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Jessica Biel

Jessica Biel (Photo credit: john antoni)

Last night, American actress Jessica Biel — the new Mrs. Justin Timberlake — appeared on the David Letterman Show and told him about her pre-wedding spa escape with a girlfriend in Austria:

So I didn’t really quite know what the protocol was, so I just laid there … froze … in my bikini, and my robe, and my towel and my slippers. And these guys came in and I’m like, “I can handle this.” One is sitting [on my right] one is sitting [on my left] and they drop their towels. They are butt naked. … They were naked and I’m in the middle of them kind of looking back and forth [out of the corners  of my eyes] at them thinking “How am I going to get out of here without being rude?” I look over and I realize, oh my God, yes, it is confirmed there are balls on wood. I mean not just naked, but balls on wood, Dave! That’s not okay!

This is a horrifying story, with etiquette violations on both sides.

Perhaps knowing about Ms. Biel’s experience, Yahoo Germany recently published a handy reference, “Sauna Etiquette: How Naked is too Naked?” Let’s take a look at the proper etiquette for the sauna in a German-speaking country like Austria.

  • Attire: Shame and swimwear are two things that don’t belong in the sauna. It is clear the Austrian men had neither shame nor swimwear, while Ms. Biel had both.
    +2 Austrian Men, -2 Ms. Biel
  • Hygiene: While in the sauna, you should have a large towel to sit on, and not place your bare bottom on the wooden boards. According to Ms. Biel, she was well covered and the men had “balls on wood”.
    -1 Austrian Men, +1 Ms. Biel
  • Slippers:  Slippers are left outside the sauna where they can’t be tripped over, not worn inside. Ms. Biel does not mention her sauna companions’ footwear, but clearly mentions hers.
    0 Austrian Men, -1 Ms. Biel
  • Good Courtesy:  The etiquette rules state that when entering the sauna you should greet those already inside it, and ask if the place is free before taking a seat next to someone. The Austrian men apparently did not do this, and Ms. Biel’s body language, should have made it obvious that she was uncomfortable with them near her personal space.
    -1 Austrian Men, 0 Ms. Biel
  • Look, but Don’t Stare:  Yes, everyone is naked, but you don’t need to keep your eyes glued to the floor or another area where you won’t catch sight of one of your fellow sauna-goers. A look around is acceptable, so long as your eyes don’t linger and stare. Ms. Biel made it a point not to stare, and the two men never seemed to realize they were sharing their sauna with the star of the A-Team, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Illusionist.
    +1 Austrian Men, +1 Ms. Biel

So in the sauna etiquette battle, the naked Austrians edge out Jessica Biel +1 to -1. It’s still a dismal performance all around.

We’d be interested to hear which sauna (or hotel) Ms. Biel had her experience at and see if the two gentlemen she encountered would be willing to tell their side of the story.

As a comparison, “Frau A”, also an American, tells of her first visit to Therme Erding in Munich on her blog Schnitzelbahn:

I’d been so forewarned by other Americans that the German saunas are textilfrei (i.e., no bathing suits allowed) that I didn’t bother to take one with me at all when I visited the Therme Erding in Munich. After I traveled quite a ways on public transportation to get there, there was no way I was going back to get a bathing suit after I finding out that there was a textilfrei part and another part that allowed bathing suits!

I have to say, it was an empowering experience.

If you would like to read more about sauna etiquette, you can read the original Yahoo article, or visit the source — the German Etiquette site Knigge.de (both in German). Frau A does a great job of translating the essence of these articles on Schnitzelbahn. Of course, you can also read the SaunaScape take on the proper ways to experience the German Sauna, or see a video of what one is really like.

If you want to see the Jessica Biel segment, here it is:

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  • saunatimes

    Awesomely accurate score keeping. It’s interesting how cultures different across the big pond vis a vis nuding up. Troxers work great, for the spontaneous swimmer in you.

  • MaxiTB

    lol … you cant compare Austria to Germany, thats like comparing US to Mexico.

    For you information, Austrians always greet but most of the time not with words but by nodding or simply raising the hand.

    It is very common to appear in nude in Sauna’s when its allow (and its either allowed or not, its your responsibility to read the signs or ask the owners). There is never a need to ask in Austria, because the owner makes the rules not the users. This also means showering before you enter a Sauna, so there is no towel rule because it would make no sense. Austrians visit bathrooms for ones and twos :).

    Slippers ? Honestly I never heard of such a rule. You should never use slippers in saunas, because they can carry gems into a clean environment, You disinfect you feet after using the shower in Austria; equipment for that is always available.

    Greetings from an Austrian in Panama, on way to Rio.

    • MaxiTB

      Plus in Austria always the younger one greets first; this was obviously Mrs Biel :D.

      I am shocked how little prepared people come to other countries, but still want to appear smart on TV …

  • Rick Dangerous

    funny story but it is not a good example for differences between the US and the EU culture. You can experience those differences within Europe also. It is actually a bit silly to talk about country (or society specific) differences since the variation within these groups can be enormous.

  • snerk

    Personally I think the ‘balls on wood’ comment was hyperbole on Biel’s part. They came in wrapped in towels, what else would they do with them other than sit on them? Throw them on the floor? My opinion, Mrs. Biel should have taken some care to research the country and customs she entered. If she had she would have found out quickly that saunaing in the nude is indeed very common in German speaking countries. If that didn’t suit her, she could easily have found a spa in Austria that had a non-nude section.

    That being said, these men should have been more sensitive to her body language and desisted in making her uncomfortable. In my opinion it is very likely that on some level they did realize that she felt uncomfortable and either wanted to teach her a lesson in non-prudery or were of the thought that if she didn’t like it, she could just leave. On some level justified, but still not a very courteous way to behave.

    • EuroTex5

      Yeah. Good luck finding a non nude spa in Austria. Like the free for all lift lines, naked man in Austrian ski resort spas seems to be a way of asserting faux manliness. Yes. I said it. Real men don’t pounce around naked in front of women who don’t want to see it.

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