WASHED UP

One household staple sums up why Americans and Brits will never see the world the same way

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Recently, my family and I moved back to the US after nearly five years in London. I liked living in the UK very much. I received life-saving medical care from the National Health Service and was preparing to send my young child to the very good local public schools. I was happy in London, except when I did my laundry, when I would, for an angry moment, will the entire bloody island to sink into the sea.

Laundry is a hot topic right now in the UK. Last week, a small war raged on Twitter over the class implications of the British habit of keeping laundry appliances in the kitchen. Then, European journalist Jessica Furseth published a smart and thoughtful piece on Curbed describing the cultural differences uncovered when she and her American partner moved into a London apartment together and found their attitudes toward domestic appliances were worlds apart.

“He went through a rite of passage that every U.S. expat must endure: an encounter with the typical British combo washer-dryer,” Furseth writes. “It appears to be a stroke of genius until you realize that the dryer part doesn’t really work—and everyone who lives here knows this.”

This last sentence encapsulates what is, to me, a fundamental difference in the British and American psyches. The frustration an American feels upon removing a poorly washed, barely-dried load from his or her UK appliance isn’t really about the laundry at all. It’s about the tension between how each culture sees the world.

But first, for the uninitiated, some background. A typical London flat dweller fortunate enough to have in-home laundry facilities likely has the combo washer-dryer Furseth described above. The machine’s basketball-sized drum holds an amount equivalent to one queen-sized fitted sheet and two pillowcases, or two bath towels and up to three washcloths, or 1.7 days’ worth of a family’s dirty clothes. A wash-and-dry cycle takes three to four hours. Because the machine rumbles like a rocket on a launch pad, your drying is best done at a time that doesn’t disturb downstairs neighbors or sleeping children. Also, London water is hard and seduces the dye from the fibers of your clothes, commingling passionately for a few wild spins before draining away and leaving all items the same Dickensian gray.

The color challenge can be circumvented through assiduous sorting. But there is no getting around the fact that the drying function just doesn’t work. Clothes come out damp. The end result is a flat with socks and undershirts dangling over bathtubs and radiators. Of course, there are worse ways to live. But—why? When a technological fix is available, why would anyone choose to live this way?

Home drying technologies have been slow to catch on in the UK. An estimated 85% of US households have a clothes dryer; only 56% of UK ones do. “The first time I saw a tumble dryer was on an episode of Baywatch, when the clothes of a would-be drowning victim were put through the wash,” Furseth wrote. “My family had all the standard home appliances, but dryers aren’t very common in Europe. The idea that you could wash an outfit and wear it again the very same day seemed impossible.” That’s insane! Baywatch ran from 1989 to 2001. Electric tumble dryers were a fixture of middle-class US homes by the 1960s. What was happening in Britain during those lost decades? Why would a nation prioritize satellite television over the pleasures of freshly-laundered socks?

To an American, this is baffling. Britain is not sunny Italy, where I’m guessing you can simply fling washed clothes onto the terrazza in the morning and they’re crisp by the end of your post-prandial nap. Britain is damp. It’s wet all the time. It rained every single day for a month when I first moved there—and that was in the summer. It is a place crying out for the convenience of warm, dry clothes.

But that’s my personal opinion. Forgoing an electric dryer is unquestionably the more environmentally responsible choice, and if you don’t mind living in a house draped with damp underpants, I’m not going to tell you how to live. What does not make sense to me is why British people accept, as a fact of life, an appliance that everyone knows is incapable of doing the only job it is designed to do. The debate over whether a dryer belongs in a kitchen is moot—there is no place in a home of any size for a large appliance that doesn’t work.

This acceptance is at the heart of many American immigrants’ frustrations about life in the UK. And it highlights a fundamental cultural between the US and UK that I’d characterize, broadly, as a British inclination to accept things as they are, versus an American inclination to alter and change them.

There is an Oscar Wilde short story called The Canterville Ghost about an American family that takes up residence in a haunted English manor. The (British) household workers insist that nothing can be done about the specter. But the Americans cheerfully eradicate the hauntings with a series of American consumer products: Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator for the ghost’s clanking chains, Doctor Dobell’s Tincture for his agonized screams, Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent for blood stains he throws on the floor. To the disapproval of the staff and the great irritation of the ghost, a 300-year old poltergeist is quickly exterminated with cleaning products.

This American bias toward change—newer, better, different—has fueled countless innovations. It has also fueled a culture of thoughtless consumerism. The big houses that keep our big electric dryers also hold far more consumer products than are healthy for a family’s finances, or for the planet. Americans’ relentless drive for change means that we are also prone to the feeling that whatever we have is never enough; that there’s something inherently distasteful about being willing to accept life as it is.

In contrast, in the outstanding book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior, the anthropologist Kate Fox described such acceptance as a “quintessentially English” mindset: “a sense of passive, resigned acceptance, an acknowledgement that things will invariably go wrong, that life is full of little frustrations and difficulties … and that one must simply put up with it.”

Under the proper circumstances, this is a mature and useful perspective. Suffering—large and small—is an unavoidable feature of human existence. In the face of illness, loss, or heartbreak, the American insistence on looking on the bright side and fixing the problem can feel heartlessly clueless. Some things cannot be fixed.

But some things absolutely can. There are so many intractable problems humanity has yet to solve: climate change, inequality, political polarization. Drying clothes is not one of them. We’ve got this one, people! Cross it off the list! Either scrap the electric dryer altogether, Britain, or rise up as one and demand consumer products that actually work. You have nothing to lose but your damp.

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