Friday, April 18, 2008

On Toilets

Proposition: There is not enough public discourse about toilets.

Here's an example. When I think of the relationship Europeans have to their bodies, I tend to think of it as being more easy-going than in North America; I think of things like topless beaches and unshaved armpits. But a German colleague once told me about her first trip to the US. She said she was so horrified by the public toilets that it took her a long time to be able to use them. The reason? In Europe, public toilet stalls are little rooms with high walls and close-fitting doors. In North America, public toilet stalls are low cubicles with big gaps around the doors. There is a decided lack of both visual and auditory privacy.

Until she mentioned this, I forgot that at my first job in a big office building I had a similar reaction to the public toilets; and that I've noticed over the years that some of my colleagues never seem to go at work. I wonder if the way we build public toilets (which presumably are designed to reduce the time a cleaner has to take to mop the floors) has led to any public health issues. Do people become constipated because they don't like using them? How many hours of work are lost because of toilet design?

On the topic of public health, there's also some room for discussion of hygiene. Increasingly, we find our public toilets with autoflush (as well as motion-detector soap, water and towel dispensers), all presumably designed to keep us from spreading germs and bacteria. But toilet roll dispensers are often enclosed structures with giant toilet paper rolls (again, designed to reduce cleaning costs), and they frequently necessitate sticking ones hand up inside the thing to try to get the paper started. Does anyone ever clean those things? Does anyone ever clean the door handles inside the stalls?

Here's another toilet issue. Why do we find poop jokes so funny? I can still remember howling with laughter in primary school when someone poured raisins in the toilet, part of some long-forgotten joke. And yes, I tend to grin whenever I hear the name of Windsor MPP and the Minister Responsible for Women's Issues, Sandra Pupatello. The name is definitely part of why I like eating at Pupuserias. Last year I was on a committee tasked with coming up with a name for a new object-oriented software product, and we all repeatedly got sidetracked by suggesting names that had the acronym POO and POOP. It's hilarious. I'm not sure if the humor comes from poop being a forbidden topic (in the same way that people tend to laugh when someone swears on TV), or if it's a throwback to our adolescence. Or maybe, in the categories of humor, poop has its own place.

Finally, there is an interesting cultural difference in our naming of toilets. I travel a lot and have found that "toilet" is a universally understandable word, so I have fallen into the habit of using it, but it makes some people uncomfortable. In Canada we ask where the washroom is, but Americans have no idea what a washroom is. Americans tend to say restroom. When you think about it, both are kind of odd. But then, so is water closet.



Saskboy said...

What's great about using Washroom, is that it's a word that might imply that you are simply washing your hands. It's a layer of abstraction that makes it easier to ask someone for help in locating such a facility. Saying, "I need to poop, which way do I go?" to a stranger, might be too much strain on some people's politeness.

Yappa said...

There it goes again: I see the word Poop and start to snicker.

Must... grow... up...