Go for the gold!
1 December 2009
Go for the gold!
Have you ever wondered how you know how to dress? Where did you learn that the standard tip for waiters is 15%? When did you come to understand that its rude to stare at somebody you don’t know? Where did the common knowledge that it is inappropriate to pick your nose in public come from?
The answers to these questions are not based on law. Nor did public polls determine any of them. There are no written rules laid down that determine your fashion, tips, or where your eyes linger. I have never seen a posted notice or heard someone with the proper authority tell me that these things should be this way. Why, then, am I willing to admit that these trends are important? Why do I take great care not to break any of these unwritten rules?
The social norm
Social norms exist in every society and play an integral part of everyday life. They help govern the way you act in public, how long your socks should be, and in some cases moral standards. Many aspects of human behavior are controlled by social norms that you probably didn’t even realize were in place. Even though there is no legal repercussion or any set punishments when they are violated, everybody expects them to be upheld. Often, when we violate these standards, we feel foolish and out of place and take great care not to mess up again.
Although commonly accepted as part of life, "the substance of any norm is neither inherently good nor inherently valuable; its power is granted by its acceptance within the culture" (Berger & Luckman; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski as cited in Cialdini and Trost, 153). These commonly accepted guidelines generally guide good etiquette for a society and tend to make life a little better; however, just because “everybody’s doing it,” doesn’t mean that it’s the rational thing to do.
For example, from a neutral point of view, leg shaving isn’t necessarily good or bad. It is a natural human phenomenon that both men and women grow hair on their legs, so is the removal of it really valuable? A natural course of thought from this neutral view might even lead us to realize that leg shaving is somewhat silly. However, the social norm associated with this act has extremely high influence and power. I have four older sisters, and not one of them is willing to be seen in public if they haven’t shaved. When I see a hairy woman, my first reaction is generally, “sick...just gag me!” None of us would feel that way if the social norm governing leg shaving were not so influential.
I once found a sweater at a second-hand clothing store that I absolutely loved. The color, material, and style really appealed to me. However, the first time I wore it to school, people gave me queer looks and ridiculed me; apparently my tastes were not fashionable at all. Apparently, I had bought an extraordinarily ugly sweater. I felt embarrassed and very uncomfortable wearing it. I wanted to torch it as soon as I got home and forget all about that ugly thing.
My sense of fashion had no power in society because I stood alone. People around me accepted brands like American Eagle or Aeropostale. That acceptance gave that name-brand fashion—that norm—great power. My sweater wasn’t inherently good, bad, or ugly from a neutral standpoint; I’m sure God loves all his children’s sweaters equally! However, my sweater was immediately rejected by society because it went against the norm that was widely accepted.
Just as most Americans would agree that women should shave their legs, the vast majority of Americans also believe that public nose picking is an unacceptable activity. As evidence, I recently surveyed 88 people (37 Males, and 51 Females, ages ranging from 18 to 30+, 83 of them American), and found that 96% maintained that American culture looked down on the act. 84% claimed that their parents discouraged them from picking their nose while growing up (Klein, Kyle). Obviously, American society, in general, has placed a taboo on nose picking.
It is probably a surprise, then, to hear that 89% of people polled admitted that they pick their nose, of which 58% admitted to picking at least once every day with another 18% picking every few days (Klein, Kyle). It shocks me to know that a society that picks its nose so commonly in private is able to hold a taboo for it while in public. What are the motives that drive people to maintain that social stigma? How did this norm even start when such a large majority of people pick their nose?
When asked how often they pick their nose in public, 48% of nose pickers indicated that they never pick their nose in public, and another 45% stated that they rarely pick their nose in public. That means that only 7% of nose pickers that are willing to do so fairly often in public. Not one person admitted that public nose picking is a common activity for them (Klein, Kyle). These numbers suggest that the social norm in place, while accepted by individuals in public, has little power over how we act in private. There must be certain aspects of nose picking that, while ignored in private, are undesirable from a public standpoint.
The spread of bacteria
When I asked the participants to explain how they feel about nose picking, I found a few common concerns that arise from picking in public. The first such concern had to do with sanitation. Many people indicated that its “gross” to find other people’s boogers, shake hands with somebody that they had seen picking their nose, or touch anything that person has touched. Also, 50% of people who used to pick their nose but don’t anymore indicated that they stopped picking their nose due to sanitary reasons (Klein, Kyle). Germaphobia is apparently quite rampant in today’s society.
Based on these numbers, it would appear that sanitation is a big reason this social norm continues to govern our society. Avoiding germs is indeed a valid concern, but the question arises: in reality, how unsanitary are boogers? According to the University of Pittsburgh Nurse Anesthesia Program, boogers are formed when the nasal mucus that lines the nasal cavity traps any foreign objects in the air being breathed, including dust, bacteria, or other particulates and congeals into a solid. This is a filtering process that cleans the air we breathe before it gets to the lungs (Cwynar). This information suggests that the only bacteria found in a booger are the bacteria inhaled and trapped in the nose.
Considering this information, it seems to me that I'm more likely to get sick by breathing through my mouth all day than I am by touching somebody's booger. To get sick from someone else’s booger that I came in contact with, I'd have to first ingest the bacteria in it. That means that any bacteria found in a booger would have to first cling to my finger and then be transferred to my mouth. Unless the booger was still wet and gooey, I don’t think much of the bacteria will get stuck to my finger anyway. One the other hand, if I breathed through my mouth all day, I would be subject to all the bacteria I had inhaled; the air would have gone straight to my lungs without getting filtered by my nose. I’ve never heard tell of someone falling ill because they chose to breathe through their mouth; the notion seems absurd.
However, let’s examine the worst-case scenario. As you are sitting in class, minding your own business, your finger happens to find a big, juicy booger deposited on the under-side of a chair 5 minutes ago. Your finger has just been subjected to the bacteria found in that booger. Lucky you! Assuming all of those bacteria cling to your finger, the amount of bacteria on your finger is exactly the same as the amount of bacteria inhaled through the nose of the person who deposited the booger. For argument’s sake, let’s say the depositor, the hick Cleatus Joe, cleaned the wild boar exhibit at the local zoo today and then sorted through a large section of the local landfill to find some toys for his 12 kids, so his boogers contain an unusually high amount of bacteria. Cleatus Joe has some highly nutritious boogers for the bacteria in them, and the population growth in his booger is exponential. You have a lot of bacteria on your hands now. However, in order for the bacteria on your finger to enter your body and make you sick, you must first ingest it. You generally don’t make a habit of licking your fingers after touching dirty things in public, so I don’t imagine that bacteria will enter you any time soon. As long as you keep your finger out of your mouth until you have a chance to wash it, you run no real risk of getting sick from Cleatus Joe’s nasty booger.
Still concerned about the bacteria? Perhaps this will assuage your fears, in the remote chance you do accidentally ingest the bacteria: some people argue that the bacteria found in boogers, when ingested, actually make you healthier. Lung specialist Dr Friedrich Bischinger claims that this is one of the best ways to strengthen your immune system. You may shudder at the thought, but his argument is rather convincing: “medically it makes great sense and is a perfectly natural thing to do. In terms of the immune system the nose is a filter in which a great deal of bacteria are collected, and when this mixture arrives in the intestines it works just like a medicine. Modern medicine is constantly trying to do the same thing through far more complicated methods, people who pick their nose and eat it get a natural boost to their immune system for free" (Ananova).
The "more complicated methods" he referred to are called vaccines. They consist of weak strains of bacteria or viruses injected via needle that the body is capable of fighting off. Once the body has fought them off, that person becomes more immune to stronger strains. Although studies have not proved or disproved that ingesting bacteria found in boogers works the same way as vaccines, he does make a convincing argument. Wouldn’t eating your boogers accomplish much the same feat? I submit that the presence of bacteria in our boogers is not worth worrying about; on the contrary, they may even prove beneficial.
The slime factor
Going back to the hypothetical situation with Cleatus Joe, I admit, even though there is no real risk of getting sick, finding a booger that somebody left behind is never pleasant. This leads to the second common concern of nose picking. Dirt, slime, sticky things, and other foreign objects on people’s hands tend to irritate and gross out most people, regardless of how much bacteria are present. Personally, when I get something on my hands, I immediately try to wipe or rinse it off. I find it very uncomfortable to have something slimy, gritty, or sticky on my hands.
For this reason, public nose picking can indeed be undesirable; who wants their hand covered in somebody else’s gooey nose residues that they wiped on some random object? However, there are ways to avoid this problem. A public nose picker can easily dispose of his bounty in a more sanitary fashion. Rather than wiping a booger on some random surface where it can eventually be discovered, if it were simply dropped on the floor, it is very unlikely that it will be encountered. In a public place, like a classroom, in your car, or walking across campus, a booger dropped here or there makes no real difference. It is tiny compared to the amounts of dirt, grime, and dust that have been tracked in by people’s shoes. A booger on the floor can easily be swept or vacuumed up later, and nobody will be the wiser.
The unsightly excavation
Another common complaint about public nose picking in my survey was that it is simply unsightly or distracting. There are ways around this too. My mother, who has spent a lot of time in Japan visiting her sister, explained how it is considered impolite to let somebody see you using a toothpick to remove food from your teeth. However, toothpicks are still used quite commonly; as they are picking food from their teeth, they simply bow their head and cover their mouth with one hand while the pick with the other. Everybody knows what they are doing, but nobody has to sit and watch them dig at their teeth (Klein, Carol). A similar method could be adopted for picking your nose in public. When the need arises, simply bow your head, and cover up what your one finger is up to with your other hand. True, people might know what you are doing, but they couldn’t complain about being distracted by your digging in your nose.
Private picking preferred to public picking… how puzzling!
These arguments are supported by other statistics collected in my survey. This graph compares the number of people who pick in public to the number who pick while driving their car or walking. These numbers are out of the 89% of people that admitted that they pick their nose.
How interesting that our population's willingness to pick their nose increases as the level of privacy is increased from a classroom setting to driving a car or walking. Somehow separation from others is a situation that is much more conducive to nose picking. While 37 of 78 people who pick never pick their nose in public places, only 14 of 78 people never pick while driving or walking. For this group of people, the willingness to pick while driving is fairly even across the board, while a huge majority of them refuse to pick in public. (Klein, Kyle). People in our culture are much more willing to pick when they aren't as likely to be caught in the act. Apparently, the reason we don’t pick in public is because we fear what other people think of us if we are seen and because we don't want our boogers floating around where other people can come in contact with them.
Obviously, there are pros to picking your nose. Otherwise, nobody would pick their nose, and it wouldn’t be an issue. In my survey, people claimed to pick their noses for multiple reasons. Of the 89% of people who admit to picking their nose, 94% claim they do so to relieve discomfort or itching, 74% do so to open their airway, and 21% do so out of habit. 13% claim that it is an instinct or that it is more convenient than other methods of clearing the nose. As a humorous side note, 4% admit that they pick their nose for pleasure (Klein, Kyle). I can assure you that most of these percentages would be slightly raised if I had included my own survey submission. (And that includes the statistic on pleasure! Some people like a good back massage. I happen to prefer a good nostril kneading now and again.)
The reasons that people pick their nose are not barbaric or distasteful in nature. Rather, most people (myself included) primarily pick because it’s simply the easiest way to relieve discomfort from dried boogers blocking the airway or itching the nose. Should relieving discomfort be inherently offensive to others?
According to one of the people who replied to my survey (a male American, age 19, who lived in Indonesia, Thailand for at least 3 months), it “was not such a social faux pas to pick your nose there. It was just a regular thing” (Klein, Kyle). How interesting that something that is so unacceptable and seemingly offensive in America could be “just a regular thing” elsewhere. People in Thailand are not offended or grossed out when they see somebody else picking their nose. It is just a part of life. This again makes me wonder how this social norm ever started in America. At some point, we chose to make it unacceptable to pick your nose. And yet, almost everybody here picks their nose in private without a second thought. Why then do they turn around and look down their nose at people pick them in public?!
I never actually burned my second-hand sweater. Once the initial humiliation from wearing it had dissipated, I realized that I had cared way too much what others thought of me. I loved that sweater, and I shouldn’t be embarrassed about that. I started wearing that sweater to school frequently, and I received ridicule time and time again. And yet, I wore it with boldness; I wore it with pride. Nothing anybody could say would make me leave it home. It took some getting used to all the negative comments, but slowly, I started noticing a change. The hostility I felt from others was being replaced with respect. People saw that I was willing to stand up for what I personally liked, and I started receiving complements on my sweater. Things like “snazzy sweater, man!” and, “I dig the wool,” reached my ears like rush of cool air. I admit that it came as a pleasant surprise when I found friends and acquaintances wearing equally ugly sweaters and T shirts. I had overcome a social norm that had held me back and revolutionized our sense of fashion. I was now free to wear my sweater without any judgment being passed.
Why do we live this double standard of nose picking? Why do make hypocrites of ourselves by picking our noses behind closed doors and turning them up in public? If we allowed ourselves to pick in public as we do in private, we would never have to suffer through the discomfort of an itchy, clogged nose. Proper precautions could be taken that would greatly reduce any sanitation risks, concentration of waste under seats or tables, or the unsightliness of the act. If these steps were taken, our lives could be made that much simpler.
The bottom line is, practically everybody picks their nose, but we are all too scared of what others think of us. In public, most of us suppress our instinct and desire to pick because we don’t want to embarrass ourselves. Most of us allow this social norm to govern us because we are too scared to make a stand for ourselves.
When I catch someone picking their nose, I don’t see bacteria, grime, and distraction. I see a natural, logical process and a comfortable individual. I say we join this comfort revolution and overturn this outdated norm; let’s free ourselves of this self-imposed bondage. In the words of the ever-reliable Justin Timberlake, “I pick my nose and I’m not ashamed to admit it. If there’s a bogey there then just pick it man!” (Celebguru) It would save us all discomfort, embarrassment and mountains of tissues if only we made the natural, logical choice: go for the gold!
Annanova. “Top doc backs picking your nose and eating it.” Ananova Ltd., n.d. Web. 15 October 2009
Celebguru. “Justin Timberlake confesses picking his nose.” The Insider. CBS Interactive Inc., 17 April 2007. Web. 23 September 2009. <http://www.theinsider.com/news/133954_Justin_Timberlake_confesses_picking_his_nose>
Cialdini, Robert B. and Trost, Melanie R. “Social Influence: Social Norms, Conformity, and Compliance”. The Handbook of Social Psychology, Volume Two. Compiled Gilbert, Daniel T., Fiske, Susan T., Lindzey, Gardner. Published Vaicunas, Jane, 1998. Pages 151-168. Web. Scholar.Google.com, 23 September 2009
Cwynar, Justin. NURSAN 2720 (Applied Physiology and Pathophysiology). University of Pittsburgh Nurse Anesthesia Program. 2003. Web. 7 October 2009. <http://www.pitt.edu/~anat/Head/Mouth/Mouth.htm>
Klein, Carol. Personal interview. 26 October 2009.
Klein, Kyle. “Need-to-Nose.” Survey. 21 October 2009.