Toilet doors in the U.S. and Britain

Float around the internet for long enough and you’ll find Americans asking what the British think of the U.S. Or what the English think of it, because a fair number of Americans are convinced that Britain and England are the same place. And in their defense, it’s not easy when a country has overlapping names and when American history textbooks start out by talking about England, then swap that for Britain without bothering to tell anyone why they’ve done it or what the difference is.

On top of which–let’s be honest here–my beloved country does cultivate a powerful strain of ignorance about the outside world.

So you might expect that people calling their country by the wrong name would get a mention when the British form their opinions of the United States. And you might be wrong about it. Here’s the real, unvarnished truth, direct from a neighbor, Melanie, who was in the U.S. recently and posted the following on Facebook.

Observations about America:

  • Your breakfasts are excellent.
  • Your supermarkets are something else.
  • People really are super nice.
  • Roads are easy to drive on.
  • But where the fuck has the bottom part of your toilet stall doors gone?

Irrelevant photo: A camellia, added for the sake of balance.

If she’d asked me about the U.S. before her trip, I wouldn’t have mentioned toilet doors, but the Rapid Response Team here at Notes has come to work early on a Wednesday morning to explain the question, research the answer, and then shut down the computer and make an American breakfast. Then it’ll go back to bed, because this isn’t going into print for several weeks. The Rapid Response Team isn’t in charge of scheduling. Once it responds, it hands things over to the Pokey Publishing Team.

But to Melanie’s question: There is no secret location where the bottom part of toilet doors get dumped. They were never there to start with. 

The doors on American public toilets start–and I’m guessing at the measurements here–some 12 inches above the floor. They’re low enough to cover the relevant body parts but high enough to show the user’s feet and ankles, with a fair bit of leg attached. They’re high enough for the average adult to slide under. And, although Melanie didn’t mention it, they don’t go anywhere close to the ceiling. The dividers are roughly the same height.

What about British toilet doors? They’re doors. And the walls are walls. They may not go quite all the way to the ceiling, but they go high enough to give the user a comfortable illusion of privacy.

Before we go any further, let’s figure out what we’re calling the walled-off area around a toilet. Is it a stall or a cubicle? Divided by a Common Language (an authoritative site kept by a linguist) says the British call them cubicles and the Americans call them stalls. I’d been calling them cubicles and figured I’d slipped into British usage without noticing it. I’ve lived in Britain for–good lord, I think it’s twelve years now. I don’t think my accent’s changed, but a few words have walked out on me and their British twins have replaced them. It’s not what I want–as a writer, I’d like to sound like I’m from some geographical part of this planet, not a mix-and-match of several–but it does happen.

Then I reread Melanie’s comment and noticed that she wasn’t saying cubicles but stalls. Did Divided get it wrong? Did those breakfasts lure Melanie into using American English? Do different classes in Britain use different words for the spaces that enclose toilets? For that matter, do different regions of the U.S. call them different things?

Good questions. I can’t answer any of them.

Divided does point out that in the U.S. a cubicle is a semi-open bit of office space marked off by movable dividers. The British call that an open-plan office. In British English, stalls are a category of theater seats or what someone sets up in a market to sell stuff. In American English, those are called–um, something, but I don’t know what. In a market, stands, probably. In a theater? I still haven’t figured out what the stalls are, so I’m not much use with that.

But back to toilet doors: When I was in grade school–American grade school corral kids from roughly age six to twelve, keeping them off the streets and giving them the illusion of something useful to do–some percentage of the kids thought it was a great idea to climb on one toilet and look over the divider at the person sitting on the one next to it. Or–before they grew tall enough to look over the dividers–to lie on the bathroom floor and look under the door. Or to lock the door from the inside, slide under the door, and toddle merrily off to class, leaving the janitor to slide under and unlock it. If the janitors in your school weren’t the friendliest people in the building, this might explain why.

And that was the girls. I can only imagine what the boys got up to.

In I can’t remember what grade, some kid asked about the doors, the dividers, the general openness of the cubicles. Whatever teacher we had that year told us they had to be that way in case someone got stuck in one. And I believed that until recently. Because a teacher said it and teachers know these things. 

In hindsight, I’m pretty sure it was a desperate grab for some sort of logic in a logic-free zone. Imagine that you’re teaching a class of, let’s say, fourth graders, kids who are roughly 9 and 10 years old, and in the middle of a class about volcanoes or the Louisiana Purchase one of them asks about toilet doors. You don’t feel free to say, “How should I know? We’re talking about magma.”

Or maybe you would, but this particular teacher didn’t. She or he (I’m damned if I remember which but I’m pretty sure it was one of the two) gave us an answer, and even if it was a complete on-the-spot fabrication, we believed it. Because it came from a teacher.

It’s enough to make me wonder what else I should have thought to question.

So what’s the real answer to why American toilet doors are so sketchy? It’s probably not so rescue crews can extract kids from toilet stalls where they have, with the the predictable unpredictability of kids, locked themselves in. Or extract adults who’ve collapsed from heart attacks, strokes, or overdoses.

It’s probably also not so Woman A can ask Woman B in the next stall if she has paper in there because Woman A just discovered that her stall doesn’t have any. That happens, and it’s handy, but it’s an effect, not a cause. I don’t know if men do that. I suspect not, because in researching this post (in case you think reading this stuff is weird, you should just try writing it) I read several comments from men who say that men don’t talk to each other in what Americans call restrooms and the British call toilets. Women do. I’ve had some short but memorable conversations with strangers in them.

I might as well take this opportunity to say that Americans, despite the openness of the walls in their public toilets, don’t like to be reminded of what we’re doing there and go to extreme lengths to avoid calling toilets toilets. We’ve created plenty of euphemisms–restrooms, ladies’, gents’, the facilities–but the most generic word, I think, is bathroom, although even that has a bit of an unpleasant ring. That’s the problem with euphemisms. Eventually you figure out what you’re talking about and after that bathroom sounds too much like toilet and you end up asking for the little girls’ room.

And yes, it’s odd that a culture so phobic about calling a toilet a toilet leaves the user in not-quite-public view. I’m not even going to try to explain it. The way adults handle it is to pretend we don’t see them.

In Britain, the generic word for toilet is toilet. The bathroom is where you take a bath. Ask where the bathroom is in, say, a cafe and you get a strange look. It’s also called the loo if you’re either polite or a bit fussy. Or–well, I’m an immigrant here. I don’t understand the resonances. Like most things in Britain, what word you use has to do with what class you come from or what class you want to sound like you belong to, and it might have a layering or regional difference on top of that. I don’t expect to ever get the subtleties right. 

So in the journalistic tradition of using multiple sources–we want to be sure something this important is accurate, don’t we?–I googled toilet-door-related topics and found an assortment of comments from shocked Brits. Some were worried about the gap at the bottom and others about the gaps on the sides of the door, which are variously described as a quarter of an inch wide, a full inch wide, or the width of a finger. Whose finger? Which finger? I live in Britain and can’t go to a random selection of American restrooms to see if Cinderella’s glass slipper fits between the edge of the door and the edge of the frame. There’s a gap. That’s all we really need to know.

In addition to shocked comments, I found a selection of explanations for why the doors are the way they are, including that they make the floors easier to clean, that they discourage drug taking and sex, that they’re cheaper, and that anyone passing out in one would be easier to see,  although that assumes they’re clever enough to fall on the floor instead of staying seated.

A few people (including one architect) commented that the more money the users of an American restroom are likely to have, the more privacy they’re likely to find. Now that, unlike the British signals of class, I understand.

My best guess is that the doors are the way they are because they are the way they are. Some things in a culture can be explained. American racism? Go back to slavery and it all begins to make sense. The British gift for not learning languages well? The place has been an island since its early in its pre-history, and on top of that it had an empire so it could convince (or force) other people to learn English. American toilet doors, though? They started that way and so they continue to be that way.

There is a downside to British toilet doors. I know two people who’ve gotten locked in toilets, one child and one adult. It took a bit of work to get them out, but both were  extracted after a bit of pounding and yelling. I also know a woman who got locked in a toilet cubicle at the Vatican. It took so long to get her out that when she finally walked free she announced that she’d been beatified.


My thanks to Melanie for letting me quote her. I don’t suppose I’ve been helpful, but I’m glad to hear people were nice over there. And the breakfasts? They really are wonderful.