Cleanliness is Next to Conscientiousness

As I was unpacking boxes and scrubbing baseboards in my new home over the past week, I kept thinking of a favorite comedy routine by Jeff Foxworthy, as he describes what happens when friends call to say they’re in down and want to drop by:

“You hang up and do that flight of the bumblebee. Ninety miles an hour, fluff and stuff. You’re sweating when they get there, and the first thing you always say is “Excuse the house, it’s a mess. Y’all come on in, house is a mess.’ Why don’t we just tell them the truth? ‘Y’all, this is the cleanest our house has been in six years! Don’t open the closet, you’ll kill yourself!”

A good reason not to reveal the truth about your usual housekeeping skills is that your guests might form some very broad impressions about your personality. At least, undergraduate students – not, in my own memories of dorm life, overly tidy people to begin with – will build a broad range of personality traits around written descriptions of a person’s house, be it dirty…

“The kitchen counter and table were a collage of opened mail, old receipts, newspapers, and empty soda cans. The living room and bedroom were in similar disarray, a landscape of clutter populated by papers, magazines, abandoned laundry, and the occasional dust bunny. And the bathroom? It was a mess, a bleak world of dull tarnished chrome and dingy porcelain.”

…or clean, carefully matched even in the poetic turn of phrase:

“The living room and bedroom were similarly tidy, a landscape of clean surfaces, unmarred by clutter, dust, or debris, and interrupted only occasionally by an outcropping of tastefully arranged magazines or neatly stacked papers.”

The undergraduate students reading these stories rated characters differently on 6 of 7 personality factors. Characters who kept clean homes were deemed more neurotic, agreeable, conscientious, intelligent, and feminine, and less open. The only personality trait that wasn’t influenced by housekeeping was extraversion.

Some of these personality determinations make sense: conscientiousness, after all, is meant to get at organization and discipline, which should lead someone to keep a clean house. But other personality traits do not seem like they should be connected to the state of one’s kitchen; agreeableness gets at being helpful and trusting, traits that don’t exactly scream “good housekeeper!”. And the high rankings of femininity are downright depressing, carry-overs of cultural stereotypes that imagine women with vacuum cleaner firmly in hand.

The opinions formed by a glimpse around your living room aren’t quite as shocking as the ability of a hot cup of cocoa to convince guests that you have a warm personality. Perhaps my next study could investigate whether a dirty house and warm drink can cancel each other out; it could save future hosts a flight of the bumblebee if they knew they could just offer a hot beverage instead of cleaning house to leave a good impression.
Harris, P., & Sachau, D. (2005). Is cleanliness next to godliness? The role of housekeeping in impression formation. Environment and Behavior, 37 (1), 81-101 DOI: 10.1177/0013916504266803


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