I’m a disgustologist in training. Well, I’m filled with disgust at people clipping toenails and cleaning dentures on Sydney’s public transport, spitting on the street, sneezing openly and – in parts of the world I’ve visited – taking a dump for all to watch. You get the picture?
So imagine my delight at stumbling across the work of Valerie Curtis, a disgustologist or expert in the science of revulsion. She studies our response to behaviours that disgust. I’m not alone in experiencing disgust.
Curtis has recently linked tiny organisms or microbes to manners and our future. It’s a big idea that I’ve reeled in because I reckon all contestants on reality TV show The Bachelor, now screening Down Under, can benefit from her research.
Manners are our passport to better communication. They show consideration for others before we think, speak and act. Bottom line: manners show respect for others, build co-operation, and encourage openness. When there’s mutual openness, communication always flows freely.
Manners are not about being agreeable, excessively polite or acting like a Downton Abbey cast member.
Not surprisingly, manners are culturally specific. In China, there’s a range of manners needed for business negotiations involving gift giving, sharing a meal, giving face and building guanxi. On a recent visit to Beijing I stuffed up by giving a business contact a gift that was not well received. She perceived it to be of much lower value, in every sense, than the one I was gifted. I lost face which in this case was not recoverable.
I don’t care much for extreme manners like placing knives, forks and glassware a certain distance from the table’s edge. Sure, etiquette has its place, but doesn’t help communication except in giving us an a-ha moment when spotting a beautifully dressed table.
According to Valerie Curtis, manners shaped our evolution. Her idea, in simple terms, is that we developed manners to help negotiate a world filled with pathogens or disease-making agents.
She claims our disgust at the potential to catch a range of infections and even fatal diseases from others, helped drive humans to develop manners so we could be social without getting sick.
The role of manners, says Curtis, evolved as tribes and clans grew from related to unrelated people. It became important to know who would co-operate with us outside our immediate and related group. Manners provided a clue.
Curtis says people who put the interest of others before themselves and who practised hygiene signalled they could be co-operative. Go manners!
Practising hygiene, she says, also gave humans another benefit of avoiding disgusting others with our body parasites and anti-social behaviour. No wonder we wanted to hang around people with manners. Even today, I prefer to sit on a train seat next to someone who smells fresh.
Curtis’ big idea is that if we can understand how microbes gave us manners and manners then shaped our morality, it could provide insights on our future as a species.
Be sure to read part two of this post on how The Bachelor contestants can benefit from Curtis’ research.
- What most disgusts you by other people’s words and actions on public transport?