What we can learn from American public toilets

Let’s start with terminology, given that the readership for this post may not be British, as the writer is. This post is about public toilets. Loos. Lavvies. Public WCs (Water Closets). Public Conveniences. Restrooms. I clarify this, just in case ‘toilets’ could get confused with ‘Eau de Cologne’, and that ‘Public’ means ‘free for anyone to use’ as opposed to say, a public school.

Now, why, oh why, is the topic of public toilets in any way a viable, informative and interesting topic for a business blog, for Linked In?

Well, let me take you back. During my University years, I worked in a motorway (Interstate) service station during my holidays (vacations). Mainly, I worked in the café, clearing tables, serving cups of tea, griddling sausages, or behind the scenes operating the huge conveyor belt dishwasher, or occasionally prepping food. What I didn’t have to do, fortunately, was have anything to do with the toilets. Goodness knows, the company, Road Chef, spent a lot of time, effort and money looking after those toilets. There was a lovely lady called Gwen who’s job it was to watch over them. I’d like to say as a result of this that they were spotless. But they weren’t. In fact, they were terrible, awful, godforsaken, Damnable Cesspits. It was deeply depressing, to put yourself in the shoes of people who thought it was perfectly OK to:

  • drill holes in the cubicles so they could spy on you
  • graffiti the walls with lewd advertisements, like a XXX Classified Ads board
  • smear excrement over the seats (I kid you not)
  • urinate up the walls (again, I kid you not)
  • and leave the damn seat lid up (I know, I know)

I’m sure there must be some deep psychological study of why this is the case; why people, many of whom must be scrupulously clean and polite in their own space, are so happy and willing to vandalise and brutalise a public space – and worse, leave it for Gwen to clean up. But that’s not the topic for here.

Let’s just say that as a result of this experience, I keep an eye out on the quality of the toilets: and I’ve been, over many years, watching the responses to this behaviour, which is far from isolated – in fact, sad to say it is commonplace. In high traffic areas, the response has been attendants and barriers, paying for the privilege, keeping an eye out for miscreants (railway stations are a good example). Most places however can’t go this far. Here, more typically, one can expect to see sheet steel bolted to the inside of the cubicle. It doesn’t stop the vandalism, but it makes it more difficult to drill through and a bit noisier too. Anti-graffiti paints are also used. Many establishments also reduce the number of cubicles – fewer spaces, longer queues, easier to control. And of course, there are the plethora of tick lists reminding users that ‘this toilet is regularly cleaned’ or ‘this toilet was last checked at 10.05am’. In all, it’s a terrible waste of time and energy just to try and control bad and unhygienic behaviour.

A few weeks ago I was in the U.S. And yet again, in my international toilet ponderings, I was reminded of something, which, to a Brit at least has always seemed odd. U.S. toilets have two strange features. Firstly, they have ruddy great gaps around the doors (see picture – look, it could have been worse). And secondly, the cubicle walls start a foot off the ground. Handy for inspecting the shoes and socks of your neighbour should you wish (knitwear alert chaps). And there’s no graffiti.

Now, that’s a sweeping statement. So let me qualify it slightly. In every public restroom that I have visited in the U.S. there has rarely been any graffiti and in my recent 16 day visit, there was none.

What we have here is, unwittingly or not, a great example of behavioural science in action.

Crow looBecause the features of the cubicles – large gaps in effect – have a curious impact on how we behave in this public space. Think about it: a fully enclosed space is as private as being at home, but without the consequences. If you want to give in to your darkest perversions, you can and someone else will wield the mop.   But in the ‘gappy’ U.S. toilets, another voice is introduced into your mental dialogue.   The gaps around the door are about inch, 0.8cm wide*. In truth, you can’t be seen – but you can see people passing outside; you can detect and support that someone is waiting. It is no longer a private space even though you can’t (really) be seen.

And floor gaps are interesting too – because these are big. Should you want to chat face to face to your neighbour, you could kneel down and pop your head underneath**. You could certainly pass, say, a bag underneath. But here’s the thing. From the outside, you can see that someone’s in there. And they can see that you’re outside. And so, your mental dialogue changes again: ‘what will they think I’m doing unless my feet are facing forward and my trousers are down?’***

Feeling uncomfortable? That’s what’s going on though. These are, to use the behavioural terminology, nudges that persuade us to think – and crucially act – differently.

*I would like to point out that I haven’t measured this. That would be concerning.

** No, I haven’t before you ask, and that’s the truth.

***Goodness, there’s a quote that could be taken out of context.

Slide1David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success. david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 1283 246260; www.thecrowflies.co.uk; @crowflieshigh.

© The Crow Flies, 2015