Tuesday, July 30, 2013

6 Major Differences Between British and American Public Toilets

When you've gotta go, you've gotta go. But if you're a British expat living in America - or vice versa - you may want to tread the water carefully (pun intended). One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in the United States 5 years ago was the breathtaking disparity between public toilets in England and the U.S.

Though the general odour is the same in both countries, there are certain design elements, safety policies and naming conventions that somehow got lost in The Pond (pun definitely intended).

Here are 6 major differences between British and American public toilets.

1. The name
Let me begin by clearing a few things up (last pun, I promise): Americans don't typically refer to public toilets as public toilets. The preferred terms state-side are restroom or, quite simply, bathroom. This is in stark contrast to the British, who famously refer to both the public toilets and the physical toilet as the loo, while gender-specification is laid out through the use of terms like the ladies' or the gents'. But we Brits aren't the only ones who give the bog a nickname. Depending on their geographical location and/or the social situation, Americans will interchangeably refer to it as any of the following: the John, throne, outhouse, potty, pot, krapper, shitter and porcelain god.

2. The water level
I still haven't made peace with America over the following rather staggering toilet-based design flaw. American toilets, for whatever reason, are filled with an unfathomably high water level, which - for tall, male users in particular - can be a rather dangerous feature. Then again, there's a downside to the low water level found in British toilets and it this: splashback.

3. Privacy
If there's one thing Americans don't like, it's invasion of privacy. Funny, then, that toilet cubicles in American restrooms are distinctly non-private. That tiny crack between the door and the door frame is definitely big enough for other lavatory-goers to catch a glimpse - unwitting or otherwise - of your bits and bobs. As pathetic as this sounds, a fully-concealed cubicle interior is definitely something I miss about England.

4. The toilet seat
While the toilet seat does not represent a major difference, it is nonetheless noticeable enough to warrant a mention. British seats are almost always a full oval shape with that extra bit of surface curvature on the up-face. American toilets - particularly public ones - are sometimes incomplete ovals, in that the front sides don't always meet. Just an observation.

5. Cubicle size
It has been said that even the size of the cubicle differs, depending on which side of The Pond you are on. British cubicles have a tendency to be that little bit more narrow, sometimes making it difficult to... well, to do the things one does with toilet paper. 

6. Automatic vs manual
While Britain is certainly no stranger to automatic public loos, it's got nothing on the United States, where everything, everywhere is automatic. Sometimes, American toilets will even surprise you by self-flushing merely as you stand up. And everything - from the taps to the hand-dryers to the soap dispensers - is automatic. While there are instances of these things in Britain, it is not nearly as widespread.

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15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you failed to mention the fact that Brits will pay for the use of a public toilet and Americans would shudder at that thought.

Laurence Brown said...

Good call. Actually, I looked into this. The first pay toilet was in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1910, and they can - to this day - be found in San Fransisco and New York City. While they certainly do exist in Britain, they're not exactly the norm, and the majority of them act on a donation - rather than mandatory - basis.

Anonymous said...

Experience at Edinburgh bus station this year -

Friend and I going to T in the Park; get off a 12 hour bus ride from London and need to pee, quite urgently. Arrive at the loos and notice that you have to pay 50p (in coins) to get in and go to the bathroom. Cue a search through all available pockets for possible change, while cleaner looks on in amusement. Eventually find some.

Drop hefty amounts of luggage with friend, enter loo and come back out. Cleaner walks past - pulls barrier back (one of those spiral ones, with the three prongs?) about 4 inches, slides in, pushes forward 4 inches, slides out the other side. Looks at me, laughs, enters bathroom to clean.

I will never pay for the loo again.*



*Until I'm that desperate.

Laurence Brown said...

Yes, I must say that on the rare occasion I subjected myself to "pay toilets", they were frustrating experiences. Mind you, the last time this happened - probably in 2008 - I seem to recall only paying 20p. Inflation is an interesting thing.

Gloria said...

I can't explain how much I LOVE this article. I've also noticed that British bathrooms win awards and will have the plaques proudly displayed in the winning "loo". My first experience of that was at the Tower of London on my first trip abroad. P.S. I love the extra privacy that U.K. bathrooms provide!

Laurence Brown said...

Ooh, I'd forgotten about winning plaques. I wonder if America does that sort of thing.

Anonymous said...

I've often thought that the bit missing on US toilets is a comfort issue. The gap would allow that extra bit of room for dangly bits to ....ummm...dangle. Brits would rather crush their bits ...hence the origin of the term "stiff upper lip.' which means to curb emotion (especially pain). I'm female so I'm just surmising..........

Carole said...

Funny!..Brought back a memory from when my daughter was around 3 or 4yrs. and we were living in the States for the first time. Daughter Ronda had to go to the toilet err bathroom at Baltimore airport but was refusing to go and kicking up a fuss because the toilet seat was broken! I tried my best to explain that it was supposed to have a gap at the front but she wasn't having any of it! After touring probably every restroom in the airport I finally found one that wasn't BROKEN!!!! :-D

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CatnipTARDIS said...

One can easily avoid or at least decrease the likelihood of splashback by dropping a square or two or toilet roll into the bowl ahead of time. It breaks the surface tension and can slow ...oncoming cannonballers.

Laurence Brown said...

CatnipTARDIS, I don't know what it says about me that I just burst out laughing at your comment...

Anonymous said...

"Donation!?! You been to a British train station lately? It's a coin-operated turnstile. There's nothing voluntary about it.

rhonan said...

I am old enough to remember when even in the US, we'd "spend a penny" to use a public restroom. in fact, it was a whole dime the last time I needed to as a kid. The US had a national campaign in the early 1970s to require all public toilets to be free. Of course, it has bit us square on the arse nowadays, as public toilets are hard to find without spending far more than a penny. British pay toilets came about as part of the late Victorian hygiene reforms, because women had fewer options than men.

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