Attitudes Toward Illness, A Comparison

In the first week of moving to Spain, I remember being horribly taken aback when my host mom told me she was a little “constipada.” How could she share such intimate details about her health with me when we had just met?! As I soon learned, many native English speakers get a chuckle out of the Spanish way of expressing “having a cold” – my host mom had actually been saying that she was a little stuffed up. Phew.

I’ve spent the last few days cooped up and “constipada,” and I thought I’d use this opportunity to reflect a little on the rather different attitudes that are taken toward preventing the spread of illness in the US and Spain.

2014-01-17 12.57.19Don’t let this adorable, innocent face fool you!

Just this week, I received an email from my home university reminding me of recommended hygiene practices. I thought it summed up the US side of things rather succinctly:

“These are actions you can take to help reduce the spread of infectious illnesses:

  • Avoid sharing items such as lip balm, cups, and beverage cans/bottles.
  • Regularly wash your hands with warm, soapy water or use hand sanitizer when a sink isn’t nearby.
  • Stay away from others when either you or they are ill.”

In Spain, I imagine their advice would look something like this:

  • “Wear socks.”

I have been anywhere from concerned to horrified to witness some of the differences in behaviors around sick people here. They certainly don’t follow the same guidelines as the Americans.

Sharing food with sick people? No problem. At a party, someone brought over a plate of pasta to share. I told them I was on the tail end of a cold and I didn’t want to spread my germs. Their reaction? “You have your own fork, right? No problem, dig in!” My reaction? Baffled.

It is less important to wash one’s hands. I’ve noticed that my host parents don’t seem too worried about teaching their daughter, Paula, to wash her hands after going to the bathroom, or really, ever. I’ve realized that no surface is safe in this house, because the three year old is constantly sneezing and subsequently touching everything. I try to accept that this is part of living with a toddler, but I have probably also overcompensated by washing my hands religiously before letting anything near my mouth.

Close contact with sick people is not avoided. I once came in the door to be greeted with hugs and big, wet kisses from Paula, only to have her mother tell me moments later that she had thrown up earlier. I could not fathom why she had let Paula breathe in my face.

And while the Spanish seem pretty relaxed about some things, it is almost unheard of to walk around one’s house barefoot. Within about seven seconds of emerging for breakfast on my first morning in Spain, my host dad had noticed my lack of slippers and produced a pair for me. My host parents insist that the reason I’m sick now is because I don’t always wear socks with my slippers. I remain unconvinced.

As much as I find their costumes strange, I’m know they think I’m a bit unusual, too, with my obsessive hand washing and occasional bare feet. What do you think? Have you found yourself scratching your head at another culture’s responses to illness?

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