History and culture may play key roles in global spitting habits

People should take historical and cultural influences into account before forming opinions about those who spit in public, an academic has suggested.

Ross Coomber, Professor of Sociology at Plymouth University, said while the UK now largely condemned the practice, in many nations it remains a fully accepted part of the lifestyle.

He also said despite the current revulsion in the UK, which often becomes directed at professional sports stars, spitting was in fact common among all classes until the late 19th century when revised etiquette and health fears saw its decline.

Professor Coomber, Director of the University’s Drug and Alcohol Research Unit, said: “What tends to be missing from most condemnation of spitting practices by tourists to those countries is an understanding of how the practices are located historically and culturally. The development of Western manners and etiquette is one of preference and fashion rather than one reflecting greater levels of civilisation. Understanding the meaning of a local, traditional practice sometimes produces new ways of relating to them and it may be that Western eyes would view spitting within those cultures with less disgust if they understood it better.”

Professor Coomber is about to embark on a research tour of six countries in south Asia, where he will study spitting behaviour and public opinion towards it.

He will also look at the ways fashions around manners shift and change, and whether anti-spitting campaigns – such as those introduced in China prior to the Beijing Olympics – are simply a result of changing manners among policymakers or adopting western manners in preference to traditional practices.

Professor Coomber said: “In India and Indonesia, for example, spitting involving different forms of chewing juices is common, while in China, many people view spitting as a cleansing action for the body. It should also be acknowledged that many Asian cultures see the western act of blowing or sneezing in public into a handkerchief and then putting that into a pocket as truly disgusting and as much worse than spitting.”

He added: “Policy-related issues become more complicated when it is realised that the often assumed links between spitting – especially in the open air – and the transmission of diseases such as tuberculosis and viruses is in fact weakly evidenced. This means that concerns over spitting are really often about preferences around manners rather than health.”

As well as his research, Professor Coomber will be giving guest lectures at local universities, and will be posting reflections and insights on his blog as he travels at http://rosscoomber.wordpress.com/.