You’re lounging in the sauna, naked as the day you were born. The heat is penetrating through you and the stress from your workday life is leaving you as quickly as the sweat pouring off your body. You don’t have a care in the world. Now, the door opens, and you turn your head to see who is joining you. Oh God! It’s your boss — as naked as you are.
In the English-speaking world, unless you and your boss both frequent the same gym there is a slim chance of an encounter like this. If your boss is a different gender than you, it’s nearly impossible outside of a nudist club.
In other parts of the world, seeing your boss naked is a real possibility.
In Northern Europe, many companies have a corporatesauna which is available for business meetings. Japan has their Onsen culture, and Russia has their Banyas. In these cultures, most of the time the sessions are segregated by gender.
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.
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!
Today’s Financial Times (registration required) as part of their Finland Special Report, gives advice for any businessperson who needs to network in Finland: Take a sauna. Their best piece of advice about the Finnish sauna is
Wearing a swimming costume in the sauna would be a faux pas akin to wearing one to play a round of golf.
The sauna, according to FT, is a huge part of doing business in Finland. A sensible business person ignores the sauna at their peril. That may include baring it all with a mixed group of executives should the company have their own private sauna.