The Brown Towel Dilemma

When I was seventeen years old, I traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa as a foreign exchange student.  The first day I arrived, my host mother and sister greeted me with warmth and kindness.  We went directly to the shop that sold school uniforms, as I would be attending my new high school the very next day.  That was new for me, as I had been raised in public schools in the United States and we did not wear uniforms.  I wondered how I would adjust.

Having secured the winter and summer versions of the brown and gold outfits, we went to my new home-away-from-home.  The house was exceedingly large and as beautiful as it was big.  My new mum showed me the room that I would call my own for the next twelve months.  For all my life I had shared a room with my little sister.  I was thrilled to have my very own space.  Before we left the room, my mum gestured to a large, brown towel which lay neatly folded on the bed. 

               “That’s your bath towel”, she said.

The house tour continued and I was introduced to the palatial bath that the five children shared.  In contrast to the rest of the house, I found it a bit odd.  I had little time to contemplate that thought as we moved quickly about the home and eventually stopped in the kitchen.  There, we all shared a freshly baked snack.  The words, “home sweet home,” crossed my mind as we devoured the tasty treat.

From the very beginning, I was regarded as a beloved relative.  My host sister was thrilled to have a female sibling, as she was a girly girl who was into ballet, design and fashion.  Diane had only brothers, so she was excited to have a sister. 

About ten days passed. I was starting to feel quite comfortable with my host family. After school, Diane stopped into my room.

               “Tammie, you know we adore you.  We love having you here,” she started.  I sensed that her words were not wholly consistent with the tone in her voice. I felt my stomach drop. 

               “Tam, you just must understand.  You must stop using everyone else’s towel.”  I could hear disappointment, frustration and a trace of anger in her words.  It made me feel as if I were two feet tall.

Although the home I grew up in was not nearly as expansive as the beautiful abode in South Africa, my mother kept our house tidy and comfortable.  She was an artistic person who had a keen eye for color and my father owned a paint and decorating shop.  Throughout my early years, I recall my mother explaining the fashion faux pas of wearing brown shoes with a black belt or mixing stripes with plaids.  She wasn’t a fashion czar, but she was cognizant of color and patterns and shared her knowledge with us. 

The bathroom that my two sisters and I shared was decorated with festive wallpaper from my father’s store.  The wallpaper complimented the color of the tub.  The tub harmonized with the color of the sink.  Most importantly, the towels matched the décor.   All of the bath towels were the same color sans the little hand towels that were draped over the larger bath towels.  Those just-for-decoration towels were of a complimentary color to the larger bath towels. 

“After your use it, never leave a dirty towel on the floor.  Hang it over the shower rod to dry.” I can’t recall the first time the lesson was introduced, but those were words I routinely followed each morning.  As a kid I didn’t pay much attention to all that it took to maintain a home.  Yet, looking back, logic would dictate that my mother did laundry every day.   By the time I arrived home from school, the towels my sisters and I had used in the morning were clean again, smelling fresh of Downy softener.  Hanging on the towel bar next to the bathtub, they were adorned with the do-not-use hand towel, and ready for the next morning’s shower.

Even though the American Field Service provided three intensive days of cultural training before I left for Johannesburg, on the first day I arrived in South Africa I did not appreciate that the brown towel on my bed was my very specific towel.  Rather, I found it a bit odd that the massive kid’s bathroom was filled with entirely mismatched towels.   One towel was adorned with large orange and white stripes. Another had a purple and green checked pattern and a third looked more like a beach towel than one suited for a home rest room.  There wasn’t even a “color family” in which the various towels fit.  To my eyes, it made for a very disjointed, inharmonious room that shouted “boy’s gym” where spent towels were tossed into a specific corner after use.  My mother back in the States would have cringed to see such a space.

As she spoke, my South African sister was trying to be gentle with me.  Still, beneath her kind words I could hear the disdain for my retched behavior.  I tried to comprehend what she was saying.  Back in Illinois, I would step out of the shower and grab any towel because they were all the same.  When I contemplated the possibility that towels were personal items, like a tooth brush or a pair of underwear I began to sense how my sister felt.  Clearly, if she went into the bath and “her” exclusive towel was wet and discarded in the “used towels” corner, she would be offended, especially if it had been seized by that manner-less American kid.  I felt ashamed, guilty and stupid.  Thoughts raced through my mind.  How could I have known that when my mum pointed to the brown towel that it was my towel?  It was outside of my reality to consider towels with such personal attachment. 

Fortunately, once I knew the rule it was easy to shift my behavior and fit into my new family’s expectation for bathroom etiquette.  That uncomfortable hurdle would turn out to be only the first of many cultural obstacles that I had to negotiate.  Throughout that year I learned about living with people who seemed so similar, yet had many distinct philosophies, standards, daily routines and customs. The experience helped me learn to honor and respect diversity. Variety is what makes each of us unique and special.  Differences are not bad, they are just different.  And yet, those differences can be the basis of profound anguish, embarrassment or even dishonor when they are misunderstood.

The lessons I learned in South Africa helped me negotiate college life, including a semester I spent in Costa Rica.  The time I spent as a foreign exchange student also enhanced my career as a biologist: twenty years of employment that spanned across the diverse settings of a university, research hospital and then a fortune 500 corporation.  Most profound is how my cross-cultural experience facilitated what I refer to as my second career as professional dog training.

As mammals and as social carnivores, dogs are very much like us humans in some very basic and obvious ways.  And, yet as canine they are very unique, too.  One could say that dogs have their own culture.  Yet, we expect them to live in our society under our rules. 

I strongly suspect that dogs often face the “brown towel dilemma” during their cohabitation with people.  Image a nice dog that is feeling more confident each day living with his new family.  Then, bam! All of a sudden he’s hit with his owner’s disappointment, frustration or anger and he doesn’t have a clue how to fix the situation.   The idea that he had been doing something wrong had never crossed his mind.

In much the same way that I felt as a teenager living with strangers half way around the world, dogs want to fit in and be accepted into their human family.   They are motivated to choose membership in the collective over a solitary life not by choice but by genetic influence.  It’s as if they are all enrolled in a “foreign exchange program” the moment their new families bring them into their new home.  Sadly, dogs don’t get a three day multicultural training session before they embark on their new adventure.

My experience tells me that most dogs are not inherently naughty, nor are they malicious in their actions.   Let’s face it, if you don’t know what is acceptable there’s no way to regulate your behavior to please your higher-ups.  That’s true of humans and dogs.  Therefore, correcting a dog that climbs up on the comfy sofa to nap in your absence isn’t exactly fair. That is especially true if you have not successfully taught your dog about your expectations before the heinous crime.

Just in case you haven’t figure this out, yet:  yelling is an unsuccessful form of education and a less effective form of punishment.  Shaming is simply unkind and unproductive.  That goes for humans and dogs.  Let’s remember that Diane didn’t intentionally use harsh words to express her concern for my uncivil behavior, and yet I still felt the sting of her emotions. Dogs do not have the luxury of speaking our language, yet they must somehow comprehend our expectations. I suppose that may be why some people choose to shout at their dogs, but that doesn’t make it any more fruitful.

When you raise your voice or use humiliating tones and your dog belly-crawls out of the room, it does not imply that he understands he was wrong for shredding the pillow.   Submission is a dog’s go-to reaction to express he wants to remain in good stead and not usurp your authority – even when he is clueless about the reason for your unsettling behavior.   Do not assume he knows that he was wrong just because your dog pins back his ears when you go mad.  Your pup doesn’t know that it’s unacceptable to shred your pillow. I was unaware that using anything other than the brown towel was utterly disrespectful behavior.   

The moral of the story is:  Let not you subject a dog to the Brown Towel Dilemma.  Well, at least as is humanly possible.

Because I feel that it is important to offer a solution to a problem that I identify, feel free to subscribe to this blog where you will find useful information about forging a wonderful relationship with your beloved Buddy.

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