Everyday Sociology Blog: Toilets in Cultural Context

Everyday Sociology Blog: Toilets in Cultural Context
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Karen Sternheimer

A few years ago I visited the Mauna Kea Observatory on the Big Island of Hawaii. I was surprised and amused by the sign I saw in the visitor’s bathroom telling users how to use the amenities. I used to take this act for granted when I was old enough to regulate my own bathroom activities. But this has become one of the many important lessons that travel can offer: it helps us learn about cultural practices that we may take for granted.

Of course, Hawaii is part of the United States, but the Observatory attracts many visitors from all over the world, including places where the toilets look very different from what we in the US are used to. As I later learned after using some public bathrooms in France and Italy, sometimes the “toilet” was a hole in the ground with a hard plastic floor in a private stall. The first time I entered one in a park in Italy, the instructions I saw in Hawaii made a lot more sense:

Instructions on how to sit on the toilet and where to put the toilet paper

I didn’t take a picture of the hole in the floor (I didn’t want to miss the stall), but this picture makes more sense if you consider that some places don’t have a toilet and expect paper. in a nearby trash can. The sign below appeared in a public bath at a very popular Swiss tourist attraction. As you can see, the sign is not in any of the official Swiss languages ​​(German, French, Romansh and Italian), so it is clearly aimed at visitors.

bathroom instructions

An even longer instructional “manual” was posted on a bathtub at another popular tourist spot:


Additionally, the hotel I stayed in had a sign posted in the bathroom reminding visitors not to shower. in shower It also did not include any of the local Swiss languages:

shower instructions

You may have noticed that, in addition to English, these posts are in non-Western languages, so it might be tempting to indulge a little in US-style bathrooms. This would be a prime example of ethnocentrism, or the idea that one’s own culture is superior or the standard by which others should be judged. But not so fast.

From a European perspective, American bathrooms may seem strange. First, we almost never have a bidet, which is standard in many other countries and is often the main way people clean themselves after the bathroom. Also, the doors here often have gaps between counters and can end a foot or more off the floor. From an American perspective, this seems normal, and seeing feet in the stall is one way to tell if the bathroom is occupied. In contrast, most public bathrooms I’ve seen in Europe have much wider doors, so you can often tell if a stall is occupied because it’s closed:bathroom door

Bathrooms in European countries rarely have flush handles, instead having large buttons on the wall or on top of the tank. Sometimes there are two buttons; the bigger the button releases more water, the smaller the less:

As I wrote after visiting Italy, sometimes it can be difficult to simply ask for a bathroom, especially since it is not called bath in many other languages ​​(or toilet, washroom, ladies’ room, or any number of other euphemisms we have for this space). The most universal term I have seen in European countries is WC (short for water closet):

Sign WCBut knowing where to find it doesn’t always mean you’ll be able to use it. When traveling in Italy, it was common for a service fee (usually around one euro) to be charged for using a public bath to offset maintenance costs. This was a surprise to me at first, but when I think about the condition of many of the free public toilets I’ve used in the US, the difference is noticeable. While visiting one of the most popular national parks in the US, which is also international, I remember feeling embarrassed by the park’s amenities. However, there is something more democratic about a free public toilet; perhaps lack of supervision is one of the prices of freedom.

Come to think of it, many of the “public” bathrooms I used on my recent trip to Switzerland weren’t free. The image below is of a sink in a Swiss train bathroom, a very clean and comfortable perk of riding an efficient and very expensive transport system. At first I was a bit confused as to what the buttons meant (the toilet has a flush button, the lever next to it is for the soap dispenser, and the button on the right is for water, and the sign says do not drink).A bathroom on a Swiss train

Bathrooms are easy to overlook, unless you need to, of course, but they are a window into some key cultural practices. What other self-evident aspects of this practice have you noticed?

Photo courtesy of the author

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