December 19, 2022

Restrooms in Cultural Context

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Several years ago, I visited the Mauna Kea Observatory on the Big Island of Hawai’i. I was surprised and amused by a sign I saw in the visitor’s bathroom, instructing users how to, um, use the facilities. I had previously taken this action as self-evident once one was old enough to regulate one’s bathroom activities. But this turned into one of many important lessons that travel can offer:  It helps us learn about cultural practices that we might take for granted.

Of course, Hawai’i is part of the United States, but the Observatory draws many visitors from around the world, including places where toilets look very different than we in the U.S. are accustomed to. As I would later learn when using some public bathrooms in France and Italy, sometimes a “toilet” was a hole in the ground with a hard plastic floor inside a private stall. Upon first entering one in a park in Italy, the instructions I saw in Hawai’i made a lot more sense:

Instructions for how to sit on a toilet and where to put toilet paper

I didn’t take a picture of the hole in the floor (I didn’t want to linger in the stall), but this image above makes more sense if you consider that in some places there is no toilet and paper is expected to go in a trash can nearby. This sign below appeared in a public bathroom at a very popular tourist attraction in Switzerland. As you can see, the sign contains none of the official languages of Switzerland (German, French, Romansch, and Italian), so it is clearly aimed at visitors.

bathroom instructions

An even longer instruction "manual" was posted on a bathroom at another popular tourist destination:


Likewise, a sign was posted within the bathroom at the hotel I stayed in, reminding visitors to keep the water from the shower in the shower. It also included none of the local languages of Switzerland:

shower instructions

You might have noticed that besides English, the languages these notices are posted in are non- western, and it might be tempting to feel a bit smug about U.S.-style bathrooms. This would be a great example of ethnocentrism, or the idea that one’s own culture is either superior or the standard by which others should be judged. But not so fast.

From a European standpoint, American bathrooms may seem odd. For one, we almost never have bidets, which are standard in many other countries and are often the primary way people cleanse themselves after using the bathroom. Also, the doors here often have gaps between stalls, and may end a foot or more from the floor. This seems normal from an American perspective, and seeing feet in a stall is one way to know if a bathroom is occupied. By contrast, most of the public bathrooms I have seen in Europe have much more substantial doors, and you can often tell if a stall is occupied because it is closed:bathroom door

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

As I wrote about after visiting Italy, sometimes just asking for a bathroom can be difficult, especially because it’s not called a bathroom in many other languages (or a restroom, a washroom, women’s room, or the many other euphemisms we have for this space). The most universal term I have seen in European countries is WC (short for water closet):

Sign for WCBut knowing where to find one does not always mean you will be able to use it. It was common when traveling in Italy for there to be a service charge to use a public bathroom (usually about one euro) to help offset maintenance costs. This was a surprise to me at first but thinking about the state of many free public bathrooms I have used in the U.S. there is a noticeable difference. While visiting one of the most popular national parks in the U.S., which is also an international destination, I remember feeling embarrassed by the park’s facilities. There is something more democratic about a free public toilet, though; perhaps lack of maintenance is one of the prices of freedom.

Upon reflection, many of the “public” bathrooms I used during my recent trip to Switzerland were not free at all. The image below is from a sink in a bathroom on a Swiss train, a very clean and convenient perk of riding on their efficient—and very expensive—transportation system. I was a bit confused at first about what the buttons meant (WC is the flush button, the lever next to it is for a soap dispenser, and the button on the right is for water, which the sign indicates is not drinkable).Bathroom on a Swiss train

Bathrooms are easy to overlook—unless you need one, of course—but are a window into some of the most basic cultural practices. What other taken-for-granted aspects of these practices have you observed?

Photos courtesy of the author


Thank you for this post, and for taking defecating and urinating behaviors seriously. My spouse sells composting toilets as a sideline, and her biggest challenge is getting Americans to change their deeply-ingrained habits around defecating and urinating. Urine-diverting composting toilets, for example, are clearly good for the environment, and they are a clearly superior technology (don't use potable water to flush, superior composting by separating liquids from solids) -- yet Americans, who supposedly love the newest and best technology, are distinctly resistant to adopting them. It's been fascinating from my point of view, as an observer off to one side, watching self-professed environmentalists, who own the latest EV and put solar panels on their house, balk at the thought of a urine-diverting compost toilet. The social behaviors around defecating and urinating are not easy to change.

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Several assumed characteristics can be seen when considering bathrooms in a cultural setting. These features can differ between civilizations and include:
Different cultures have different customs and etiquette when it comes to using the loo. For instance, in certain cultures it is expected that one removes their shoes before using the lavatory, while in others it is considered rude to speak or make loud noises while doing so. A crucial component of lavatory behaviour is comprehending and adhering to these cultural standards.
In my nation, some public restrooms demand a fee to pay maintenance costs, while others offer free use. Depending on the financing source and maintenance methods, public lavatory quality and cleanliness may also vary.
Cultural differences can be seen in the degree of privacy that people anticipate in restrooms. In some cultures, personal privacy is valued above all else, and doors and fully enclosed stalls are provided, while in other cultures, arrangements may be more communal with little or no partitioning. The presence of attendants, whether they offer aid or keep the area clean, can also be subject to expectations of privacy.
Within and between societies, cultural norms can differ greatly. Additionally, some of these factors may alter over time as cultural views and awareness shift.

Restroom design can vary widely based on cultural preferences. In some cultures, shared public restrooms are the norm, while in others, individual stalls with greater privacy are preferred. The design might also consider gender segregation or inclusivity for diverse gender identities.

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