Friday, March 4, 2011

Farting Etiquette: The Dave Praeger Interview

Portrait based on photograph available via PoopReport Flickr photostream.

The Malawi fart flap, as discussed in a recent post, made international news last month when Malawi's Justice Minister suggested that language in a prospective bill accommodated a ban on public farting. What's more, he declared himself a proponent of such a ban, telling his constituents, "Just go to the toilet when you feel like farting." After the minister completely reversed his position and even denied ever saying that public farting should be banned (a claim he initially made in a radio interview), the bill passed and the whole stink blew over. But the incident deserves additional consideration, as it seems to indicate an uneasy relationship between manners and the public airing of our intestinal grievances.

To suss it all out, I sought help from Dave Praeger, editor of and author of the book Poop Culture: How America is Shaped By Its Grossest National Product. The book offers a fascinating look at poop's many facets and fissures, including wastewater-processing infrastructure (and alternatives such as composting toilets), as well as the Victorian-era phenomenon known as "fecal denial," which resulted in some of us becoming "shameful shitters," while others ended up as members of the "shameless" variety.

Dave graciously agreed to answer questions via email. A transcription of our correspondence follows.

JJ: Some 500 years ago, Erasmus published On Civility Among Boys. Regarding farting in mixed company, the author advised his readers thusly:
Don't squeeze your buttocks to prevent the emission as it may injure your health, so if you must in company, cover with a discreet and well-timed cough.
The fart flap in Malawi provides a clear demarcation: 500 years ago, Erasmus himself gave the thumbs-up on farting in mixed company, while in 2011 social condemnation has risen to the point where a lawmaker suggested that his country outlaw public tooting.

How and why did prevailing public-farting etiquette change so much in five centuries?

DP: This is wild speculation, but I imagine that 500 years ago, humanity was much smellier than we are now. In Erasmus's time, I'd imagine, people relied more on perfumes to overshadow smells than the bathroom chemicals and frequent showering that we use today to eliminate them at the source. So given the cacophony of smells at the time, I imagine Erasmus decided that a fart or two wouldn't really make much of a difference when weighed against the health of a young man's fragile buttocks.

JJ: Although the Malawi fart farce lasted less than a week, the story became an international sensation. Google returns 1.7 million results for the search term "Malawi farting." (That's more than the 1.3 million results for "Malawi corruption" -- an incredibly serious issue.) Did the story go viral simply because it afforded comic relief around the absurdity of an unenforceable law, or was the world particularly fascinated because of the farting aspect?

DP: Two reasons, I imagine: one, because it's so ridiculous; and two, because who wouldn't want the law to punish flagrant farters? All notions of rights aside, many of us would argue that the guy who farts in the crowded elevator deserves some time in solitary.

JJ: Is fart phobia completely subsumed within fecal aversion / denial, or are there elements of fart phobia that are independent of our loathing towards poop?

DP: I might argue that the farts are viewed as more dangerous (in the Mary Douglas sense) than poop because they're invisible and able to travel. We are phobic of poop but able to maintain our distance; a fart, on the other hand, advances inexorably upon our nostrils.

JJ: Poop Culture explains that I am not disgusted by my own poop because I inherently understand that it is not a threat to me, while the same cannot be said for other people's poop. Is the same dynamic responsible for the farting double-standard, as expressed in this cartoon?

DP: Sure thing. From what I've gleaned through reader participation on PoopReport, one's aesthetic appreciation of a fart is wholly dependent on its source. Very few of us can tolerate farts of others, but most of us are proud to blast their own. In private, of course; or at least in anonymity.

JJ: Your book talks a great deal about the shameful and shameless shitter. According to my reading, you salute shameless shitters, folks who can confidently stride past the receptionist en route to the restroom -- perhaps even while calling back over a shoulder, "Hold my calls. I'm headed to the crapper and I shan't be back for 12 minutes." But what about farting? If confident public shitting is a virtue, what about confident public farting?

DP: Public farting violates the golden rule: doo unto others. If you don't want other people farting in your airspace, you are forbidden to fart in theirs.

JJ: Is there anything to be gained from holding my farts until I step out of the crowded elevator? If so, what, exactly, do I gain from this restraint?

DP: What do you gain from not stealing a candy bar? From not committing mail fraud? From not murdering and raping and pillaging? You gain nothing from omission of action. Rather, the question should be presented from the opposite perspective: how would others suffer by committing the action, be it murdering or defrauding or farting in a crowded elevator.

JJ: According to Poop Culture, holding my poop can lead to an unhealthy life that includes constipation, atrophied peristaltic muscles and -- my favorite (and certainly the most gruesome) description in the entire book -- "prolapsed cauliflowers of flesh protruding from the anus." Can't holding my farts lead to similarly horrible conditions? Should I risk my health and hold my farts just so those around me do not have sit in a fetid fog?

DP: An unlikely coincidence of several unfortunate initial conditions would have to be met in order for a squelched fart to cause bodily harm. If you possess so rare and delicate an intestinal constitution that a retained fart might hurt you, then you are morally justified in letting it fly. Otherwise, that's no excuse.

JJ: What do you consider the proper etiquette for farting around others? Is this etiquette different when you're in public (i.e. among strangers) than in mixed company (e.g. if you have good friends over for a dinner party)? Is it different if I'm on a open cruise-ship deck or in a cramped movie theater?

DP: The variables are infinite: the smell quotient, the volume, the duration, the architecture, the dissipation potential, the frequency, and on and on. Short of constructing a mathematical equation, I'd suggest a single measure to base your decision to open the gates: the propensity to offend others. From that perspective, it should be simple. A fart in a crowded elevator is forbidden when standing among the president and his entourage; on the other hand, if you're twelve years old and your fellow passengers comprise your little league baseball team, then a particularly operatic fart would probably boost your social standing.

JJ: Your discussion of shameful and shameless shitters -- again, according to my reading -- gives shameful shitters the short end of the pinched loaf, although "shameless" is an apt descriptor for many of the folks I've come across in public restrooms. I must admit that I when I hear the guy in a stall grunting and otherwise making noises akin to those of a mauled wildebeest pinned to the savanna floor, I don't think, "Now that's the sweet sound of liberation from repressive social norms." When that same guy makes no effort to ease the muscles of his poop-chute but instead pushes the specimen through as though it were a battering ram, thus creating sputtering sounds about as melodious as Tiny Tim singing his way through the the wrong end of an Abu Ghraib interrogation, I don't think, "There's a fine marching song for the crusade against Victorian elitism." Finally, when this guy summarily flushes, hikes up his pants after a cursory wipe, and then comes bounding out of the stall and slaps me on the back with his dominant hand while hollering, "Hey champ," I do not feel like a winner. This type of shamelessness strikes me not as an escape from damaging ideologies, but complete apathy as to how one's actions impact other people.

DP: Wow!

JJ: Isn't there a middle ground between shameful and shameless shitting? Can't we all become conscientious crappers? And if we can reach a middle ground for Number 2, can't the same compromise be applied to the in-public blowing of one's ass trumpet?

DP: Too many suppositions! I see no path towards such a utopia. In my book, I tried not to advocate for one approach or another -- my goal was simply to understand why the different approaches exist in the first place.

JJ: We hear tales about how in some countries, belching after a meal compliments the cook. Are there cultures where farting in public is not verboten? If so, what accounts for the discrepancy in values between such cultures and our own?

DP: I don't know of any broad cultures in which farting is universally lauded. That doesn't mean they don't exist; I just haven't seen the study yet. But certain subcultures certainly embrace and celebrate farting, including young boys, frat humor movies, and perhaps political speech. In those cases, the fart becomes a symbol of power. If I deliberately fart in the presence of the president, I will be hated by one side and loved by the other.

And there you have it, folks. Thanks again to Dave for the interview, and for expanding the civility lexicon with a new dictum: "Doo unto others." The book is Poop Culture.


  1. Did you watch the episode in South park spontaneous combustion - they SHC (typically Kenny first) because they are holding in their farts. They are out on dates and dont want their date to be put off by their farts!

  2. Hi de ho, chocolat lover. No, I haven't seen that episode. I don't really see much of South Park, but I am familiar with Mr. Hankey.