26 May 2009

Final rinse

Update: I will admit to the crime of not living over the entire UK at once, nor sharing a meal in the homes of most people here, hence my overstating that not rinsing after washing is a "cultural norm". It seems that things are a mixed bag here, and it appears that the rinsers don't want to be lumped in with the non-rinsers. I apologize if I've caused any offense. Nonetheless, the practice does exist here, and so I'm going to keep the original, if somewhat less-than-accurate, post.

Let's suppose that during a trip to the UK you strike up a friendship with some local folks and get invited to their home for a meal. Being good guests, after you finish you volunteer to help in cleaning up in the kitchen. One of two things will now happen:

  • If you take up a position at the sink and do your normal wash and rinse, you will be regarded with puzzled stares.
  • If you take up a position at the drying rack and uncomfortably say “you still have a bit of soap on that one” as suds covered dishes are deposited there, you will be regarded with puzzled stares.
This is because the cultural norm here in the UK is to not rinse the soap off of dishes after they've been cleaned. Really. You leave them in the rack to dry, and then give each one a final polish with a dishcloth before putting them away.

In reality, this isn't a very big deal, and in all the times we've eaten at friend's houses we haven't noticed it or really given it much thought (in the above hypothetical, I can assure you that after the dishes are completed you won't have to be rushed to the ER when you realize that the meal you just ate came off of un-rinsed dishes). But for some reason, the lack of rinsing is a major source of an “oh, ick!” reaction on the part of many Americans. And it's even more problematic in British/American couples; it can be a cause of such friction that the American partner will volunteer to do all the dishes since they simply can't abide by the dishes not being rinsed off. This clearly should be a good motivator for British women to seek out American husbands.

For the record, not only do we rinse, but we've trained our long-time babysitter Clare to rinse when she's cleaning up here. She's spent so much time here that occasionally she rinses when cleaning up at her home, eliciting “what the hell are you doing?” from her confused husband.

Why no rinsing? One may speculate that since this is an island nation the inhabitants may be quite conscious in conserving water. However, that's pretty clearly not the case. Most UK homes have unmetered water piped into their home, and a single annual payment covers as much water as you can drain from the system. This results in predictable behavior, and generally people are pretty free with their water use. And it's not like the water suppliers set a good example: in 2005, Thames Water, the authority that provides water for London and surrounding area, leaked 1/3 of the water it delivered, over 900 million liters of water per day. As of July of last year, they'd reduced that figure to a little over 700 million liters per day, which is better than their target rate, but still a breathtaking figure. So one shouldn't look at cultural conservation as a motivator for not rinsing.

But Lisa has an intriguing theory-- she posits that the reason for no rinsing is because the water is so hard. See, if you rinse all of the soap off and leave only the hard water, you wind up with spots on the glassware when the dishes dry. But if you leave a film of soap, its properties cause the water to slide off more easily, leaving the dishes cleaner. And the final polishing step removes the remaining spots and the soap. It's as reasonable an explanation as any we can come up with, and frankly it seems that the origins of a lot of these conventions are lost to the Brits themselves (I once read the story of a British schoolgirl who, as part of an assignment, mailed a letter to the Inland Revenue, the UK tax authority, inquiring as to why the tax year ran from Apr 6 to Apr 5 the following year; it took them seven months to unearth the answer and get back to the child). So don't worry, eat heartily, and when in Rome, rinse like the Romans do.


  1. I can't believe you did a post on rinsing dishes. Don't you know how riled Lisa gets when you bring that subject up? I'm going to send your post to the American Expats group so they can give you their opinion. (just kiddink)

  2. "...the water is so hard"

    Maybe where you live it is...?

    Er, that is to say, you are aware that the water in most of the UK is quite soft actually, and that hard water is quite localised - aren't you?

    Furthermore, hard water areas are mainly found in the south of England, so harping about hard water being the "English" problem is tantamount to assuming that what goes for the south of England, must go for all of England. And if you were to call it a "British" problem, some may assume you are describing the whole of the UK.

    You are no doubt already aware that those in the midlands, north, Scotland, Wales and Norn Iron do not automatically love and adore being described using assumptions based parameters local to the south of England.

    Accordingly I feel that it is my duty to inform you that the grumpier members of British society may actually take offence at this. You know, like they do.
    You may even receive responses to hard-water-musings that are phrased along the lines of "Hard water? Serves you right for living in the soft, shandy drinking south". Or something of that ilk.

    Be warned...

  3. My husband assures me it is a ''class'' issue. He is an upper middle class Englishman. He rinses the dishes with warm water. He rinses the tea pots as well. The main issue is not the plates, its the glasses not being rinsed. If you do not rinse them, you are drinking degreaser and yes their famed Fairy liquid is a detergent.

  4. Interesting re: the class basis; does he have any ideas why this should be divided along class lines? It can be a bit confusing to tell when such distinctions apply. On both our journeys over here we were moved by a corporate relocation firm hired by the bank I was working for, and information regarding this practice was included in some of the "acclimation" materials that were provided by these organizations. They certainly didn't make any class distinction, but again that might prove to be offensive I suppose. And anyway, they're probably supplying one-size-fits-all advice, not tailored for each for different groups. But nonetheless, from the perspective of most Americans it's a little odd that any group would opt out of rinsing.