Monday, April 12, 2010

stalls and cubicles

The linguistic difference of the day is inspired, as they often are, by a non-linguistic difference.  Better Half returned to our table at a restaurant to complain about the men's room. (For more on what else men's rooms might be called, see this post on toilets.)  The complaint, formed as a rhetorical question, went something like this:
Why is it that the (BrE) cubicles in American (BrE) public toilets never go all the way to the floor or the ceiling and there's always a huge gap that keeps the door from ever fully being closed, meaning that one can never have true privacy?
As is often the case with cross-cultural rhetorical questions, there is a hyperbole-coated grain of truth here.  But first, the vocabulary.  You'll have noticed that I marked BH's cubicles as BrE.  I learned about this at Scrabble Club, when I had cause to mention a little sub-room in the ladies' room that contains a single toilet.  I emerged from said room and informed someone that "There's no paper in the second (AmE) stall", at which point a competitor loudly exclaimed, "What, you were at the theat{re/er} in there?"  And so I defensively asked "What would you call it then?"  Ta-da! I give you cubicle.

This is of course, of course, of course not to say that AmE doesn't have the word cubicle (we use it for, among other things, the partitioned areas in open-plan offices), nor that BrE doesn't have the noun stall.  Each dialect just prefers a different one for the little doored privacy areas within (more BrE than AmE) lavatoriesStalls, as noted above, is more often used in BrE to refer to an area of theat{re/er} seating (or the people occupying those seats) in front of the orchestra pit (or a similar place in venues without orchestra pits). 

Back to BH's non-linguistic observation--it is more common in the UK than in the US to find fully enclosed sub-rooms for toilets in public conveniences, rather than the airy screened-area-with-a-door version (though these are also found).  And I do think it's more common in the US to have to turn a blind eye because you can see someone within the stall/cubicle through a crack between the door and its frame.  So, the fully-enclosed sub-room version is superior in terms of privacy.  But in favo(u)r of the flimsier version, at least there's better air circulation and you can always tell which ones are occupied.  There's also the opportunity to ask one's neighbo(u)r for a bit of paper if you find yourself in need.  The stranger-asking-for-paper scenario is one I've never experienced in England--and I'm sure that many of you will find this an advantage while others will think it's a worry.

And with this we say 'good-bye' to our (BrE) holiday/(AmE) vacation in the US, and 'hello again' to less frequent blogging!

48 comments:

Jonathan Bogart said...

As someone who's done janitorial work, another benefit of the stalls-with-gaps is that if they are locked with no one in them (either because the lock slipped shut or because some kid thought it would be hilarious) you can slide under the door to unlock them.

I'm sure some people are (AmE?) grossed out by the thought of getting down on a restroom floor like that, but that's why they're not janitors!

Marc said...

I always assumed that having a gap below made mopping easier. And it's very good for wide stances.

Paul Danon said...

BrE stalls can be the stand-up loo-arrangements in men's public lavatories, as well as horses' bedrooms. AmE men's room is understood (if in context) by BrE-speakers but not used. Such rooms are often inscribed gents, sometimes gent's though rarely gents'.

Anonymous said...

I am told that when the Queen visits somewhere, there is a requirement for a sound-proof toilet. One feels this an eminently sensible idea, and could not be achieved with a stall.

I think what shocks me about US stalls is how much of the door is missing. It is as if crapping is meant to be a public performance. The idea of chatting to strangers whilst pooing is horrible.

At least in the US one doesn't have to deal with the hole-in-the-ground style of toilet, that is sometimes encountered in Mediterranean countries. I remember visiting an Italian company on a business trip (Fiat in Milan, I think) where one of the cubicles provided a hole in the ground, just to give you the option (!) The rest of the cubicles had "normal" toilets. Unfortunately some public toilets I have visited in such countries have only the hold in the ground option.

ros said...

I don't think the main British objection is to the gaps underneath the door (though I'm always a bit nervous about this if I have shopping with me and there's no hook to put it on) but to the gap between the door and the jamb which can sometimes be two or three inches wide in the US, giving plenty of opportunity for someone to see exactly what's going on inside. It's common in the UK for the partitions between cubicles not to go all the way up to the ceiling, which can give some of the necessary air-circulation without compromising privacy.

And yes, I agree, Lynne. We would rarely have conversations with strangers about passing loo roll from one cubicle to another in the UK. Basically, we would rather pretend that we never have to go to the toilet at all, so we make sure to do so in as much anonymity as possible and conversations would compromise that.

Nicholas said...

Certainly BrE uses stalls for theatre (or cinema) seats that are neither in a box or the circle, but surely never in the singular?

Stevy said...

I'm all in favour of good air circulation. What I mind about the American-style cubicles is that (a) they remind me of being back at infant school, and (b) when I was in the States there were three separate incidents of children peering under the bottom edge and me having to say 'I'm not your mum, kid', which were three too many for my peace of mind.

Anonymous said...

@Jonathan Bogart:
well, I can see the lock slipping shut argument, but if there's no gaps how can some kid lock the door from the outside?
In our speech-language therapy clinic in our department we have either a small kid or a tall one who thinks it's hilarious to reach under/over and lock the cubicle (oops, stall) doors from the outside. This couldn't be done in a typical Brit gnets.

Martin Ball, Lafayette Louisiana

Anonymous said...

At my (BrE) public school (AmE) private school, cubicles were an intermediate stage between open dormitories and private bedrooms. Walls up to about 6-7 feet, door to about 4-5 feet. In effect, like horse-boxes (stalls) in a stable. Vaulted ceiling much higher.

Licia said...

@ Anonymous: In Italian, the "hole-in-the-ground" type of toilet is called gabinetto alla turca or simply turca, i.e. "Turkish style". It's the only type of toilet you’ll find in Italian schools and similar places, so we are all used to them. It is supposed to be more hygienic because you squat so don't have to come into contact with any surface, which is something we are really obsessed about (in more upmarket places, you'll find disposable toilet seat cover dispensers in each cubicle; I know quite a few women who carry disinfecting wipes in their bags).
As to the vertical gap in American cubibles, it never fails to make me feel uncomfortable. I asked several Americans about it, but they were never able to give me any reasonable explanation as to why it's needed...

John Cowan said...

For American men it's deeply taboo to talk in a public restroom at all; the convention of ignoring one another is extremely strong. An exception is that if you come in with a friend or colleague, you may continue to talk with that person, but even then it's more common for silence to fall while actually defecating or urinating, and for the conversation to resume while washing up. This does not at all apply to women.

On the other hand, many women in the U.S. cannot tolerate the idea that someone can hear what they are doing, and so keep the toilet flushing more or less continuously. In Japan, the problem with water wastage is so severe that their Western-style toilets (which are very fancy indeed) often have a button to push which generates a continuous flushing sound without using any water.

A stall is primitively and Germanically a place that you stand (the word is probably related to stand), and indeed technical BrE uses the term stall urinal for urinals with curved backs that separate adjacent users. But the word was borrowed into mediaeval Latin and the Romance languages, where it came to mean a place to sit, and English reborrowed many of the special senses of the Latin, French, and Italian words. The stalls of a theatre are so named after the stalls or seats of a church, especially a cathedral church.

empty said...

Janitor and custodian: Synonyms in AmE. What does one say in BrE?

Paul Danon said...

@ empty, a BrE caretaker would look after a building's rather grubby aspects. A BrE custodian is someone terribly grand in some traditional institution.

Anonymous said...

@empty:
caretaker (as in Harold Pinter's)

martin Ball

Anonymous said...

@empty: In the UK, I think we have lost the sense of having an official in charge of a toilet. Probably just called a cleaner or attendant. You might have a janitor in a school looking after maintenance generally. I think of a custodian as someone appointed by the court to look after someone who is incapacitated.

Sarah said...

Re empty's question - I (NW England) would say Caretaker (this being the first word I learned for this role from the job title of the lady who cleaned my primary school) or Cleaner.

There might be both Caretaker and Cleaners in a larger establishment, or even a Facilities Manager.

Janitor (Janny) is more common in Scotland where I live (stay ScoE) now.

Julia B. said...

For those concerned with the door gap, in the U.S. we are usually taught as children that it's horribly rude to look through that gap, and for the most part, no one but a child ever does look. Honestly, I think we forget it's there most of the time. We also prefer not to admit we use toilets, so watching others do so is unappealing.

(BTW, the word my brain wants to use there instead of unappealing is "icky," possibly with an added "ew" for emphasis.)

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I am emetophobe so can only use cubicle-style loos with difficulty in case someone wants to come and be sick into the loo next door. I can relax in the more private ones, but do take the point about air circulation - in France, where private cubicles are the norm, they can be very smelly.

And although I do understand that some people on the Continent prefer the "Turkish" type - and, indeed, some motorway service areas in France give you a choice of styles - I do wonder why on earth anybody would want to put their shoes there, and always want to disinfect my feet after I've used one!

For me (BrE) a "stall" is where a horse lives, or else a market-trader's stand. "Stalls" in the theatre are always plural. And neither is found in the Ladies', although I understand it can be used in those Gentlemen's where the urinals are partitioned off.

(On a related note, my husband, as a boy, always wondered why public loos had a notice in them saying "No loitering". He always wondered why anybody would want to...)

Julie said...

This Californian cannot conceive of speaking to the person in the next stall, for any reason whatsoever. Certainly not to ask a stranger for paper.

If I go into the room engaged in conversation, it stops the moment I enter the stall, to be resumed only when I'm ready to be seen in public.

And I have a serious issue with stall whose side gaps are more than the normal quarter-inch or so.

Jill said...

>(On a related note, my husband, as a boy, always wondered why public loos had a notice in them saying "No loitering". He always wondered why anybody would want to...)

Does he know now about the public sex that can go on there? My guess is that the sign is an attempt to discourage cottaging.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

@Jill - he does now; he was being amused at his own naivete (and there should be a diaresis somewhere in that word, but am not sure where!) as a boy!

Andy JS said...

I've never seen a "no loitering" sign in a public toilet, or anywhere else for that matter.

The only place I've ever seen that sign was in a subway/metro station in Singapore.

outerhoard said...

The bit that surprises me is that someone would say: "you were at the theat{re/er} in there?" rather than: "you were selling something in there?", given that most people surely have more experience of traders' stands than of expensive theatre seats.

Robbie said...

I've never had to ask anyone for paper, because I make a point of checking first! But I have passed paper to neighbouring cubicles on request. And for the life of me I can't remember which side of the Atlantic -- probably both.

There's not much in the bodily functions category that can faze or embarrass the average middle-aged woman. Asking for paper is nothing.

Susanna Fraser said...

Huh, I managed to live in England for a year without ever learning that what I would call bathroom stalls were called cubicles. Guess it never came up in conversation beyond, "Where's the loo?"

What's the BrE for what Americans call cubicles, i.e. office workspaces without doors and with partitions ~5 feet high rather than proper walls?

Andy JS said...

Susanna - I think that kind of office arrangement in the UK is simply referred to as "open plan", or "open plan office".

Robbie said...

I worked in an open-plan-type office. We just referred to our desks. Management-speak tended to say "workspace".

But then, they weren't anything I would call a cubicle. More sort of a large desk divided into individual areas with dividers a foot or two high. There was no sense of being in a separate roomlet.

Like this: http://www.airportbusinesscentre.net/data/images/img/0002%20LimeJuice.jpg

vp said...

@Andy JS:

I am lucky enough to work in an open-plan office without dividers of any kind (yes, I did say lucky -- it reflects the open and unbureaucratic spirit within my company).

In AmE one just says "we don't have offices -- we don't even have cubicles!". How would one say that in BrE?

Cameron MacDonald Black said...

@vp:
"We have an open plan office".

Cameron MacDonald Black said...

By the way, I've (ScE) been known to refer to the toilets in the gents' as "stalls", in fact I did so the day before this article appeared, in a Facebook description of the place in Heathrow Airport where I first read the sheet-soiling scene in Trainspotting and what a good job it was that I was there.

Laura in Cambridge said...

I can't believe no one has mentioned that episode of Seinfeld with Elaine in the ladies' room! Oh look...I love how old things always end up online: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gysu0kgFwT0

JD (The Engine Room) said...

So you're in a cubicle (or stall) and have just finished your business when you realise that there is no toilet paper (or loo roll). However you can hear that there is someone in the cubicle (or stall) next door.

Do you (a) knock on the partition and ask for them to pass some toilet paper (or loo roll), or do you (b) wait for them to leave and then scuttle, trousers down, from one cubicle (stall) to the other, hoping that nobody enters the toilet (restroom) while you are en route?

lynneguist said...

Or (c) not knock, but say "Excuse me..."

Anonymous said...

I've done the exchanging-paper-under-the-door/wall a couple of times, as a female person in England. In my experience, the ladies loo is one of the few places it's okay to make light conversation with strangers, without specific conditions being met. Quite often, a stranger has warned me that a cubicle doesn't have any paper, and I've done the same myself.

Julie said...

Robbie, I find your observation highly disturbing. As I said before, it seems inconceivable. And yes, I've been middle-aged for a few years now and I am fazed and embarrassed by this entire discussion.

There's not much in the bodily functions category that can faze or embarrass the average middle-aged woman. Asking for paper is nothing.

Cameron MacDonald Black said...

Julie, maybe you're not average? Or maybe Robbie has a distorted view of what an "average" woman is...

Julie said...

Hmm...I'm sure I'm not "average," but I hope Robbie's view is distorted.

biochemist said...

Come on ladies, where is your fellow-feeling (or sisterhood, as they might say in AmE)! We all have to use the loo, and on some occasions we really need to share paper - or indeed other sanitary products that should be supplied by those useful vending machines.
I am still haunted by the memory of a foreign lady in an airport 'Ladies', standing before an empty machine and anticipating a long journey. I did not have the items she needed, but I hoped other women might show some solidarity.
Julie, I think you may have missed out on part of life's rich pattern! Most middle-aged women have cleaned up their children's mess, and many will do the same for an elderly parent, so bodily functions are not a mystery! In a public place, the etiquette of silence between cubicles preserves one's modesty - but only until we discover we need help.

Anonymous said...

wise words, biochemist!

lynneguist said...

I've had a stranger in a Brighton (BrE) public toilet ask me to pass some toilet paper under the divider! How quickly I am contradicted by experience!

conuly said...

I, too, am curious what you "I'd never ask for paper!" people do if, indeed, you need paper. You just... sit there?

Anonymous said...

Amazed that no-one's commented on "CAgney & Lacey" when it comes to conversations between stalls/cubicles!

That gap between the door & the jamb; yes, I've noticed it too. Seems that North American loos tend to have the door & the rest in the same plane, where UK ones hang infront/behind the supporting stuff - so you can have an overlap.

Wonder why the differences developed - it's not as if it's a huge saving of wood!

Also, back to the talking; I'm sure I've seen pictures in the press of cubicles in some nightclubs that have two loos (or whatever you want to call them!) in them - so that girls can chat.

M. said...

I check the toilet before going in and I warn anyone else if there is no paper (they warn me, usually, too)then I get some from another cubicle prior to entering.

I've had people ask me for paper before outside the cubical, or just point at the paper, grab some and then scuttle off into their cubicle, usually at school. But I've never asked a stranger to pass me some.

Irina said...

Mrs Redboots said:

naivete (and there should be a diaresis somewhere in that word, but am not sure where!)

Try it over the 'v', that would be novel!

David Crosbie said...

Mr Redboots

Nov̈el?

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

That would be no "ell" though, and there is no "ell"in naivete!

Back on topic, I'm currently in the second week of an inter-rail holiday. We spent most if the first week in the Czech Republic, and on at least two occasions I paid a small fee to use the op, and in return was given, or told to help myself to, a wadge of paper, none being provided in the cubicle. Not an arrangement I had come across before.

Iain Mac Eochagáin said...

Strangers ask each other for paper in the US? Shocking behaviour!

By the way, in Russian schools the toilet cubicles have no doors.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

My elder grandson and I had occasion to visit the facilities in Westfield Stratford a few months ago - the parent-and-baby rooms there have a very splendid arrangement with two loos in one room; one normal size and one child-sized. And two washbasins, one at a normal height and one at child height. My grandson thought this was a marvellous arrangement (so did I, but then, I like to indulge my inner 3-year-old from time to time!).