I hope your teacher or employer is forcing you to read this article. Perhaps you’ve argued against cleaning up after yourself. Maybe no one will take responsibility for daily messes in the lunchroom. Someone has probably said, or at least thought, that it’s the janitor’s job to clean up after you. Sure, there’s some truth to the statement that someone has been hired to clean up each day, but how much that person has to clean up and for what reason is more a reflection of you than you might think.

Have you ever gone into a friend’s house that looks like a total dump? In fact, maybe that’s your house. Why does it look that way? I’d guess it’s because nobody cleans the house, and there can be legitimate reasons for this--sometimes people who are sick or very weak have trouble maintaining a clean living space. Others might not know any better. And still others could be just plain lazy. Insects and rodents love these people. The problem is that anyone who sees these living conditions would immediately make some negative judgements about the people who live in the house. Not everyone gets to see your living conditions, but those who do will categorize you and anyone who lives with you as either clean or unclean.

When I was in college, I had a cleaning lady for my boarding house-style apartment who cleaned the bathroom, hallway, and kitchen. However, she didn’t do the dishes or take out the garbage. Neither did any of the other guys who lived in the house. Plus, she only came once a week. I normally didn’t invite anyone over because I couldn’t control how messy the other guys were, but I did make sure to take the garbage out when it was full. And I did my dishes as soon as I made my Ramen noodle meals. If I dropped some bread on the floor, I picked it up, since I knew that my roommates weren’t going to do it. Sometimes, I even had the place looking good enough to invite people over, but that was a very special occasion.

When visitors venture into your school or workplace, they don’t judge the janitor. Most of us assume there’s a custodial staff that comes in every night after the work of the day is done. We also know that businesses and schools don’t have maids following everyone around all day. Maybe we’ll have robots for that someday, but for now, the only judgement that happens at 1:30pm is reserved for the people who are currently at the location. The visitors judge the school or business, but they probably judge the employees or students even more harshly. They’re seeing a lack of personal and professional responsibility, and it matters. Beyond that, it matters to those who are part of the organization and don’t like living in relative filth--those are those in charge or those who shake their heads at your antics.

You see, when we encounter a dirty place, we assume those who are in that place are comfortable in their surroundings. That leads us to assume they live that way at home, too. And it’s not just the people who make the mess, it’s the whole group of people who are there. When I go into a fast food restaurant with almost nobody in the place, then see not a single clean table and overflowing garbage cans, I assume everyone there could care less about the appearance of the establishment. Granted, those people are employed as both servers and cleaners, but it’s not that much different in a school or office setting. If you went to visit the doctor and saw several used needles sitting around, would it make a good impression? That’s probably illegal, but a visitor to a school who sees lunch garbage at a table only a few feet from a garbage can will assume that the kids who attend that school would just as soon leave used needles lying around if employed by a doctor.

Back to that argument that it’s someone else’s job to clean up after you. What you’re really trying to say is that even if you are messy, you’re still better than someone else. It’s up to those servants to do for you rather than for you to take personal responsibility for your own surroundings. Imagine if there were 5,000 people down at the beach and each of those people left five pieces of garbage. Not a huge deal, 25,000 pieces of garbage at the beach--probably a little annoying. But what if that went on for a month? 750,000 pieces of garbage. After a month, no one would even be going to the beach. Most people don’t litter like that at the beach because they want to enjoy it for themselves next month. That’s how we should behave on the streets of our city, in our workplaces, and in our schools. Call it common courtesy or being civilized. A civilized person will toss a candy wrapper in the garbage can at a park rather than leave it on a park bench. Anyone who claims to be above this societal expectation is really operating below it.

My family was never rich, but there were always certain expectations. I remember when I visited my cousin’s farm and another young farmer gushed about how clean the farm was. However, I saw it as the way the farm had always been. My uncle had always parked machinery inside and kept the lawn mowed. Basically, his farm always looked like the postcards you might see, and the whole neighborhood noticed it. He didn’t make more money than the neighbors, but he probably didn’t have to replace his tractors as often, and the animals probably didn’t require as many visits from the vet (so maybe he did make a little more). On the other end of the financial spectrum, you don’t often see millionaires with a junkyard next to the mansion. Wealthy people don’t always worry about cash, but status and taste mean a lot, and having a mess in the house or in the yard is generally in bad taste.

Cleanliness is related to one’s class, and we can’t escape it. If your clothes smell and have lots of holes, then people will make assumptions about your class. Ironically, if you work as someone who cleans up after others for a living, we also make assumptions about your economic class. However, if a person who is personally dirty stands next to someone who works as a janitor who takes personal cleanliness seriously, the differences in economic class disappear.  In a country that has traditional mobility in socio-economic class, we all have to be aware that how we project ourselves to others reflects both our true class and our perceived class.

I’ve heard it said that it takes a few generations for the newly rich to really establish themselves as upper class in the eyes of others of the upper class. Think about what you’d buy if you won the lottery, besides a house in a neighborhood where you’re not really welcome as an elite member. Perhaps you’d want the biggest, baddest pickup truck. The gaudiest diamond ring. A maid. Essentially, you’d want items that would show those who are on par with you that you have made it and are better than them. But anyone with true taste knows that having things and servants isn’t what makes them who they are. For those of us on the outside looking in, however, having things is possibly the only indication of wealth and style. People who have real style pick up after themselves, even if they have to hire an army of maids to keep the house pristine.

You are not alone in thinking that you are better than other people, or at least wanting to prove you’re better than them in some way. We've gone from cashiers to associates and janitors to custodial engineers in an attempt to alter perceptions. While simple name changes to professions may not work, disrespecting these other people who are hired to clean or serve as a career only shows that you lack the social skills to understand that upward social mobility depends on others. Even if you get that college degree or that family business, your own success is based on how others see you. Those people need to hire you or buy your products, and how you treat others may very well dictate how much success those clients or customers afford you. It’s not all about impressing those in charge or impressing those you’ve left behind. Being a slob doesn’t impress anyone, and being a snob isn’t any better. Being a gracious and respectful person who takes personal responsibility is the way to show that you are an improved, civilized human being, so clean up when you make a mess.

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