Why do people spit in public?
December 21, 2003 3:04 PM   Subscribe

Why do people spit -- especially in public? I'd be really interested in hearing from someone who spits as to why he/she does it. It seems to be a class thing, and I'm too upper-middle class to get it. I never feel the desire to spit. But is this desire natural, and has my class training has just repressed it in me? If I could understand it, maybe I wouldn't be so disgusted by it.
posted by grumblebee to Grab Bag (39 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
So what are the alternatives? Swallow it again? Roll it around your mouth? Better out than in, as they say ...
posted by carter at 3:09 PM on December 21, 2003

Response by poster: Swallow what? Why is everyone bringing so much stuff up? I'm not aware of that happening with me. Am I abnormal?
posted by grumblebee at 3:12 PM on December 21, 2003

One of the hardest things to get used to, living in Korea, is the constant symphony of sniff-backhaul-and-hork that awaits you every time you leave the house, especially in winter.

It's men, for the most part, but I've seen middled-aged women in fur coats and assorted finery hork up throat oysters on the street many times, too.

No bloody wonder you take your shoes off when going into a house. Preferable to painting the floors with the wide array of glistening street-mucous samples you've tracked through on the way home.

It is a Chinese influence thing here, I think. There, there is a morning tradition of horking your head off to clear 'bad stuff' from the throat, which will, it is said, give you all sorts of nasty diseases. In a nation where people generally have little to no sense of civic responsibility whatsoever, it's preferable that other people get whatever disease you might have lurking, rather than merely keep it for yourself.

In tandem with a rather loose sense of culinary hygiene, it's a bit scary in a SARSy world. I await a full-blown outbreak here with resignation.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:17 PM on December 21, 2003

(I screwed up. This was supposed to be self-link #2. Whoops.)

And I realized I didn't address the question 'why'. I think it's a bit like smoking, for Koreans and others. Once you start, it's hard to stop. Once you become aware of mucous, and feel a need to clear it, you're constantly aware of its presence, and feel it choking you, and so you hork away.

Although the fact that people are looking at you with undisguised loathing as you do it would, for most people, put you off a bit, you'd think.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:23 PM on December 21, 2003

Well, I have seen people spit without mucus having a thing to do with it. Yuck.
posted by konolia at 3:26 PM on December 21, 2003

Swallow what?

Well, whatever it is you want to spit out ;-)
posted by carter at 3:29 PM on December 21, 2003

Phlegm just wants to be free, grumblebee!
posted by billsaysthis at 3:31 PM on December 21, 2003

Infants produce excessive drool if they are allergic to a substance (usually cow milk). I'd venture adults are no different.
posted by Feisty at 3:49 PM on December 21, 2003

"It seems to be a class thing, and I'm too upper-middle class to get it."

I'm sure that's it. Lower-class people tend to have lower-class habits.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 3:52 PM on December 21, 2003

Most of the times it is because some smoker just lit up and exhaled all of that crap in my general direction. Do I want to taste that? No thanks.
posted by brent at 4:12 PM on December 21, 2003

Response by poster: I'm not sure if you were joking, or what, mr crash, but it is -- in my observation -- a class thing. I've rarely seen anyone of middle or upper-middle class spit.

And I was very serious when I wondered whether or not it's natural to spit. Part of being a "cultured" person is to learn to inhibit some natural tendencies.

If I was raised by wolves, would I spit? Am I shocked and appalled by a natural human function?
posted by grumblebee at 4:30 PM on December 21, 2003

So what are the alternatives? Swallow it again? Roll it around your mouth? Better out than in, as they say ...

Well, I didn't add my two cents to the fart thread, but I'd say it's in the same general category - if you really have excess mucus, or excess gas, can't you wait until you have access to a bathroom? and if you find yourself with excess of either on a regular basis, you should probably adjust your diet.
posted by mdn at 4:49 PM on December 21, 2003

When I was in LA I was shocked (I'm from England) at the amount people kept spitting all over the place. Perhaps it's because I drink a lot (I'm not talking alcohol here!).. that means I don't even have any problems as it all just 'goes down'.
posted by wackybrit at 5:09 PM on December 21, 2003

I once read that in days gone by everyone used to spit. When it was discovered that it was one of the ways in which Tuberculosis was spread, it gradually became socially unacceptable.

It is so rare to see someone spit here that most people would be disgusted by it. I think its a revolting habit.
posted by Tarrama at 5:20 PM on December 21, 2003

"I'm not sure if you were joking, or what, mr crash, but it is -- in my observation -- a class thing. I've rarely seen anyone of middle or upper-middle class spit."

I was gently tweaking your nose for bringing class distinction into the question, grumblebee, as I'd classify spitting as more a cultural or geographical phenomenon than one of class (although spitting definitely lacks class, IMHO).

Other than professional baseball players, I've rarely seen anyone spit. Now, that doesn't count tobacco-chewers, but I haven't seen more than a handful of them since high school, when it seemed like all the cowboy wanna-bes would pack around an empty pop can for use as a portable spittoon. On the rare occasion when I've had the misfortune of witnessing someone expectorate, it's usually someone in a car ahead of me at a stoplight popping open a door to disgorge a truly awe-inspiring gob. Given the disgusting smog that passes for air in this valley, I can almost sympathize with that sort of lung-clearing, although it doesn't make it any less repulsive.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 5:50 PM on December 21, 2003

Response by poster: This must depend on where you live, crash. I live in NYC, and I see people spit all the time -- especially in the subway. I haven't noticed any racial/cultural connection to the spitting, but it does seem common to working class people. Or, rather, it seems to be just working class people who are spitting (though, of course, not all working class people spit).
posted by grumblebee at 6:11 PM on December 21, 2003

When I spit, I usually spit either out onto the road or off the road into the gravel, underlying bushes (or whathaveyou) and not on the sidewalk. I usually do it because I have something in my mouth or throat that I don't particularly feel like swallowing.

I'd be mildly disappointed in the assertion that this has anything to do with my class if I for some reason I wanted to be defined as either upper middle or upper class ;)
posted by The God Complex at 6:12 PM on December 21, 2003

I am with you grumblebee. I cant say I understand it either.

If you stand at say 24th and Mission st. here in San Francisco, its a virtual spit-fest. I've always wondered what was going on. I dont even spit in private so I wonder: are they producing more spit? Am I subconsciously just swallowing it all?

Most of the spitters are definitely working class as grumblebee points out. But I should point out also that I come from a lower working class family and *none* of my immediate or distant relatives do this.

I find it kind of nasty but then, like most things in life for me, I am more curious than annoyed.
posted by vacapinta at 6:57 PM on December 21, 2003

The reason why there seems to be a class distinction here is because at one point there certainly was -- posher classes always had handkerchiefs to use while the working classes didn't. But with the ubiquity of disposable tissues and napkins available in the world these days there is no reason why anyone should need to spit on the ground unless they simply have no manners whatsoever. But then, I regularly see/hear people blowing their noses loudly and lengthily at dining tables in restaurants and I don't get that either. Some people seem to have no concept that their bodily fluids need to be kept to themselves.
posted by Dreama at 7:32 PM on December 21, 2003

If you're a major league pitcher or a Dodge City gunslinger, here's why you spit. Link goes away in 4 days 13 hours.

On the other hand, if you live anywhere between East Africa and the Pacific islands you have a different reason. Next year, Liverpool.

> Some people seem to have no concept that their bodily fluids need to be
> kept to themselves.

posted by jfuller at 7:46 PM on December 21, 2003

The reason that I find myself spitting every once in a while (I am american middle class, read: constantly screwed) is because I am a smoker, and the saliva in my mouth has a sting of nicotine that I prefer being in the ground.

I can see why you do not like to spit, it can be considered disrespectful to some people.

When I spit when I am not smoking, it is because of saliva buildup. I could just as easily swallow this though. I think I spit because I was raised to think spitting is normal. How interesting it is to see the other side of this social conundrum.
posted by Keyser Soze at 8:42 PM on December 21, 2003

Spitting in public is disgusting. Unfortunately, the kids at the high school I work at spit constantly - er, make that boys, I've never seen a girl spit. One reason is that they chew tobacco - then spit that - even nastier. Ugh!
posted by Lynsey at 8:50 PM on December 21, 2003

I've noticed, too, that the spitters tend to be boys or working-class/lower-class men. IMO it's just a nasty habit, self-perpetuating (the more you spit, the more you need to spit.)
posted by five fresh fish at 9:35 PM on December 21, 2003

I spit if I need to and I don't give a fuck what the upper-middle class thinks. And even if I did had tuberculosis, I couldn't afford to see a doctor anyway, so call it class warfare if you like. When you don't have any options, good manners don't seem so important.
posted by spork at 9:51 PM on December 21, 2003

posted by spork at 10:43 PM on December 21, 2003

I smoke too much which leads to lungs chock full of decaying lung lining (at least I think that's what it is) which simply needs to be expelled or I'll choke. I think you'd find most reasonably heavy smokers are spitters, but I could be wrong. I don't see why people have such an aversion to it, sure it's not pretty but most bodily functions aren't. I find going to a public toilet where I can actually smell other people's waste much more disturbing... maybe that's just me?
posted by Onanist at 10:51 PM on December 21, 2003

It's not well-known, but excess saliva is a symptom of gum disease. Periodontitis remains quite common in the US, even as smoking declines as a cause of periodontal problems. If you have a friend who is constantly spitting, instead of chastising them you might ask them when they last saw a dentist.

I imagine dental care may be somewhat less comprehensive in an emerging industrial society, addressing stav's comments on China and Korea. But Western opprobrium for spitting has a long history, dating long before the 19th-century affectation of tobacco spitting.

Recommended, btw: Sulcabrush or other gumline brushes, Reach Access or a simple floss "fiddle", and the Aquafresh Flex Tip toothbrush. If you ignore your teeth they'll go away.
posted by dhartung at 11:07 PM on December 21, 2003

Well, maybe it's just me but I've had a lingering case of bronchitis for the past few weeks and occasionally one of those wracking coughing fits is, shall we say, "productive." When this happens I can assure you that the only direction the outcome is headed is outbound -- it's not going back down again no matter how polite I wish to be.

When not ill, I try to keep such things private.
posted by majick at 11:10 PM on December 21, 2003

I imagine dental care may be somewhat less comprehensive in an emerging industrial society...

Spitting in public is pretty much the norm in Nepal too. It just seems to be something people do... Maybe another question to ask is, where does Western opprobrium to spitting come from? Was it the norm in Western countries until people became more aware of public health issues?
posted by plep at 11:39 PM on December 21, 2003

Maybe another question to ask is, where does Western opprobrium to spitting come from?

Dunno if you've lived somewhere where people spit almost perpetually (Nepal?) and every horizontal public surface is speckled with constellations of slippery sputum, plep, but that 'western opprobium' is, for me, a perfectly natural response to something that is highly unpleasant. And I'm not by any stretch of the imagination squeamish.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:05 AM on December 22, 2003

Here in the Netherlands, until the mid-20th century or so spitting in public (by males, not by females) was considered normal, and in public places there even were receptacles ('kwispedoors') for people to spit in. In my younger years (1960's onwards) spitting in public rarely if ever happened. In recent years I'm seeing a great deal of it, mostly by north-african immigrants.
posted by rjs at 3:09 AM on December 22, 2003

I was wondering if there were any scientific basis for the assertion that public expectoration had any impact on public health, vis a vis SARS for example.
Spitting was definately a 'cool' thing to do at school, particularly because it obviously repulsed the enemy, I mean teachers - 'If I see anyone spitting on school grounds I will rub their noses in it'.
I had a friend who could spit onto a passing bus wheel at such an angle that his deposit would be spun off up into the air to dizzying heights, much so our satisfaction.
Considering that the average human produces about one litre of mucus from the lungs per day, I find the lack of expectoration more perplexing than it's public expression.
Still, you don't want to stand in it, do you?
posted by asok at 3:54 AM on December 22, 2003

Response by poster: I never dreamed this question would spawn such an interesting discussion. I want to particularly thank the spitters out there who took the time to answer the question. It's rare to get a response from the source, and it's a boon to relations between spitters and non-spitters.

I hope I didn't offend anyone by my class comments. I was just being honest about my observations.

I will admit to being disgusted by spitting. I'm not sure why this is. But I'm VERY prissy about bodily functions (which is surprising, since I'm a straight male, but maybe it's my upper-middle-class, Jewish-intellectual training). When I was growing up, I was horribly offended by loud belching. I'm still not crazy about belch jokes in movies and tv-shows. Of course, the kids in school found out about this and took great pleasure belching in my face.

I suspect my squeamishness is unnatural. It must have been drilled into me as a child. I'm not sure I can overcome it, but discussions like this help. At least I can see that spitters are regular folks.

The one attitude I can't handle is "oh, it offends people. Well, screw them." I don't really get that kind of selfishness. I can deal with "I'm sorry if it bothers people, but I'm going to do it anyway because I'll be really uncomfortable if I don't do it." At least this shows some concern that it DOESN bother people.
posted by grumblebee at 6:52 AM on December 22, 2003

It's probably less about class than about not having any. Any decent person would make a minimal effort not to spread their germs willy-nilly. Would you urinate on doorknobs?

Rural habits rarely translate well to urban environments.

Some people seem to have no concept that their bodily fluids need to be kept to themselves.

LOL What a comment to greet the morning with!
posted by rushmc at 7:32 AM on December 22, 2003

Would you urinate on doorknobs?

I don't know--does anyone here spit on doorknobs? My guess is no, which means your point is invalid. I also doubt that spitting on the sidewalk or the side of a building (of which I do neither) will lead to the spreading of any more germs than simply coughing in a theater or breathing the same air in a crowded city. Any virus that can be caught in that nature is likely not going to just stay in your mouth because of your "manners".

I think it's more likely you guys and gals are just a bunch of neo-victorians who would cry and wring their hands when they read Joyce and he referenced urine one too many times ;)
posted by The God Complex at 9:03 AM on December 22, 2003

Urine is sterile.
posted by sudama at 9:06 AM on December 22, 2003

Sometimes you just have to hock a loogie (middle middle class here, I think--I tend to do it only when I have a cold and am drowning in mucus and stuff, and don't have tissues handy, but only into the gutter.)
posted by amberglow at 9:31 AM on December 22, 2003

Well, sterile urine is sterile. Those folk with bladder infections don't have sterile urine.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:22 AM on December 22, 2003

Urine is sterile.

Only when it is first produced. It's a great culture for all manner of bugs.
posted by rushmc at 3:42 PM on December 22, 2003

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