Common Culture Shocks When Using Washroom Services Abroad
21st May 2019
It may not be the first thought to cross your mind when jetting off on holiday or setting out on a business trip, but the washroom experience is something that can have a significant effect on our daily lives, especially if you spend most of your day away from your home or hotel.
Washroom experiences around the world can vary from a simple hole in the ground to toilets so technologically advanced that they could befuddle even the most tech-savvy tourist. If you’ve travelled widely, you might recognise some of these situations – and if you haven’t, you’ve got all of this to look forward to.
Technology and Washroom Services
It’s no secret that technology has transformed our day-to-day lives, but few would think this applies to the humble toilet. Yet it’s only in fairly recent history that we’ve advanced to indoor toilets with a plumbing system, something that would have shocked our Victorian ancestors.
Having accepted smartphones, smart speakers and now smart homes, smart toilets are arguably the next great home innovation. Already prevalent in many places around the world, they provide a very different washroom experience than many of us are used to.
Even if you’ve never used a smart toilet, Japan is probably the first destination that comes to mind. While The Simpson’s vision of colourful fountains and hidden cameras are a little off the mark, the poshest Japanese toilets are a sight to behold. Automatic toilet lids, heated toilet seats, relaxing music, fragrances and bidets are just some of the luxuries you can be treated to when you go to spend a penny in Japan.
Similar to the emerging market for high-quality mattresses and chairs, people are realising that the places we spend much of our time are ripe for improvement. Regardless of whether you’re enjoying a heated toilet seat at home or halfway across the world, technology can make an ordinary and mundane bodily function into a relaxing and luxurious experience.
Consistent Water Temperatures
However, you don’t need to look to smart toilets to see how technology can change even the smallest aspects of washroom services. For many Europeans travelling to the UK for the first time, one of the most common complaints is the lack of mixer taps in many public washrooms, causing them to choose between freezing cold or boiling hot water when washing their hands.
In the UK, many plumbing systems rely on hot and cold water being sourced from two separate places. Cold water would be drawn directly from the mains, while hot water would be heated and stored in a tank on the property. This is where the traditional advice not to drink hot water comes from, as this period of storage can lead to the development of bacteria and viruses.
Because many buildings in the UK were built shortly after WW2 when this kind of plumbing was more common, many public places and washroom services still rely on this older method of heating up water. In the majority of modern homes, a combi boiler system heats water from the mains as it passes through the system, rather than storing it in a separate tank.
While mixer taps are an increasingly common presence in British homes, their absence in many washrooms is still a sticking point. For Brits abroad who are caught short in public, the availability of warm water (and the general state of the facilities) often comes as a pleasant surprise..
Sewage Systems (or lack thereof) in Washroom Services
When you first come face to face with a robot/toilet hybrid, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the washroom services we’re used to in the West are a bit outdated. However, compared to many countries around the world – including large parts of South America and parts of Southern and Eastern Europe – Western washroom services are actually pretty technologically advanced.
You may need your phone to listen to a personalised Spotify playlist in most washrooms in the West, but one luxury that many of us probably take for granted is the ability to flush our toilet paper. News of fatbergs has made, many of us aware of which items are prohibited from flushing in the UK. But while our sewage systems aren’t able to cope with items such as sanitary products, nappies, wet wipes or cotton buds, they are perfectly able to deal with toilet paper.
Believe it or not, flushing toilet paper is actually the exception rather than the rule. The sewage systems in many countries cannot handle the flushing of toilet paper, and mandate that it is disposed of in a bin. Luckily for most tourists, countries or cities that prohibited the flushing of toilet paper will normally be signposted to avoid any mistakes. However, doing your own research prior to taking a trip is highly recommended.
Cultural Effects on Washroom Services
If you’ve ever encountered a squat toilet on your travels, you may be under the impression that these too result from under-developed sewage systems in particular towns or countries. And while the shift to more Western-style sit toilets in cities and more affluent areas may support this, there are still plenty of places where squat toilets are preferred for cultural, hygienic or even health reasons.
For example, squat toilets are often used for public washroom services in countries such as France, Italy and Greece to aid in cleanliness. This may seem unusual to some, but squat toilets are far easier to clean; because the toilet is recessed in the floor, they act much like a shower room, draining any water away. With the amount of traffic that some public washrooms receive, being able to quickly and efficiently clean these facilities is vital.
Not only are they easy to clean, but squat toilets also reduce the need for skin contact with a toilet seat, which many people consider unhygienic; some countries have such a stigma around sit toilets that people will squat on top of them, or bring their own seat covers! The absence of standing water in a squat toilet also prevents any splash back during the flushing process, which is often the highest cause of bacteria spreading in Western washroom services.
The way that different cultures view and experience hygiene is also the reason why many washroom services abroad come with a bidet system. In fact, there are many countries, especially in Europe, where this feature is effectively mandatory. Contrary to some beliefs, bidets are an extremely hygienic and sanitary addition to toilet paper. This is particularly beneficial for religious groups, many of which mandate a high level of personal hygiene as part of their beliefs.
Luckily, many countries with a high tourist population are likely to provide sit toilets for Western visitors. It’s ok to feel nervous about trying a bidet or embarrassed about squatting in a public toilet – but in some cases, you may find that your options are limited.
Different Toilet Designs
Even if you never come across a squat toilet during your travels, there other things that might give you pause when using the washroom services in another country. Washroom design is something that we rarely think about when it is a design that we are used to, but can cause us great surprise when it is unfamiliar.
While there have been some truly unique washroom designs around the world in the last few years, sometimes it is the smallest things that can make us feel a little on edge. Washroom services in the US, for example, may not look very different from public toilets here in the UK — until you realise that they may not be as private as you’d hoped.
The large “gaps” above, below and to the sides of cubicle doors are notoriously big for visitors outside of the US hoping to use a public washroom. Although there are plenty of reasons why these bathrooms are built this way, including financial and surveillance reasons, it is understandable that those used to a little more privacy can find the experience slightly jarring.
The same can be said in countries such as France, where self-cleaning, self-contained toilets called “Sanisettes” are commonplace. While it is true these come with a locked door (some advanced models even play pre-recorded music for the user), there are those that may feel uncomfortable at the thought of using a washroom service out in the street, with nothing but four walls and a door separating you from the outside world.
While there are many Instagrammable washroom services out there, it may be worth bearing in mind that not every country will have the same standards of privacy that you’re used to. Every country has its own unique approach to bathroom services, and none are entirely wrong or weird – they all just serve different needs and goals.
Being aware of the bathroom etiquette and the cultural norms of a country you are planning to visit often won’t cross your mind until you visit, and are confronted with unusual washroom services. Given the surprising amount of variation in how different countries deal with bathrooms, it’s certainly advisable to do some research before you travel.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re treated to a squat toilet in the middle of nowhere, or a singing toilet that’s straight out of a science fiction novel — an unexpected washroom experience can cause unnecessary stress wherever you go.
Considering these quirks before you head out on your journey will not only give you peace of mind and ensure you’re prepared, but will also prevent you from causing any undue embarrassment. The last thing you want on holiday is a blockage from flushing your toilet paper in the wrong place.