Dust, dirt, and hair. This is what I saw as I looked into the bathtub in the flat of my Airbnb host in London. I did not have time to waste. I was scheduled to deliver a research talk later that afternoon and was in haste to leave the flat. But, there I stood, paralyzed by a collection of barely noticeable reminders of the human occupant of the flat, whom I had only just met. I wrinkled my nose and pursed my lips as I contemplated the situation.
My friend Alison once eloquently stated the reservations I felt at that moment, saying, “I just don’t like knowing that other people’s butts have been in there.” For some reason, this is a topic of conversation she and I have visited several times. Typically, my response to her hesitation has been to say that I am not similarly troubled by the history of a tub. I grew up in a household with only one bathroom, so I have a lot of experience in sharing tubs with the bottoms of others. I tend to turn my nose up at what I see as the American trend of harboring an irrational fear of coming into contact with the human traces of others, and so often make light of such concerns.
I had to laugh as I stood there, hesitating to clean myself because of a few small particles of dust, dirt, and hair. I observed that the tub looked freshly cleaned and that the off-putting bits had merely settled due to comings and goings in the room and the breeze from the open window. “You chose this,” I reminded myself. So, I harnessed my pragmatism, found a plastic cup in the kitchen, and rinsed away the dirt. I filled the tub and climbed in.
Later that morning, while riding the tube to the conference at which I would speak, I reflected on my stand-off with the tub. I wasn’t upset that it wasn’t spotlessly clean because I hadn’t expected it to be, really. When I booked my lodging through Airbnb I knew that I would not have the kind of sanitized, corporately structured experience that one hopes to have when staying at a hotel. In keeping with both the material constraints of a fixed budget and my desire to live a nomadic lifestyle unburdened by the weight of consumer culture, I purposely eschewed hotels when planning for my travels outside the States.
Having had to face the reality of someone else’s bathroom, I realized that when one pays for a room in a hotel, one buys separation from the lives of others. With a hotel experience you get not only a private, secure room of your own — or physical distance from others — but also, you get social distance too. In a hotel room, save from the standard prohibition on smoking on the premises, there are virtually no rules of behavior one must abide. In fact, you do not even have to clean up after yourself. When you return after being out, the sheets have been changed, the bed is made, the pillows fluffed, the room tidied, and the bathroom sparkles and smells of cleaning solvent. In this situation, you inhabit the role of customer, and because of this, you are always right.
Not so, in the real world. Airbnb recommends that all travelers familiarize themselves with the “6 Golden Rules” of staying in the homes of others. They include 1. Communicate. Confirm check-in times and key exchanges after booking. 2. Be neighborly. Be respectful of your surroundings, and the neighbors next door. 3. Guests. Your reservation is confirmed for a set number of people. Check with your host before inviting additional visitors. 4. Respect the space. Treat the dwelling as if it were your own home. Whether it is an entire apartment or a private room, be considerate and respectful. 5. Notify. Should any problems arise during your stay, immediately notify your host so they have a chance to correct it. They aren’t psychic (most of them). 6. Review. Leave feedback for your host. They appreciate it and so do we!
All six of these rules come down to the importance of clear and direct communication between the guest and the host. Some of this is transacted through the website, some over email, telephone, or video chat, but much of it occurs in person. This is the inescapable fact of staying in the home of a stranger: getting to know, and dealing with, another human being. There is no veil, no separation between what sociologist Erving Goffman called “front stage” and “back stage” behavior, and so one is faced with the messiness of social interaction. That mess might take the form traces in a tub, of dirty dishes left on a table, or of the delicate retreat from a conversation that has crept into one’s desired bedtime.
There is also the messiness of negotiating a relationship that bridges the typically distinct realms of business and the personal. When you stay in someone’s home, while a business transaction brokered by Airbnb encapsulates the relationship, it transpires in the most personal of realms. Being in someone’s home, after all, is to see a glimpse of their life. Family photos, art, decor, furnishings, and possessions, together with observations of a daily routine, habits, and mannerisms provide a snapshot of a life. Unlike a hotel room, which is in some ways like a clean canvas, and closed to observation, staying in another person’s home presents the visitor with a multitude of information and challenges.
While one can sequester oneself away from the outside world in a hotel, and enjoy the privileged position of one-way communication with one’s host — one places orders and lodges requests, but is not impressed upon in the same way — communication, cooperation, and compromise are required when one is a guest in the home of another. One is not free to do whatever one wants.
In addition to the golden rules, hosts often have rules of their own that they wish guests to abide. And, then there is the self-awareness that comes with inhabiting someone else’s space. I felt self-conscious during the first couple of days of my first Airbnb home-stay. I didn’t feel uncomfortable, but I was conscientiously aware of my footprint in the flat, and the effect that my presence had on my host. This awareness, in turn, shaped my behavior.
Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote in his book Consuming Life that we exist within a “society of consumers,” in which has transpired “the annexation and colonization by consumer markets of the space stretching between human individuals.” What he meant when he wrote this is that consumerism — as a lens, a set of values, and as expectations — fundamentally shapes social interaction between people today, regardless of whether a transfer of goods or services for money is present. He further explained that in a society of consumers we expect that “every choice [will be] secure and every transaction one-off and without obligation, an act with ‘no hidden costs’, ‘nothing more to pay, ever’, ‘no strings attached’, ‘no agent will call’.” In essence, as consumers in a social interaction structured by consumerism, we have the luxury of having nothing more expected from us than monetary payment.
I understand what Bauman means. Consumerism manifests in places one wouldn’t necessarily expect it to. For instance, as an instructor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I taught sociology courses while pursuing my Ph.D., I often felt that many students saw me as a service sector employee, and viewed their educational opportunity as a consumer transaction. Their behavior and manner of communication suggested that payment of tuition was equivalent to purchasing a degree. So I, as an instructor, owed them the service of delivering that degree. They did not realize that what their parents had bought was the opportunity to earn a degree, not the degree itself. For this reason, I found myself one day explaining to a student that I had not “given” him the grade he did not like; rather, he had earned it through his mediocre performance. Structured by consumerism, awareness of one’s personal responsibility for accruing knowledge, of developing skills, and of earning an education, is lost.
Responsibility for ourselves is not all that is lost when consumerism envelopes our lives. We lose an appreciation for the unique humanity of other people. Now, staying in the home of a stranger is not always puppies and roses. In one recent incident, an Airbnb host returned to find her San Francisco apartment literally destroyed and ransacked, and many important, personal possessions stolen by a less than recommendable guest. Just two stays deep, I have experienced a bit of unpleasant blowback in the form of angry emails from a host who was aghast at my honest review of the cleanliness of his kitchen. But, I have also had fantastic experiences that I would not have had if I had been buffered from the masses by the walls of a hotel.
I was given a tour of the neighborhood and many interesting lessons on the history of London and the British Isles by my host there, and had access to a book of informative walking tours, a couple of which I enjoyed very much. In Geneva, my friend Stefanie and I were welcomed into the home and lives of a lovely, kind, and generous young family who treated us to an incredibly delicious home cooked meal of Senegalese and Liberian food. In both locations, my hosts acted as concierge, cooks, friends, tour guides, and travel agents, so from my point of view, you actually get more for your smaller amount of money than you do at a hotel. I got to know my hosts. We swapped stories about our lives, shared food and drink, and enjoyed each other’s company. We interacted as humans in ways that are otherwise mostly vanished by consumer transactions. I might have been a little uncomfortable at times, but overall, these experiences enriched me, and I am grateful for them.