What is it with Bathrooms in the US? (they’re strange)

It might seem strange to have a post on bathrooms when visiting a Western country like the USA.

But, there are a few things about bathrooms in America to be aware of.

When I say bathroom, I mean the place where you actually have a bath, and also the place where you eliminate waste.

First rule is to call the area that houses toilets restrooms or bathrooms. Some Americans, particularly in the south, get a bit funny when you call it a toilet! I know. I know. Some weird etiquette thing.

One thing I know for sure is that I am certainly NOT going into rest or take a bath when I’m going to the toilet.

But, when in Rome.

Public Restrooms in the US

using public restrooms in the usa

Let’s first tackle the dunny area.

For our non-Aussie readers, the dunny is our slang term for toilet. Years of living overseas has kind of erased this from my vocabulary so it’s fun for me to write it here.

Just for kicks, why not ask your bar or wait staff where the dunny is? It can really open the doors for fun conversations and cultural exchanges.

Let’s look at a few distinct issues you may have with US restrooms. It’s always great to be prepared.

Lack of actual toilets

It’s getting better, but typically most bars, clubs and restaurants have only 1 or 2 stalls in the bathrooms. It’s ridiculous, especially if you are in a packed bar.

Sometimes we’ve had to line up 15 minutes just to go to the toilet, and when we lived in Raleigh (before kids), my girlfriends and I almost always snuck into the men’s.

I just don’t do lines well.

In one bar in Raleigh, the line for the men’s toilet far exceeds the ladies. It’s the first time I’ve ever experienced that.

Personnel attendants

I’ll never forget my state of confusion the first time I encountered a personal attendant in the restroom. WTF do I do here?

They’ll pass you hand soap and towels and will even have fragrances to spray on you. Note, these are mostly found in night clubs and late night venues. Got to have you smelling fine for whoever you are hoping to attract your way.

Be warned. They are not just doing it to be super kind. Which I thought.

“God, isn’t America lovely. Thank you.” Take the spray and walk away.

These attendants are working for tips. So unless you want to hand over a buck for the spray then kindly say, “no thank you” and walk out with your odor following closely behind.

Gaps in toilet doors

Who the hell made this the protocol for stall doors in the US? And why was it ever approved?

There are huge gaps between the stall doors which makes it so easy for people to see you sitting on the toilet. This blows my mind and is very common.

It reminds me of traveling through China where there were no doors or walls separating you from your fellow pee-ers and those waiting in line.

They’re not always gender specific

It’s very common to find bathrooms in small cafes and restaurants that aren’t gender specific. It will be labeled or just obvious as there is only one stall.

It’s fairly accepted for a woman to run into the men’s restroom if it’s one stall only and is empty. I think this is great!

Everything is automated

Am I the only person in the world who can never find the laser beam sweet spot to make the soap, water, and paper towels magically appear?

It drives me crazy. I spend minutes standing at the sink waving my hands this way and that.

I finally get the water to run and then I move my hands together and it stops. Then I start the whole process again, cursing as to why they can’t just let us turn the bloody things on ourselves.

I keep thinking they’ll go back to the good ole days when manual worked well and then I get more frustrated because they won’t and this will be my experience with every public toilet visit from now on.

Tell me your wave technique please!

Then you move to the paper towel and experience the same thing. Sometimes you’re fed up and you try and pull the sheet out yourself and end up tearing a tiny bit of paper to wipe your hands with.

The toilet flushes are automated too.

So you’re halfway through your business and you move your butt ever so slightly, which signals to the magic laser that you are off the toilet and swooosh, there goes the flush.

If you have little ones, they may get pretty scared by this and jump off.

If the automatic flush fails, look on the side of the contraption, there should be a small black button you can press which will fire the flush.

Toilets that are manual flush will just have the one button. Unlike Aussie earth friendly ones, which have the two flushes – the half flush for number 1 and the full flush for number 2.

I am starting to see more of them over here now!

Too much water in the bowl

There is a lot of water in an American toilet bowl.

It is a significant difference to the small amount in Aussie toilet bowls. It may concern you when you first look at it and think it’s blocked.


I can tell you if it gets blocked, the water rises very quickly and overflows fast. As there is just too much water in there to begin with!!!

Apparently the water swirls in a different direction as well. Something to do with southern and northern hemispheres and the Coriolis effect.

To be honest, I am not that observant so cannot verify it.

Disposable toilet seat covers

You’ll find these in almost every public toilet.

Just as complicated as the automation and shower heads to figure out how to use. And they kind of kill my rule of being in a restroom for as little time as possible.

Don’t pee in public

Men, don’t go peeing in the bushes wherever you please.

I know you’re okay with it back in Australia and possibly everyone else is too. You could get arrested for indecent exposure in the US.

Seriously. Craig’s been pulled over by the cops before and spread over our car while our friend, Bert, and I sat in the dark car in drunken hysterics, especially his response,

“Sorry mate. I’m Australian. It’s okay to do this back home.”

“Well you’re in America now Sir.”

I think the cultural misunderstanding may have saved him.

You don’t want to mess with the police in the US.

The good news is, except for late night venues, most restrooms in America are kept fairly clean.

How do I work the shower?

hotel bathrooms usa

After you visit the US, come back to this post and tell me how many times you had to ring the hotel desk to ask them how to work the shower.

I am not kidding you. You think it’s something as simple as turning the damn faucet in one direction.


Every shower is different. It’s mind baffling how they can take something so simple and make it as complicated as Einstein’s algorithms.

Be sure to call it a faucet. If you say tap, the odds are an American won’t understand you.

We road tripped with my parents for a month and one of the first things they commented on was the difficulty of getting the shower to work.

I put an update on our Facebook page just to check it wasn’t just us. No it’s not, we had a flurry of activity of people sharing similar US shower woes.

It’s a US travel condition.

My advice to you is to not get undressed until you have the shower working. There’s a good chance you will have to redress yourself in order to get help.

Leave yourself enough time so you can fix potential shower issues and perhaps take notes as to how you made it work. I’m not kidding. It’s easy to forget once you get out exploring.

Usually the shower consists of just one faucet that combines hot and cold. The hot and cold direction can differ from shower to shower. Most baffling is that so many of them aren’t even labelled as which direction is hot and cold.

Not even a small blue or red dot to help.

It often (perhaps always) takes FOREVER for the water to heat up. I’m talking sometimes over 2 minutes (these cold winters over here don’t help much with that!).

That’s a bloody long time and a bloody long waste of water. My love for Mother Earth causes much an ache in my heart every time this happens.

So if the tap is not labelled hot or cold, you could have turned it in the wrong direction and be waiting waiting waiting for the water to warm up, but it’s not going to because you’ve turned it to cold.

So you spend forever turning it back and forth trying to figure it out.

Sometimes you have to pull the faucet out towards you a bit to get the water to actually run. Pull it too far out and you may just pull the entire faucet out from the wall. It will take you some time to figure out that trick.

Many hotel bathrooms will have the shower and bath combined. The bath faucet will have a lever to pull up if you want the water to run out of the shower head.

However, you must have the right pressure of water coming out of the bath tap before the lever will stay permanently upright for the water to flow out of the shower head.

Too little pressure and it will flop back down and keep it running out of the bath faucet.

I told you, Einstein.

double shower head usa

You may even be fortunate enough to have a modern shower head contraption. So modern that you have two heads– one up high and a hand held shower head down low that can move up and down to adjust to your height.

Except, you cannot figure out with the three different knobs, buttons and facets how to get the water out of the high head.

It’s a challenge to adjust the lower head, and the lower head is attached to a bendy cord that cannot be straightened so the shower head points directly on you.

The cord twists so the head spins around and cleans the tiled wall beside you. You have to wrap the flexible cord around the modern shower contraption so it stays put and washes you.

But, you don’t have long before it will pop back out and turn back to the wall.

You look longingly at how beautiful that high shower head looks, turn the knobs in various ways again, only to pick up the lower shower head and use it as a hand held shower as you can’t figure the damn thing out and you no longer have the patience or time to phone a friend for help.

I am absolutely not exaggerating.

We’ve been traveling in-depth for the past year and I think I have the shower situation all worked out and then I’ll arrive in a new hotel and it will be completely different again and 10 minutes later I’m on the phone saying

“Um excuse me, can you tell me how to turn the shower on?”

I have noticed on our past couple of trips it’s been fairly effortless.

I’m not sure if the shower fixtures are improving or I’ve just assimilated so well that somehow my brain now just knows what to do.

I”m just not sure that it is that clever to be honest!

More US travel tips

Do you feel my bathroom pain in America? What similar experiences have you had or funny stories?

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