Public Toilets: A New Look

[box] NOTE: The following post was written and scheduled before the devastating news of the brutal murder of my friend Lindsay de Feliz. Of the blog she wrote from the Dominican Republic, where she’d made her home for nearly twenty years, she believed it first needed to be entertaining. “And I want to always tell the truth,” she once wrote me. In that spirit, I’ve decided to keep the planned post, as entertaining as I can muster. I’ve written all I need to on her death; you can find more on the Internet if you are so inclined.  But here is the link to her guest post last February, which came, coincidentally, just two weeks after she had been brutally attacked in her own home and left for dead.[/box]


As foreshadowed in last week’s post, I came away from my drive to Ohio (and back) with a new observation about public toilets. And yes, you shall be reading about it now. Are you sitting down?

It has taken some effort to keep it PG; I hope you’ll appreciate that.  And, oh yes, the men may have a harder time relating. I hope they will read it to the end.


With thanks to the for the photo.


You know what public toilets look like, how they work, what to expect. The question then, is: do you sit or squat?

Way back in the “good old days,” (i.e., the late 1950s to very early 1960s in my case), my grandmother often took me on day trips into New York City from my home across the Hudson River. Unfailingly, she would advise me to squat over the toilet seats during those inevitable visits to the public restrooms.

I learned easily, pulling my little girl panties out in front of me (as I wrote in my memoir, At Home On the Kazakh Steppe) and bending over for balance. Importantly, for this story, I thought nothing about this at the time. It was simply how one did “it” when in a public bathroom. It was “normal” (since everybody did it). What was there to even think about?

Into adulthood, I continued to squat and on the rare occasions when I did not, I was generally sorry. Need I embellish?


So it was, on my drive home from Ohio last month, that I suddenly realized I no longer squatted in public rest rooms. And,  I hadn’t for at least a year, maybe five years. I may quickly glance down there first, but I haven’t met an uncomfortably damp seat in a very long time. This, inevitably, got me thinking.

I decided that this is an omen that bodes well for our country.

Stay with me here, I may be scraping the bottom of the barrel, but I needed this omen.

First, it speaks to me of the power of the individual. Yes, it does.

Consider: It takes ONE PERSON who refuses to sit, one person who squats and misses, to ruin it for those who follow. So, as long as we are all sitting, we keep the seat clean dry for those who follow. We each take a risk that we may be “wrong,” but as long as we all take that same risk and sit, the actual risk gets smaller and smaller.

Second, this microbial smorgasbord bodes well for us as a community of homo sapiens who wish to thrive at least survive together.

Did you know that public restrooms are not as dirty as you might think? Well, I didn’t either.  From the online University of Chicago Medicine comes a report on a study by Jack Gilbert and his colleagues (all listed among my tags), enticingly called, Ecological succession and viability of human-associated microbiota on restroom surfaces

In lay terms, lead author Gilbert says, “I go into a public restroom now and think, microbiologically, this is same as my living room, or the same as my bathroom at home. They’re just somebody else’s bacteria and not mine.”

Microbiologically. That is the critical word. Isn’t it microbes that we exchange each time we shake hands with someone or, better yet, kiss them? It’s something we homo sapiens have been doing for eons, thereby minimizing the likelihood that an unexpected microbe will wipe us out, as was done, our history tells us, far too many times  in the era of world wide exploration.


Thanks to for the image of unidentified microbes.


By sitting on those public toilet seats, we’re expanding the capacity of our species to cohabit with a wider range of “strangers” — a welcome sign, it seems to me. Hand shakes, kissing, toilet seats: a natural progression?

I’m going to take it and run with it. It’s the best I’ve got. You? 


[box] LEAPFROG, my tiny handbook for handling those tricky conversations we all face, is now available in digital and paperback format.

I’m participating in Amazon Affiliates, so your purchase through my website will enable me to make a wee bit more and not increase your cost at all.  The above link takes you to the LEAPFROG page on my website (not yet accessible directly) where you can learn more about the book. To skip that page and go directly to the book’s page on Amazon, click here. Thank you.


20 Responses

  1. Clive Pilcher
    | Reply

    I was very sorry to hear the tragic news of your friend, and hope that you can derive some solace from your memories of her.

    I was going to make a crack about this not being a bog-standard post but somehow it doesn’t seem right, so I won’t say it. Oh….
    Clive Pilcher recently posted…Wordless Wednesday – Today On My Advent CalendarMy Profile

  2. susan jackson
    | Reply

    Cute but I always wipe the seat because I am the on that gets the wet seat if I don’t!! Another thing I find very interesting (nothing to do with toilets) I am typing in the dark and can’t see the key board—makes me think our teachers oh so long ago did a good job teaching us to learn where the keys are—hope they never change where the keys are!!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Congratulations, Susan. I remember too those then-tedious “home key” exercises and yes, they currently serve us very well. This is the second computer I’ve had where I’ve worn off the letters on many keys. And you know, looking at the keys, I couldn’t tell you which ones are erased. But, when typing, all is well. Muscle memory can be powerful. Thanks for joining us, even in the dark.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Public Toilets: A New LookMy Profile

  3. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    You are my only writer friend who I think would choose public toilets as a blog topic. Of course you do it justice, Janet!

    I have Pilates to thank for my ability to squat. I could not have made it through Ukrainian bathrooms with it.

    Again, my condolences on the death of your friend, Lindsay. 🙁
    Marian Beaman recently posted…A New Face in My Memoir PhotosMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Squatting comes easily to me, as you know from my memoir. It’s the aiming that gets me, every time. So I now see it as a civic duty to sit, and shall do so more proudly as the days go on. It was a fun post to write, though took a bit of hutzpah.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Public Toilets: A New LookMy Profile

  4. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — My mom taught my sister and I to be squatters. It’s firmly ingrained and has served us both well as we travel stateside and internationally.

    Again, my deepest sympathy on the death of your friend, Lindsay.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Ah, so you are the one! 🙂
      I appreciate your honesty, Laurie. Finding topics we can disagree on in good fun is a new mission of mine. I suppose you roll the TP from the bottom, too?
      Janet Givens recently posted…Public Toilets: A New LookMy Profile

  5. Cheryl
    | Reply

    Hi Janet, I love your post! I’ve also written about public toilets, believe it or not! But I wrote more about the external aspect and not what we do inside of them. 🙂
    I squat unless I’m at home or at someone’s house/flat. Public toilets in Russia, the women’s anyway, are usually revolting. The seats are usually wet, and sometimes worse. I learnt to squat here, I always sat before I moved to Moscow!
    So sorry to hear about your friend’s death. I remember reading about the attack when it happened. 🙁 Take care and keep writing your wonderful posts. 🙂 x

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Cheryl. So glad you added the link to your post on toilets. I loved seeing the photos. How differently public toilets are dealt et it’s around the world. I am familiar with those rather public sidewalk urinals; I think it was Holland where I saw my first one. I recall feeling a tad jealous.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences here.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Public Toilets: A New LookMy Profile

  6. Tim Fearnsisde
    | Reply

    Janet, ‘way to put this post in the “can.” I’m glad you “answered the call” and decided to “empty the tank,” so to speak. I’m thankful I was “privy” to it. Thanks, too, for taking it on directly, rather than getting all hoity “toity” with it. I’ve seen a few posts about bathrooms and most have been “piddling” nonsense. This one felt like a true “relief.” You, my friend, are a true “whiz.” 😉

  7. Joan Z Rough
    | Reply

    Sorry for the loss of your friend.

    I sit home and in public restrooms. I did have the experience of squatting over open pits in Bolivia many years ago while traveling there. The only thing I refuse to do in public restrooms is to use the blowers for drying my hands.
    Joan Z Rough recently posted…About The Roomba …My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Right on, Joan. Those blowers (which I’ve always hated, for the noise at first) are now known to spread the bacteria floating in the air. Here’s to us sitters, may our numbers only increase. 🙂
      Janet Givens recently posted…Public Toilets: A New LookMy Profile

  8. Amelia
    | Reply

    First I am so sorry to hear about your friend. Hard to type after that about toilets – yes to learning to squat from my mom. Agree when you read about the dirty places it is always a surprise as usually NOT the washrooms. I hope you and family have a wonderful holiday and Christmas.
    Amelia recently posted…A different type of holiday giftMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Amelia, I’m glad to see you again here. I was surprised there are actually people who study this stuff. I am just glad I can sit. 🙂
      Janet Givens recently posted…Public Toilets: A New LookMy Profile

  9. Marian Wood
    | Reply

    Sorry to hear about your friend!

    To be honest the thought of sitting on a public toilet concerns me. Reading this, maybe I need to stop worrying about it.

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