The Cultural Divide on Washing Dishes: Brits vs. Americans

(Photo: Fotolia)

(Photo: Fotolia)

By way of introduction to this topic let me explain that the verb “to wash up” in the U.S. is primarily defined as washing one’s hands and/or face, as in “Give me five minutes to wash up and then I’ll be ready.” So Brits, if you’re the guest of an American, and he or she mentions washing up, no need to head for the kitchen.

As a Brit in the U.S.A. I often have to turn away when witnessing an American washing dishes. I’m pretty sure they all have to bite their tongues when watching me do the same, such are the differences in our preferred methods. In Postcards from Across the Pond, American writer Mike Harling describes Brit washing up thus: “First fill the sink with hot water and washing up liquid, then immerse your dishes and wash them as you normally would. Now take them out of the soapy water and put them in the drying rack. No, no, don’t rinse them; just put them in the rack. Yes, like that, with soap bubbles all over them. Apparently your mother was wrong—you can eat off dishes that have not been thoroughly rinsed and not get sick. In time, you’ll get used to the idea. (Or you can sneak back into the kitchen and rinse them off when no one is looking.)”

In addition, Brits wash everything in the same sink full of soapy water, which sounds gross, but there is method in that particular madness. See, if you start with the least dirty items, such as glasses, progress through medium soilage and then wash the pots and pans last, you’re not really washing anything in dirty water. Sort of. Ok, well, never mind.

There are lots of reasons for the British way (and obviously, not every Brit does it this way, before anyone starts). Some say that, because mixer taps are a fairly recent domestic addition, it would have been a “right faff” having to switch between hot and cold running taps to wash and rinse things. Not to mention a guaranteed risk of third-degree burns. There was also apparently an advertising campaign decades ago that claimed a certain brand of washing up liquid didn’t need to be rinsed, thus allowing people to save money on water bills. Some Brits also leave dishes to air dry rather than using a dish towel/tea towel, which they see as germ magnets.

Americans, on the other hand, need at least two sinks and a constant supply of running water for dishwashing. Sometimes one sink is filled with hot, soapy water, but I often see things washed under a running tap/faucet, necessitating half a bottle of detergent. Washed items then proceed to a second sink for rinsing. So far so good, apart from the shocking waste of water. Then, because very few American sinks come with a built in draining board, items are precariously balanced on the counter top, usually over a drying cloth. (This is the part I can’t watch.) I have to say, Americans are pretty good about drying the dishes and putting them all away right there and then. None of this “leaving them to drain,” which is often British code for “I can’t be bothered right now, I’ll just leave them for a couple of days.” To be fair, many Brits deliberately leave the dishes out to drain so that there are no smudges and wipe marks on them.

I believe a happy medium could easily be reached if the following two sink features caught on on both sides of the Pond.

A built-in draining board for American sinks (see below). This way, water doesn’t get all over the counter top and floor but runs obediently back into the sink. A “European” dish rack can be placed directly onto this draining section without the need for a drip tray underneath, or worse, one of those nasty, sponge drying mats.

(Photo via Home Depot)

British kitchen sink makers really need to start incorporating this handy, dandy American feature—the side spray. That’s the small spray gun with the lever in the photo here. They come standard on most kitchen sinks in the U.S.A. and are seriously useful for well, rinsing dishes and cleaning off sinks.

(Photo via Danze)

The combination of the British built-in draining board and the American side spray thingy would mean that everyone could keep on washing dishes in a sink full of soapy water, then place them in a drying rack and spray the life out of them without the worry of the water going anywhere but back into the sink and down the drain. Easy peasy!

Apparently the subject of how to wash dishes is quite a hot button as can be seen in this thread in the British Guardian newspaper.

What’s your strategy to washing dishes?


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • Char

    I have a dishwasher.

  • getyourownshoe

    Thank you for clearing up the “to wash up” verb difference. I cracked a joke to some Americans about the washing up the other day – got some very blank faces.

    • KimA

      In my family we say “wash up the dishes” and then “go wash up” to mean clean yourself. In America, I feel we tend to tell small children and younger family to “wash up”. Otherwise it’s “go cleanup” or “go clean yourself” or the more straight-forward “go wash your ass” or a derisive “you need to go wash your ass, man” lol

      • Jan

        I’ve been stuck with the job for 55 years. I love my dishwasher!

  • Kim

    I’m from NJ, USA

    When I can “be bothered”, which is rare, I do this:
    1) Rinse off of everything in the sink (gets the loose bits out the way and not smushed into sponge)2) Wet sponge, squirt some soap, wet sponge again and squish til foamy3)Proceed to scrub and soap up sink-load, putting utensils and other sharp nuisances to one side of the sink and dishes on the other. I often put soapy dishes in the drainboard momentarily to make space to work. ( In Home Ec(onomics) we were taught to take all sharp items out of the sink completely ,but I like to keep the mess contained to the sink.)
    4) Everything in drainboard goes back into sink, water on, rinse soap off drainboard with side spray, final rinse on dishes, back into drainboard to air-dry
    5) Clean sink and empty food catch

    6) Optional: Leave kitchen with smug sense of accomplishment :)

  • lisa

    Here’s how I do the dishes (when I’m not using my dishwasher): 1. Fill one sink with hot soapy water 2. Fill one sink with clean water (any temp) 3. Start with glasses, putting them all in the sink to soak as you wash them one at a time. Rinse them in the clean water and put them in a drying rack to drain. Then go to Plates, silverware, etc. using the same method. Ending up with pots and pans. You may need to change the clean water out if it gets too soapy to rinse in. I guess I use a British/American hybrid method. *L*

    • GoldenGirl

      Lisa, that’s how I do it as well.

    • Valorie

      That’s how I was raised to do dishes here in the states.

  • Pauline Wiles

    I have the good fortune to a) be a homeowner in the US and b) to have redesigned (remodeled) our kitchen. When choosing the sink, yes indeed, the lack of draining board options was quite depressing. We ended up with a double sink, and a permanent rack in the second sink for draining. Am quite fond of it now, as we also use it for washing veggies with that genius invention, the spray shower hose thingy. *Love* that – it’s probably worth the trade off of not having a draining board.
    PS – can’t believe I’m online talking about dishes. Note to self, must get life.

  • Barbara Berman

    you don’t need a side spray, my faucet switches from reg to spray and has a hose. dishes go in the washer, only pots and pans wash in the sink. i put soap on a scrubber, run the water, clean and rinse, leave it to dry. the built in draining board would be good.
    PS i would hate leaving soap on my dishes, it’ll make my food taste bad.

  • chateacher

    At one time I owned a house built in 1901. I was the second owner. In my kitchen I had the the two sinks and the drainboard. Over time we must have done away with them.

  • jeanolee

    I am in the U.S. My sink is double with the left side fitted with a draining board in side. So I wash my dishes in hot, soapy water (sometimes fill the whole sink, usually use a bowl or something), put the washed dish in the drainer, use the sprayer and voila, clean dishes. We usually dry the dishes right away with a clean dish cloth, but sometimes leave them to drain, then put them away before going to bed. This system is the reason why I chose double sinks evenly divided. Also, I think the British/Euro sinks are ugly.
    The sprayer is also great for cleaning fruit and veggies.

  • SarahHague

    My family washes up the traditional Brit way, without rinsing. As I live in France though, I’ve acquired the French habit of rinsing and leaving the pots to dry (no tea-towel) on the draining board.

    I use my dishwasher for everything else.

    When I go back to the UK, I usually insist on doing the washing up so I can rinse….

  • GoldenGirl

    Oh how I missed that side sprayer when I lived in England! After I rinsed, I always air dried and I still do. As you eluded to, the tea towel is a germ magnet. I had a European drying rack for the longest time until we moved into a place with a double sink and now I use the type that fits down in the sink.

  • Squrple

    As a Brit in Finland the best thing (ok probably not quite the best) is the existence of a draining cupboard. It is basically a cupboard with 3 or 4 draining racks instead of shelves, no need for a draining board or tea towels :)

  • Jane Gadd

    I am British and wash up twice daily sometimes more, never had a dishwasher there’s only the two of us, though I will rinse a newly washed pan before using. See Karen Horney “Our Inner Conflicts”.

  • Tea in England ☕

    I’m an American living in England. I wash up the British way, although it has been a learned habit. Have never had a problem with my food tasting funny, Barbara B.

  • Joanne

    I am flashing back sixty years to my father thundering to the children washing the dishes: “An entire generation will die from detergent left on dishes! Rinse the dishes properly!!”

  • Dani

    Interesting read! Fun to see the differences in such simple things. I’m an American, but rarely see anybody “precariously” perch their clean dishes next to the sink to dry. Generally, in my experience, people have a store bought drainer that sits next to the sink so you can fill it up and there’s a drainboard beneath it that leads dripping water back into the sink. I do think we waste a lot of water over here. My mom is not from the states and she has been pointing that out to me my entire life–“Turn off the water!” :)

  • Almost American

    I remember inventing the sprayer (in my head) when I had to do the dishes on a regular basis when I was growing up in the UK. I was amazed when I got to the US and found they were a reality over here!

  • Jenn

    Ooh, on my list of “pathetic things that I look forward to when I move back to the US” is both my divided sink AND my faucet sprayer (which isn’t separate at all, but a nozzle that pulls out from the faucet.) Maybe I’m an anomaly, but here (UK) I wash my dishes in a plastic dishpan set next to the sink and rinse them in the sink, then put them in the drying rack (which usually airdries but gets put away before bedtime, because I LOATHE waking up to a huge pile of dishes to put away). BUT. In the US, would set my dish drainer on the counter (tea towel underneath to collect the drips), rinse in the second sink and then set the entire dish drainer in the second sink, when done, to air dry.

    And am I pitiful to be discussing dishwashing methods in my free time? :face palm:

  • NC_Bearkitten

    First of all, many of us have a dishwasher machine. We do not have to wash them by hand. When I am washing by hand, I fill the sink with hot water, then fill the glasses first and go progressively dirty. I usually have the pots filled with hot soapy water while they wait to be washed. I put the dishes on the drain board and let them air dry, putting them away in a few minutes. Most drainboards in the US are fairly small now b/c everyone has a dishwasher.

  • Patty

    I wash the pots (= dishes!) in a bowl of soapy water, rinse them in my second sink, then leave them to drain in a rack on top of a (Rubbermaid) draining tray. Most of the time they’re left to air, because my husband always manages to ignore them, and I don’t see why I should do both the washing up and drying!

  • Hybrid-where am I from?

    Thanks for clarifying the meaning of “to wash up.” As a Brit living in the US for eons, I have resolutely refused to give up the meaning of washing up as something to do with cleaning plates (OK I do call them dishes) in the kitchen. Don’t get me started on “gardening” which apparently applies to raised beds of fruits and veg, where what I am doing is “yard work”…
    My house was built in the late 50s and I have neither double sink nor side-sprayer. I’ve had the latter in a few homes but never the luxury of a double sink (which my father has in the UK!). You can buy a spray nozzle to attach to the — thankfully mixed hot & cold — tap which I use to rinse and spray around the sink. Yes, I do scald my hands when I go back to the UK. I really, really, hate the squirmy muck at the end of the single sink method, so I have adopted the following:
    1) put soap on a wet sponge and clean the glasses with some water. Pour suds from one glass to the next and rinse. Start with new soap when it becomes too diluted.
    2) find the largest dirty mixing bowl or saucepan and clean it. FIll with soap and water, and insert all utensils or anything that will fit. Rinse on the side.
    3) Clean a saucepan, and re-use soapy water in other pots and pans.
    This is a bit like camping, which I must admit I like, but hauling large frying pans of water does lead to the occasional overflow on the counter! I do try to use less than 1/2 a bottle of washing liquid and reduce water consumption, but I’m sure I use more than I would if I had a double sink.
    As to drying, I use a draining rack and when that is full, have a drip tray, and when that is full I put things on a paper towel… you can see I don’t like to dry up (another Britverb!)
    My husband on the other hand uses the British method (he’s from Philly, don’t ask): Fill sink with hot soapy water. Clean things in a random order. When things get really gross, get distracted, go to another room and leave the now tepid dirty water with a few saucepans for me to find several hours later. :)

  • Hybrid-where am I from?

    Hold on. There is this utensil in the UK called ‘a washing up bowl’ (plastic) which sits in the sink and leaves a small amount of space to rinse to the side. I don’t think I’ve seen one here in 30 years, so I guess it is a British invention. Could buy one on the next trip, but I’d have to give up ‘camping’…

    • NYLolaMari

      I’m an American and this is exactly how my Mother taught us to wash-up as children. Perhaps, it’s because I grew up in New York City, but most people I knew washed-up like this – family & friends. As an adult, I don’t use the plastic bowl because I have double sinks, the side sprayer and a dishwasher. Can’t mess up my manicure. :)

    • Julia Hanoman

      Target has them though they are a bit bigger than normal.

  • Pjbfromstaten

    I’m American, and we aren’t all the same as the writer seems to imagine. I’m perfectly happy using a single squirt of dish liquid to do an entire sink of washing. As per many generations of trial and error, I always save the glassware for last on the side, so as to give it the least chance to break. I remember my mothers’ old kitchen sink, which indeed had a built in drainboard… wish I had the same. I always rinse, as my dish soap is very sudsy, and will leave an awful taste. (don’t ask why I know!) So, single sink, plastic drainboard, one squirt, wash, rinse, and air dry. (yes I’m lazy too)

  • lexdanielle

    I never really thought about how many different ways there are to wash dishes. I’m from Texas and learned how to wash the dishes from my mother. This is the process that we use:

    1) Always rinse a dish/glass/etc. after it’s been used so you can get most of the residue off and it won’t cake on. Leave dirty dishes in the right sink (we have two sinks).

    2) When it’s time to wash the dishes, fill the right sink with hot, soapy water. Wash glasses and the least dirty dishes first so you don’t have to deal with dirty water until the end.

    3) When you’ve washed a dish, place it in the left sink. Once all the dishes have been washed and placed in the left sink, turn on the faucet and rinse those dishes. After a dish has been rinsed, place it in the dishwasher (which has two racks) to dry. All of the dishes end up in the dishwasher to dry and you put them up in the cupboards later!

    4) Drain the water in the right sink and rinse to get rid of soap bubbles. Take your washcloth and clean the sink area, stove, and kitchen counters. Voila, a clean kitchen!

  • gn

    I always thought the soapy water thing was disgusting, even when I lived in the UK. Rather like every member of a family sharing the same bathwater (which, my parents assured me solemnly, they were forced to do when growing up in the era of UK post-WWII austerity).

  • Joshua

    The way you portrayed our dish-washing procedures sounded a bit unlikely to me. haha Let’s be realistic, we don’t use half a bottle of dish soap and let the water run carelessly. Growing up washing dishes our whole lives, come on, you’d think
    we’d come up with ways to clean conveniently and effectively, saving loads of water (and dish detergent)
    right? FYI: It’s possible. lol I’m American and when I wash, what I do is:

    1) Put the dirty dishes in one side of the sink.
    2) Quickly run the water over them to get them wet, then turn the water off.
    3) With a soapy sponge, scrub each dish separately and thoroughly (yes, thoroughly) then set them in the other side of the sink.
    4) When all dishes have been scrubbed, I turn the hot water on LOW (to save water :P) and rinse each dish separately and thoroughly (yes again, thoroughly because MY dishes have to be and look clean at that moment! I just can’t leave anything left on them, they have to be spotless right away! Sorry, it’s just the way I raised).
    5) Set them on the rack nearby to dry, or I even dry them soon after.

    But any who, at the end of the day, either way’s good I suppose.

  • MegO

    I can’t believe we’re discussing this, either. Too funny! Actually, I’m American and live alone and use my dishwasher as a drain tray. I do actually use it to wash dishes sometimes, too, but usually there are just a few things…..and I, too, start with the less dirty and go to the most dirty….as my mother taught me. In the “old days,” we rinsed in a pan of hot water, then put the dishes into a drain tray on the side–WITH a drain mat under it. We didn’t have a fancy sink. Now, I do, I confess, use the hot water faucet. (Sorry!)

  • Laura A.

    I wash the dishes like the English. Apparently I do a lot of things like I was one.

  • Chel

    If I hand wash I just take every dish one by one, whether it’s a pan, fork, plate, etc., I wash it under running water, rinse it, then put in the dish rack to air dry. This article said how Americans wash dishes then immediately dry them and put them a way. That’s like an old school thing to do, I think. I have done it, of course, but it’s not the norm. And if I dry the dishes with a dish towel it has to be a clean one, can’t use one that’s been used to dry peoples hands. Ick! :p Also I’ve never known anyone to lay dishes to dry on a towel. Everyone I know has a dish rack. Just thought I’d share this tidbit of info lol