For Whom Do We Tidy?

When we ‘tidy’, who are we trying to impress?

Yes, I am still going through that KonMari thing even though it’s been a few weeks since I’ve blogged about it. Among other things, I’ve browsed/skimmed a few other books about decluttering/tidying at the library. I’ve even read one of them from cover to cover, specifically Decluttering at the Speed of Life. (Why that one and not the others? Because it’s entertaining. The others I’ve browsed are too boring to finish reading.) These books I’ve browsed at the library were all (I think) written by Americans, and (I assume that) the forewords were also written by Americans.

I’ve also read the Taiwan edition of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up with two forewords which (I assume) were written by Taiwanese people. (There were a lot more differences between the Taiwan/Chinese translation and the U.S.A./English translation of the book than I expected, and I could write an entire post about that).

So now I can do a little cultural comparison – how are books about tidying/organizing/decluttering/etc. written by Americans different from a book about tidying written by a Japanese person with forewords written by Taiwanese people?

I’m sure a cultural anthropologist could dedicate an entire career to this kind of thing, but I’m not an anthropologist, so I will jump straight to what stands out to me. Namely, whether tidying is supposed to make a home look good to guests, or whether it is supposed to make it look good to residents.

Even if I am just barely skimming some kind of tidying/organizing/decluttering/whatever book written by an American, I am bound to find at least one reference (and probably multiple references) to being too embarrassed to have people over at one’s home because of the mess. And this leads to advice such as:

– tidy up the rooms most likely to be seen by guests first (living room), and put the rooms least likely to be seen by guests last (furnace room in basement).
– but don’t forget the bedroom! the bedroom tends to accumulate all the mess you want to hide from guests, so tidying up bedrooms is hard, but that’s okay, because this book tells you how to handle this difficult room
– wouldn’t it be nice to have a home where you don’t have a panic attack anybody comes over? so finish reading this book, and do what this book tells you to do.

Even though I am American myself, my initial reaction to this advice is ‘huh’? These books all seem to assume that the reason people are reading a book about tidying/organizing/etc. is that they want to make their homes look good to guests.

What if the reason I am trying to tidy/organize my home is to improve fire & earthquake safety? The furnace room has a bunch of potential fire and earthquake hazards (central heating, water heater, gas pipes, etc.), not so much the living room. Assuming that there is already a clear path from the living room to an exit and that there aren’t any loose heavy and/or glass items on high shelves, tidying the furnace room would be a higher priority than tidying the living room.

There is hardly any mention of making a home look good to guests or outsiders in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and the Taiwanese forewords (which I admit are brief) don’t mention guests/hospitality at all. It’s all about improving the life of the person who actually lives there.

The (American) way of tidying with a focus on leaving a good impression on guests leaves me cold. That’s because I’ve already figured out that I am not inclined to invite people to my home no matter how nice it looks.

For the longest time, I told myself that I didn’t invite people home because my parents would not let me. Then I moved in with my mom’s friends, who said it would be okay if I invited people. Yet whenever I did invite people, I kept them at the porch, and only let them inside if they needed a bathroom. I had permission, and they would not have seen anything embarrassing, yet I still did not invite them inside. I didn’t think about it, though if I did, I probably would have mumbled something about not wanting to clean up after guests.

Then in Taiwan, I originally had a fantasy of inviting people to my place since, for the first time in my life, I was going to be the head of household.

I went to a ‘moving-out-of-Taiwan’ sale being hosted by a European guy. I bought a bunch of cups, bowls, and silverware for all of the people I would invite to my place from him. I saw how much stuff he had accumulated in Taiwan, and how stressful it was for him to dispose of it before his hard deadline for leaving Taiwan. He straight up told me not to collect as much stuff in Taiwan as he had. Visiting that guy’s place left me with the strong impression that accumulating physical stuff in Taiwan is bad.

Did I ever invite people over during the three years I lived in Taiwan for social purposes? Nope. I only used a few of the items for my own personal use, the rest were unused.

When I finally disposed of those items, it dawned on me that I’m not the kind of person to host guests at home. It was a decluttering my fantasy self moment. And I’m not sure whether the idea of me hosting people at home was ever an authentic fantasy of mine, or just some kind of cultural expectation that I mindlessly absorbed.

I do like hosting events and entertaining people – in public places that are not my home. I’ve always lived near public places which are good for hosting events, so this works for me.

Maybe I will change. But in order to become the kind of person who would invite others to my home for social purposes, what I would need to change is not how my home looks, or getting my parents’ permission (well, I would need that, but if I really wanted their permission I would find a way to negotiate with them). What I would need to change is my mindset about inviting people home. And I’m not motivated to change that mindset.

This podcast suggests that the host’s attitude is the more important than cleanliness/tidiness in whether or not guests have a good experience. It points out that some guests may feel more comfortable and welcome in a messy space than a tidy space, and that a host who shows vulnerability by letting a guest into a messy home may foster a closer bond between host and guest. And in this video, a compulsive hoarder describes overcoming her embarrassment over the state of her home to invite someone who had just lost his home to a wildfire to live with her for as long as he needs, because helping him in his time of need is more important that whether or not she feels embarrassed. That does not mean I’m going to be inviting people any time soon (barring extreme circumstances such as someone losing their home), but at least I know that my mind is what I would need to work on if I decided I really did want to host people in my home.

The idea that the purpose of tidying/organizing my home is to make it better for me, because I see this place every day, because I spend so much of my time here, resonates so much more for me. Form this point of view, focusing on my bedroom makes total sense, which is what I am doing (tidying my bedroom also requires much less coordination with my parents than if I were trying to tidy up any other room in the house). Doing it to please myself, rather than to impress hypothetical guests, is much better at motivating me to tidy my space.

(By the way, as a guest, I am fairly tolerant of messiness/dirtiness. I have extensive experience as a budget traveller in multiple countries. My tolerance is not infinite – a rat infestation would gross me out – but I am fine with being in homes which are very far from the ‘magazine’ ideal of cleanliness and neatness).

1 thought on “For Whom Do We Tidy?

  1. Pingback: Where did the notes go? | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.