Washing the dishes Australian-style

(UPDATE: There’s now even MORE about the cultural differences of washing dishes to be read!)

A simple enough question over at Multilingual Living this morning – it’s about what kind of sponges and brushes you use to do the washing up – got me thinking about one unusual Australian habit that I’ve heard so many non-Aussies complain about – and it’s something you wouldn’t think could cause a multicultural clash.

It’s how we do the dishes.

Now, I’m not sure if this is a universal English-speaking thing or a peculiarity of Australia (and I’m hoping my good blog readers can tell me this in the comments), but the standard way to wash the dishes here in Oz – apart from putting them in the dishwasher, of course – is to fill the sink with hot, soapy water, and wash them. Some (but not all) people will rinse these under hot water before leaving them to dry.

Quite a number of my English language students in the past have been totally shocked by this after observing their Australian host families washing up. “You wash your dishes in dirty water?” they’d ask, incredulous. Well, kind of, obviously it is clean water at the beginning, and you’d usually save the dirtier dishes for the end but yes, by the end of the wash it can be a bit dirty. As I understand it, the expectation from them is to use running water the entire time – so perhaps it’s an Australian thing to do it otherwise, since we are always trying to conserve water, being the dry, desert-like continent we are.

I guess the shock of time-limited showers (usually three minutes) which my students often experienced in homestays added to their general culture shock. But it’s funny, isn’t it, that these everyday things which most of us wouldn’t think twice about can add up to a bad beginning to their experience in a foreign country.

Thanks to aaron13251 for the pic via Flickr/CC


  1. The easiest way is to just throw the paper plates out the trailer window–no fuss, no muss.

  2. LOL yes that definitely would be easier 😉

  3. gosh are we really the only ones who wash them this way? I’m really curious to know now!
    i remember the first time I saw someone washing them with the tap running (on homestay in Japan) and i found it really distressing to see all that water being ‘wasted’ – our education system has really worked on us! the message to save water has been well and truly drummed in. It still stresses me when I see it now but when you think it about it…it probably is more hygenic to wash them in ‘always’ clean water ie running water…
    I won’t be making the change though – too indoctrinated 🙂

  4. I guess that is a bit weird when you think about it, washing dishes in dirty water. Not something I have comtemplated before!

  5. to ‘comtemplate’ is actually to think VERY hard about something (as opposed to ‘contemplate’ which just means to think about something), if you were wondering.

  6. @ Rachel, yes my experience was very similar, but I also can’t change – I just try to wash dishes that way when my husband’s not around! (It’s easier that way! – because I can understand his disgust, too!)

    @ Jacinta, yes when you coMtemplate something so deeply it is bound to seem a bit weird 🙂 You’ll think about this every time you do the dishes now!!

  7. It’s been a long time since I’ve washed a big sink of dishes (my Dh scrubs the pots the rest goes in the dishwasher) but I’ve never thought about it. We don’t have town water so to wash dishes with the tap running would be a HUGE no no. I can understand people being a bit repelled though… but they’d die when they find out we wash the dishes in bore or dam water (which is brown!) when we don’t have enough tank water!

  8. @ Kate, yes, you’ve confirmed my Aussie experience there. Even here in the city I think we have all been taught not to waste water by washing under a running tap (ditto for teeth cleaning) but you’re right, especially for people on tank/dam/bore water (my Dad’s place is the same – just tank/bore) then it’s even more important. Don’t worry, I’d still eat off your washed-in-bore-water dishes 🙂 but maybe a non-Aussie wouldn’t!

  9. Ok, here goes…
    I think I’ve seen dishes done every way possible and I think the easiest way to solve the problem is simply the “Get A Dishwasher” method.
    Anyway, my observations as follows:
    1) Sink of Soapy Water Method
    Used mainly but the Aussies and the British (inclusive of the English, the Scots and I assume the Irish.)
    2) Continuous Flow of Running TAP water (as opposed to river, stream, or trailing a net behind a moving boat…)
    Used in Asia and Scandinavia. I’ve also seen South Americans using this method but I can’t be sure if that’s their norm or if it’s an adaptation to living in Asia.
    Of course there are variations to the above methods as well and a combination can be used.
    The Belgians wash in a sink of soapy water followed by running water rinse. (I apologise if this is a generalisation but this was the way my ex’s family did it.)
    Or there’s always the sink of soapy water followed by sink of fresh clean water.
    My father used to rinse all the bits off first, then soap everything and then rinse under running water. He used to do it in 2 batches. First were the cutlery and crockery and then the pots and larger items.
    My boyfriend’s mother uses the brush under running water before placing in dishwasher. (Agreed by everyone it’s a bit of an overkill…)

    Sponge vs Brush Debate

    It appears to me it’s very much an individual choice influenced by family tradition and of course dependent on what’s available on location…
    I use both. I prefer the 2 sided sponge. It’s versatile and good for both delicate items and scrubbing stubborn pots. I use the brush for non-stick surfaces where a middle option is needed.
    It’s definitely more sponge orientated in Asia and brush in Scandinavia. Could it be it’s more sponge orientated for hand washing and brush for dishwasher washing…? Hmmm…?

    And we haven’t even entered into the Dish Rack vs Tea Towel Dry debate yet!!!

  10. Anonymous says

    The Polish way is also to use running water. We’ve adapted to the water-wise climate though. We apply dish wash liquid directly to the sponge to get it nice and soapy. Then wash the dish. Then turn on the tap, rinse the dish, turn off the tap and start on next dish 🙂

    I’ll often soak dishes in hot water to soften all the crap on them, and then repeat as above. Never rinse them in the dirty soapy dish water.

  11. @ Liling, that is a very thorough discussion, thank you!!! I will have to ask my old South American students what they do because the students I refer to in my post were usually Asian (and in agreement with what you said). As for dish rack vs tea towel dry … I’m lazy so it’s dish rack dry for me!!

    @ Anonymous aka Magda, I like your Australianised Polish version 🙂 and it sounds like Poles and Germans think along similar lines!

  12. I just found your blog through Vagabondish, and I look forward to reading more!

    I wash dishes in the “Australian way,” but my former roommates do not(curiously, all raised in Florida). Some would let the water run the entire time (I wanted to cry!) while others would turn the water on and off to rinse the dish before and after soaping. Either way seemed inefficient to me.

    Three minute showers?! I would guess that Americans take 10 minute showers, on average, based on my observation of friends and roommates. With the help of a timer, I aim for five.

  13. Bridget, glad to hear from you – and sorry to hear about your flatmates and their running water and long showers!! How did you learn to be different?

    Also I must admit I sometimes have 10 minute showers, on “luxury days” – but often only 3 minutes or less if I’ve got a little boy screaming for me!

  14. Anonymous says

    Posting from the U.S. here…and I think for us Americans it also varies. For example, I was raised in Colorado (a place that is very eco-conscious) and my mom taught us to fill the sink like you all do. However, now that I live in California, I have noticed that most people let the water run!

    Either place we all take 10+ minute showers. Bad, I know!

  15. Yes, I do love my shower … interesting that Colorado mothers are the same as Aussie ones!

  16. Hello from Germany! I just happened to read your blog. We here use to wash our dishes the same way you do but I rinse them shortly after washing to get the foam off. I never heard of washing under running water.

  17. I am thankful for your information as I am preparing a group of Japanese middle school girls for a stay in Australia.
    In my 20 years here in Japan I have only seen the the running water method- sudsy sponge and water running the whole time to rinse the dishes. To my American eyes it has always seemed wasteful. I grew up with a dishwasher but when we had to wash dishes, we filled up the sink, or dishpan, with hot, soapy water and washed. We did rinse, though.
    I so appreciate your blog on washing dishes. Now I can get my students in the water conservation mode 🙂

  18. Glad to be of assistance, Catherine!! If your girls are staying in homestays you should definitely warn them about short showers – can be quite a shock! Enjoy your trip.

  19. A Farmer's Wife says

    I am a huge dishwasher girl. I do do the sink of hot soapy water but often change the water if it is getting dirty. Also have another sink of rinsing water. I am pretty stingy with water though as we live on a farm. That dishwasher gets stacked to within an inch of its life before I turn it on.

    My absolute hate is when people wash the dishes and leave the water dirty in the sink for an hour or so and then use it again……

  20. That’s right! I forgot about this. I had an ongoing battle with my housemate in Edinburgh. I can’t stand when someone (usually my partner!) leaves the dishes soaking in water for hours on end or overnight. Gross! Who knew dishwashing could get lost in translation??

  21. I am trying to remember how they did it in Germany (I lived there a year). It certainly wasn’t THAT different or I’d remember, right? I think ours is a much more eco-friendly way than running water for ages! The trick is to be quick and not leave it too long after a meal. Thanks for Rewinding x

  22. @AFW My dishwasher gets the same treatment, which helps avoid the whole multicultural dishes in the sink conflict in our house.

    @IPP Yes, dishwashing can definitely get lost in translation – well put!! And soaking in water for hours is pretty gross. Especially if you come along and want to use the sink!

  23. how interesting! I had no idea.
    (visiting from rewind)

  24. My observations about Australians are:
    Australians wash the dishes in a soapy water, that is OK, no need to run the water all the time. If the water gets so dirty as you continue washing, you can change it easily.
    HOWEVER, Australians do not have the habit of rinsing after soaping. They should rinse all the dishes quickly after soaping to get rid of the dishwasher liquid which is harmfull for health. Each time they rinse they can turn the tap on and off not to use excessive water.
    Additionally, they use teatowels to dry after soaping. Those teatowels are never bacteria free because they are wet, which is totally wrong to do.

  25. Alexander says

    In Russia some people are worried about chemicals left on dishes after rinsing… They would be shocked to death about this Aussie (British, NZ) way of washing cutlery. In my opinion it must be rinsed after soaping cause dishwashing liquid is toxic and dirty water is disgusting. It must not be eaten from “washed” plates again. You can wash in soapy water, but rinsing is a must.

    My Aussie-shocking way of taking shower: not less than 15-20 min., but I turn off the water to soap my body & shampoo my head. I just can’t really understand how can I soap and rinse my body within 3 min. Maybe you don’t use shower gel & just stand under water?

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