The cultures of clean

How you clean can be affected by cultural differences. Learn which solutions can work for all of them.

by Mark Sisson — Originally published in the April 2017 issue of ISSA

Think everyone views “clean” the same way? Do all people view cleanliness as a health and safety issue? Nope. In the United States alone, we have different cultural segments that would define “clean” differently and place different values on various aspects of cleanliness. That variation in perception becomes even larger when you look at various cultures around the world. But let’s rewind and look at cleanliness from a historical perspective.

A Healthy Start

One thing the United States can be proud of is that our concept of personal hygiene was developed out of a desire to be healthier rather than to look and smell better. The U.S. Sanitary Commission, formed during the Civil War, not only looked out for the wellbeing of the soldiers, but also had such broad initiatives that health and hygiene became a cultural movement and an issue of national pride. By the end of the 19th century, advertising’s biggest customers were medicines and soaps.

In Katherine Ashenburg’s book, The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, we learn about past views on hygiene: Frenchmen changed shirts daily and washed hands, but did nothing to clean their bodies. Romans bathed in hot water every day, but used no soap. Egyptians viewed bathing, the practice of sitting in stagnant water and your own filth, to be a terrible idea. In fact, the concept of cleanliness was even used as propaganda by the Nazis, convincing the population that Jews were unclean. Regardless of your culture, customs, or beliefs, the common thread is that people value cleanliness…just in different ways.

If you are in the cleaning and maintenance industry, whether a distributor, building service contractor (BSC), in-house service provider, or manufacturer, understanding these cultural differences can have a sizeable impact on your success. For example, if you were a bathtub manufacturer wanting to expand your business through exports, you’d want to research how each of your target markets viewed the concept of bathing. You certainly wouldn’t want to waste time and money selling to regions that lacked access to water or believed bathing was dirty. Similarly, if you are a commercial cleaner or distributor, aligning your mix of products and services to closely match your target market’s beliefs on cleanliness and hygiene can lead to greater sales and happier customers.

In addition to cultural variations, there are differences in how specific markets view facility cleanliness and personal hygiene. One industry that is focused purely on the health and safety aspect of cleanliness is acute care (hospitals). Recently, more emphasis has been placed on patient perception due to the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) mandatory patient survey, which can affect Medicare reimbursement rates. Historically, however, the top priority for a hospital infection preventionist is to reduce the likelihood of health care associated infections (HAIs). Meanwhile, if we look at second-tier health care providers, such as physicians and dentists, they value a mix of true health benefits and patient perception, since there is usually more competition for patients among these providers.

A similar situation exists with education facilities. Public schools focus on cleanliness mainly as a way to reduce absenteeism, since when students are absent, the school does not get its state and federal per diem reimbursement. Private schools, however, not only want healthy facilities, they also want facilities that are visibly cleaner, which affects the perception of the parents paying the tuition and can even help attract new students.

Perception of cleanliness also affects food service facilities. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, public awareness of food-borne illness has created an intense customer focus on restaurant cleanliness. Since customers rarely get a glimpse into the kitchen, public perception is based on other, visually obvious areas of the facility. In fact, Bienstock et al. evaluated food safety and sanitation procedures in relation to customer perceptions and found that both food and service were perceived to be better in visibly clean facilities.

The cleanliness of the restroom also has been shown to be extremely important to the perception of overall restaurant quality. According to Customer Perceptions of Restaurant Cleanliness: A Cross-Cultural Study by Seung Ah Yoo at Virginia Tech’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, the most important factor in this perception was odor. Not trash, not floors, not germs…odor. So as a distributor, BSC, or in-house cleaning professional, you’d be doing your restaurant customers a favor by selling or using products with a pleasing scent.

Like the food service industry, the travel and hospitality sector places a tremendous value on facility cleanliness. Some of this is due to losses in revenue and image from outbreaks and the resulting negative press. Do travelers assume their hotel room is clean? Would any of us set our toothbrush directly on the bathroom vanity? Of course not. Businesses that understand this realize that providing positive visible cues creates a differentiator—and a business advantage.

So the perception of cleanliness can create real business value. But if you are selling products and services outside the United States, you need to be conscious of another set of business drivers…culture, tradition, and religion.

The World of Clean

A seminar on cleanliness presented by the University of Delhi, India and the department of anthropology explains that cleanliness is so important, it is a spiritual imperative. The closest translation for hygiene in Hindi is svachchhata and shudhta, alluding to ritual or spiritual cleanliness. Yet the cleaning of shared areas is viewed as a job for the lower castes. So you can see why you might have very clean homes but filthy public facilities. With this information, a cleaning business might conclude that the ideal target market is upper class homeowners.

Germany has a long standing reputation for cleanliness. Do you have a Putzfimmel? Is it your turn for Kehrwoche? If so, then you have an obsession with cleaning and it’s your turn to clean the neighborhood. That’s right. Everyone in a neighborhood or apartment complex takes turns with the weekly task of sweeping, picking up trash, and generally cleaning up the area. Historically, like some other European cultures, it’s less about germs and health, and more about the pride you have in keeping your home, neighborhood, and country looking good.

Want to talk about a culture that highly values cleanliness and hygiene? Let’s talk Japan. In Charlene Solomon’s article, When Cleanliness Is Cultural, she talks about how deeply ingrained the idea of purity is in the Japanese culture. The Japanese believe there are “clear distinctions between ‘inside’ cleanliness and the outside world; between the grime and germs of the outdoors and the hygiene and spotlessness of the interior.” When you come home, you immediately remove your shoes, gargle, wash your hands, and change your clothes. Purity is both spiritual and an important part of their holistic view of health.

So obviously we need to take into account these cultural issues to understand what products and services have a perceived value in various places around the world. But let’s think beyond your current product line or service offering. There are lucrative markets you could be tapping by adding to your product mix or changing how and when services are performed.

For example, in the service side, facility management are starting to realize there’s a value in having cleaning personnel working during business hours when they can be seen. And simple changes can have immediate impact, like using paper towels and a spray cleaner to clean restaurant tables rather than a visibly dirty dish rag.

When it comes to products, things get more interesting depending on what you’re trying to achieve. The visible nature of some products delivers the perception of cleanliness. Other products create a more hygienic facility, and still other products work automatically, overcoming cultural, educational, and environmental challenges.

For example, interesting new takes on hand sanitizers, like one manufacturer’s door handle with integrated dispenser, is a highly visible option. But again, cultural norms need to be considered. The World Health Organization’s Guidelines on Hand Hygiene help educate health care facilities about being sensitive to regions where alcohol is illegal and viewed as a cause of health problems. This is an important consideration for alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

Sometimes hygiene issues are related to environmental constraints. “There is widespread lack of access to clean water,” says Uday Shah of Africote, a company that distributes several hygiene product lines tailored to the environmental challenges in Africa. “So products that can compensate for lack of handwashing help tremendously.”

Looking the Part

Self-cleaning surfaces like Cupron (copper) and NanoSeptic (nano-photocatalyst) are visible, hygienic, and work automatically. So regardless of culture, religion, education, or social class, the surface creates a cleaner environment and improved public perception. In addition, research shows if a door handle visibly communicates that it is self-cleaning, people will change behavior by touching what they perceive to be a cleaner surface.

If you are in a sector that has become highly commoditized, don’t compete on cost savings and discounted sales. Grow sales and margins by delivering the products and services that satisfy the cultural, religious, and regional beliefs about cleanliness and hygiene in each of your unique target markets.

Mark SissonMark Sisson is co-founder of NanoTouch Materials. He can be reached at or visit


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