially acceptable than poop. I was amazed at the stark contrast between the two cultures. I then started listening to various American podcasts, and I would pick up casual cultural references to women who wont poop in a house if their long term boyfriends are there, because obviously I’m never going to get that comfortable in front of him OMG even if we’re married, or about how only boys with juvenile humor talk about poop, etc. etc. I started to internalize the shame around talking about poop, and I started to embarrassedly refer to it as “going to the bathroom” those very few times it ever came up.

Moving back to Italy unblocked that constipation (har har har). Despite the fact that I was living in the most conservative community I had ever lived in in my life, poop discussions were back on the table. At first I found it hilarious, and then it became the new normal.

Now, in Germany, I find it is somewhere in between these two extremes. They don’t bring it up often, but if it comes up no one blanches, or squeals in disgust, but might even join in the conversation for a time. Amusedly pointing out the different habits of different people, even mentioning the habits of your husband or friend, is not considered rude or embarrassing, no one says “OMG he’d kill me if he knew I told you that!”

Personally, I’m back to discussing it freely, and not caring. I realized that shame is a completely useless emotion that I am doing away with completely. There is no reason to be ashamed of ones body, or what one chooses to do with it. The few things that one actually should be ashamed of, like treating others cruelly, I have resolved not to do in the first place, thereby avoiding having to feel shame altogether. I have become somewhat famous for this: there is no topic that embarrasses me anymore, and it is why the word “shameless” appears in my banner and my description. That doesn’t mean that I walk around bellowing about what my poop looked like that morning, or that I am not polite to people. Rather, it means that there is no personal question you could ask me that I would be embarrassed to answer, and there is no topic of discussion that I would find too crude to participate in and give my opinion on.

This is the part where I kick the discussion over to you. What is your culture like on the poop topic? But, more importantly, do you feel shame about certain things that you do, and/or do you think that shame is in any way a necessary thing to have?

Comments

  1. sonofrojblake says

    In the UK I observe that there’s a period during which poop is a taboo subject. That time begins some time in late primary school, maybe 9/10/11 years old. It continues until just after you become a parent.

    Shame is useful. It stops you doing things you might otherwise do but shouldn’t. What else am I going to use to program my brain – religion? Don’t think so. Sheer self-control? Yeah, right. I’m ashamed to say I’ve passed tenth prestige on Black Ops 3 – ashamed because it speaks of a large amount of time wasted on essentially empty activity. The fact I mention it, however, also betrays a little bit of pride, which is equally ridiculous. I did the same sort of thing when I was a teenager, but was not ashamed then as it was expected, indeed practically required if one wanted to participate in the popular culture.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      But, as you alluded to, that’s not real shame. Personally, when I feel shame creeping in, I ask myself: why am I ashamed of this? If the answer is “because prudish/religious society deemed this to be shameful, but there’s nothing wrong with it” I discard the shame. If the answer is “because the thing I am doing is wrong/a waste of time/morally objectionable”, I don’t do the thing that causes me shame.

      • sonofrojblake says

        If the answer is “because the thing I am doing is […]a waste of time[…]”, I don’t do the thing

        Wow, you make it sound so easy. More willpower than me, obvs.

        • thoughtsofcrys says

          Or, you could just accept that gaming is something that relaxes you, or helps clear your mind from everyday life, or simply something that is fun, and there is nothing wrong with any of those feelings and it is healthy to find some time in your life to do the things that bring you that. If, on the other hand, you are neglecting your work/relationships/whatever because you don’t have the will to stop gaming… well that’s a different matter! Perhaps a little shame might help you curb the amount of time you dedicate to it I suppose.

  2. kestrel says

    That’s pretty interesting. I live in the USA on a farm. Often people would like some really nice fertilizer for their garden. I am happy to let them have some as I certainly have plenty. When they are here getting their nice fertilizer I sometimes comment that there are welcome to have as much as they like, because there is more being made all the time. Generally an animal will helpfully demonstrate at that point, which causes blushes and averted gazes in my guests. And you should see their faces when my dairy goat buck displays some typical male goat behavior. (They pee on themselves to enhance their aroma and attractiveness to the does, in case there is someone who does not know that.)

    I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who felt very comfortable discussing poop, except possibly other people who live on farms, raise animals and see this all the time. I do think there is a lot of shame attached to pooping in the culture I grew up in which I don’t see as necessary or useful. For me, shame is for when you have done something to harm others or harmed the common good. I can see it there, as it helps people not to do those things. But pooping? You can’t stop doing that. To me it makes no sense to be ashamed of it, but clearly the people around me are ashamed of it.

  3. says

    Here in Canada, menstruation, tampons, even cramps are NOT topics of conversation. A nurse once told me of a woman who slipped who slipped on the ice on the sidewalk, breaking her ankle in front of a clinic. The woman was more concerned to recover a tampon that had rolled from her purse than to give her name to the nurse who was trying to help. I can actually see a lot of women I know having that reaction.

    Especially in office work, no woman I know would ever want to have a day off or miss a meeting because of cramps etc because it would be (silently) noted by some of the male managers and might impact job reviews.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    It’s worth saying that the poop taboo is probably useful – you really don’t want to be around the stuff, because it will make you sick. It’s a bit like the taboo on incest – we’ve sussed as a culture that it’s something to avoid, without needing to know in detail the reasons why.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      There’s a difference between being around it and admitting it is a necessary bodily function, I think. If anything, having taboos on talking about it could be harmful rather than useful: being embarrassed to go to the doctor and admit you have bowel problems, not wanting to discuss better methods of sanitation and hygiene, etc. I don’t think it’s comparable to incest, in that while you don’t want to handle poop, pooping itself is healthy and necessary.

  5. naturalcynic says

    300 years ago, the royal court was always curious about the state of the king’s poop as was judged daily by the royal physician. And the ability to judge the qualities of poop was a crucial diagnostic skill for any physician.
    Going to grad school with mostly guys in the lab led to crude and rude nicknames and mine was based on my, uh, skill at producing toilet clogging turds.

  6. chigau (違う) says

    In my community hall there are three toilet-and-sink units.
    Normal practice is to shut the door whilst doing your business but leave it open when you leave.
    unless …
    you make a smelly poop
    then …
    you turn on the venting fan and shut the door
    .
    That way those waiting outside think there is someone in there,
    until they decide to try opening the door.
    Whereupon they are met by the smell of the smelly poop because those venting fans move about forty-two molecules per week.
    If they just left the door open, the poopsmell molecules would disperse much sooner.

    I always take a look at my poop.
    If there is blood or something worse in my feces, I want to know.
    I have stopped mentioning this practice to almost everyone I know.

  7. inquisitiveraven says

    I am the child of an internist. That really colors my attitude towards poop. largely because the state of one’s poop is still used as a diagnostic tool.

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