1770 Dissecting the everyday
Silent but Deadly: The Underlying Cultural Patterns of Everyday Behaviour
by Kirsten Bell
London, UK: Caw Press, 2022
£11.99 (U.K.) / 9781399936323
Reviewed by Tom Koppel
Trigger Warning: Skip this review if you are truly offended by offensive language
Kirsten Bell (not to be confused with actress Kristen Bell) got her anthropology training in Australia but has since held university positions in the US, Canada (at UBC), Korea and Britain.
She admits to a “long history of committing blatant cultural gaffes,” which primed her to write this fun, and often cheeky, book. Her focus is “not life’s big questions, but the little ones.” She is “more interested in toilet paper shortages than the collapse of civilizations, body odours than environmental pollutants, tipping than capitalism, farting than feminism, and swearing than social inequality.” But she argues that “even little questions — like ‘Why do farts evoke laughter and disgust? And ‘Is the aversion to the left hand universal? — have big answers, illuminating what binds us together as humans and what separates us as creatures of custom and habit.”. Her aim is to decipher the “cultural patterns that underlie our everyday quirks, foibles and habits,” and she does so with a light, witty and self-deprecating personal touch.
The book comprises thirteen short essays on such diverse topics as: farting (hence the title, Silent but Deadly); the obsession (especially in North America) with white teeth; why the British often put their washing machines in the kitchen; the arguably excessive love of dogs (she herself is a cat person); American and Canadian trends in tipping, which is not so widely embraced Down Under; and who buys drinks for whom in bars and pubs in Britain, America and elsewhere.
The book is well-documented with sources from the academic literature, but also spiced up with footnotes telling tales from her own experiences. “I, for one,” she writes re farting, “have occasionally been tempted to violence by the relentless — and blatantly unrepentant — olfactory abuse my husband has subjected me to for decades.” She seems proud that she and her husband often shock friends and colleagues by swearing like, well, like true Aussies.
Readers will find countless juicy little factoids. We are familiar with “magic” numbers such as lucky seven and unlucky thirteen. But who knew that in China the number four (also fourteen) is avoided because four and death have the same pronunciation, while eight is a lucky number, because its pronunciation is similar to the word for prosperity? Just as some Western airliners have no thirteenth row, some Chinese ones have no fourth row. Even in Vancouver, because of its large Asian population, “Some of the newer condos we looked at were missing a fourth, thirteenth, and fourteenth floor, causing buildings with twelve storeys to magically appear as if they had fifteen when you stepped in the elevator.” Likewise, who knew that different cultures have such widely varying frequency of left (as opposed to right) handedness? Worldwide, about 10 percent of people are left-handed, including Bell herself. But in Korea, only 1 percent write with their left hands and 4 percent hold their chopsticks in the left hand, while among the BC First Nation traditionally known as Kwakiutl nearly 23 percent are lefties.
More familiar to many readers will be the way different cultures and periods in history have dealt with body odour. “All of us,” she writes, “have a unique odour signature that is as much a part of our identity as our sex and our skin colour.” Studies have shown “that breastfed babies quickly learn to recognize their mother’s scent, and mothers likewise can correctly identify their infants by odour. Parents can distinguish which of their children has worn a particular shirt by smell alone, and siblings can discriminate each other’s odours in the same fashion.” But some odours are considered fragrant and others foul, and although these categories “might not be entirely culturally determined, they do seem to be strongly culturally mediated — especially when it comes to bodily odours.” European colonizers in Africa routinely complained about the “stinking natives.” Ironically, they were “so convinced of their superior smell that they were often surprised to learn that their own scent was considered foul by those they colonized.”
Moreover, as George Orwell noted, body odour has often been viewed through the lens of social class. As he wrote, “The real secret of class distinctions in the West can be summed up in four frightful words: ‘The lower classes smell.’” The last century or so has seen extensive efforts to “eradicate natural body odours,” through very frequent bathing or showering, or to mask such odours using perfume, deodorants, and mouthwash. Americans have taken this the farthest. “Indeed, it’s difficult to think of a bodily odour Americans haven’t targeted, from bad breath and BO to stinky vaginas and pungent testicles.” Advertising has thrived on, and accentuated, this cultural extreme. Bell thinks that we may now have reached the limits of this trend, due to concerns about chemical sensitivities to perfume and other artificial fragrances. But she maintains that distaste for natural bodily odours is largely unchanged.
In the chapter titled “You Can’t Say C*nt in Canada” we learn just how widely Australians (and some Brits) have broadened their use of that word. Bell’s husband uses “cunt” as “an all-purpose swear word: a term of deep affection and intense annoyance, a noun but also an adjective (cunty, cuntish, cuntful), and an expression that can refer to both people and objects.” Linguists and lexicographers have observed an earlier “expanding threshold of repugnance around natural bodily functions” and how this “extended to the words for describing them.” Until around 1965, “fuck,” “shit,” and “piss” were omitted from standard dictionaries. Then things relaxed considerably. But my wife and I were amazed to learn that there has been a regression, at least in the US. We recently bought the latest “official” Scrabble dictionary, because our old one did not include words like “app” or “spam” or “doxxing.” What it proudly excludes, however, are all the “dirty” scatological words as well as such terms of ethnic abuse as “nigger,” “wop,” and “kike.” Political correctness is apparently alive and well in North America. Maybe you really are not supposed to get away with saying cunt in Canada, either in everyday conversation or even when writing for publication. But there! I just did.
Tom Koppel is a veteran BC author and journalist who has published five books on history and science. For 35 years, he has contributed feature articles to major magazines, including Canadian Geographic, Archaeology, American Archaeology, Equinox, The Beaver, Reader’s Digest, Western Living, Isands, Oceans, and The Progressive. His book Kanaka: The Untold Story of Hawaiian Pioneers in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest (Whitecap Books, 1995) is available by email from email@example.com Tom lives with his wife Annie Palovcik on Salt Spring Island. Editor’s note: Tom Koppel has also reviewed books by Steven Earle, Daniel Kalla, Britt Wray, May Q. Wong, and Richard J. Hebda, Sheila Greer, & Alexander Mackie for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
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