The Cultural Divide on Washing Dishes: Brits vs. Americans

Is there a best practice in washing dishes? (Photo via BSU)

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, “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 dish-washing. 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?

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Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.

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