By The Cultural Story-Weaver

While sharing a meal with some global friends recently, we discussed the intriguing topic of toilets and bathrooms—and cultural differences. It’s quite a stimulating cultural topic, and I highly recommend that you join in the conversation.


Many times, in my very own home, I have waited impatiently in front of a closed door for very long minutes—waiting for someone to come out of the bathroom. I have pictured a person sitting on the “throne” with a magazine or cell phone, lingering for way too long.

I ask myself, “What in the world are they doing in there for so long?!”

I’m always shocked to discover that the “someone” was actually “no one.”

There was NO ONE in the bathroom!

Then why in the world was the bathroom door closed?!?!

Why IN THE WORLD was the door closed?! And WHERE IN THE WORLD do people close bathroom doors when there is NO ONE in the bathroom?!?!

The answer to this question is surprisingly . . . “MANY PLACES”!

Places in the world like France—and I’m married to a Frenchman who always closes bathroom doors.


The following week, I brought up the “potty talk” and cultural differences at our “Oasis of Cultures” (international community group) that meets several times a month. In talking to my European and Indian friends, I discovered that many countries outside the good ‘ole USA close the bathroom doors when not in use. Perhaps this:

“In North America (especially in the USA), it is quite common to leave bathroom and/or toilet doors ajar when the room is not in use. It tells one at a glance whether the bathroom is occupied. In many European homes, however, the tradition is to keep bathroom doors securely closed at all times. I think this is probably a heritage from the days when ‘water closets’ were malodorous places and one sought to keep unpleasant odors out of the rest of the house.” Merry Andrews.

In all of our homes in France, we had separate “W.C.” (British origin—”Water Closets”), with nothing in the small room besides a flush toilet and, sometimes, a tiny hand washing sink.

This was a completely separate room from the “bathroom” (salle de bains) where you would have a larger sink(s), bathtub, and/or shower. It is even quite common to find a washer and dryer in a European “bathroom,” and even a “bidet.” 

If you don’t know what a “bidet” is, it’s a plumbing fixture or sink located in the bathroom, used for cleaning certain parts of the human body.


It suddenly occurred to me that this is probably the reason why many modern, public “W.C.” in Europe now have lock dials that show “red” for “occupied” and “green” for “unoccupied.” It spares people from waiting impatiently outside an unoccupied W.C.

Actually, I think that I have seen these red/green dials on “porta potties” in the U.S. Those doors must stay closed to contain the odors!

Also, in many public “W.C.” in Europe, you have to “pay to pee.” ( So, don’t forget to have your coins ready!


An American friend told me a story about his recent trip to France. He walked proudly into a restaurant, with his carefully-formed French sentence, and asked, “Où est la salle de bains?” (“Where is the bathroom?”)

The man behind the bar looked at him puzzled and made a gesture of “washing under his armpits” and asked him if he needed a shower.

The American tourist laughed and said, “No! Pee-Pee!”The bartender exclaimed, “Ah, les toilettes?!

That’s another word for “le W.C.”

Don’t forget—when traveling in Europe, the toilet door will surely be closed. However, there’s a good chance that NO ONE is in there! Just make sure to knock!

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And please click on the links for more interesting journeys and discussions:

Ebook: “International Students—Inviting the World Into Your Home”

Ebook: “The 5-Day Journey to Cultural Awareness”

Printable: “My Top 10 Travel Tips”

Printable: “How to Host an International Student”