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International Business: Potty language: Safely navigating international water closets

Published: Friday, Oct. 21 2011 8:44 a.m. MDT

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Earlier this month, when Ryanair suggested it might remove all but one lavatory from each plane to make more room for seats, passengers accused the Irish airline of going too far to cut costs. The economy air carrier appears to have forgotten the most important phrase for any international traveler: “Where is the restroom?”

Though the phrase is so common it may sound trivial, many international business deals and vacations could be spoiled – or at least made more uncomfortable – without proper global communication about this everyday necessity. Learning to say other phrases like the memes, “I can eat glass,” or, “the cheese is old and moldy,” may attract a little more attention, but avoiding bathroom troubles will help everyone avoid awkward situations.

A business student named Brandon, who was traveling through Germany as part of an international MBA program, knows the importance of this phrase well. While at a store in Munich, he determined to use some of his limited German skills to request directions to the restroom.

Wo ist die water closet?” Brandon asked the clerk multiple times.

After the clerk returned only a blank stare, Brandon’s friend spoke up using only English to ask, “Do you have a bathroom?”

“Oh, yeah, a bathroom… up the stairs to your right,” came the unexpected English reply.

In locations worldwide, translations, international symbols and arrows can help guide those who may not have checked the Internet before a trip to learn how to say this important phrase in one of more than 100 languages. However, sometimes even those symbols are not enough to avoid mild confusion when public signs in Japan, for example, tell visitors, “For Restrooms, go back toward your behind.”

After the restroom locations are identified, some visitors to China might still be perplexed after seeing a door with the international female symbol labeled, “Gentlemen,” or other separate water closets labeled “Feman” or “Mole Restroom.”

The act of using foreign restrooms can also be confusing, and not just because Americans often mistake a bidet for some kind of second toilet. According to the FAIL Blog, some instructions may still befuddle users who read, “Please don’t throw toilet paper at the toilet,” or “Toilet button is on your back side.” Engrish.com has many similar examples like, “Please get baboosh off in the bathroom.”

Mistranslated restroom signs may also make travelers question local customs. A restroom vending machine has been translated to read, “Attention: Because I do not have a tissue always ready in this restroom, please buy used one.” One sign in Asia reads, “NOTICE: No washing hair or clothes in the toilet please.” Other facilities sound too good to be true when mislabeled with the luxurious titles, “Women kingdom,” “Foreign babes bathroom” or “Toilet – one place – one dream.”

One optimistic sign reads, “The free toilet paper please treasure the use.” In some international locations, toilet paper – free or paid – really is a luxury. Few people like to talk about this, but a personal, travel-size roll of toilet paper stowed in a purse, briefcase or backpack can be priceless. Before you leave for your trip, you may want to visit the travel section of your local grocery store and stock up.

International restrooms differ in more than just printed signs. Believe it or not, many travel guides note whether it is safe to flush toilet paper in certain countries. When hygienic paper meets antiquated plumbing, it can lead to embarrassing overflows and a curt reprimand from a public restroom attendant.

When traveling in some Eastern countries, Americans may need to get used to ground level toilets. U.S. men may be surprised when approached by female attendants in European public restrooms or upon discovering that people in China are relatively social in restrooms.

These many differences may seem like too much to remember, but this column could not contain all the differences in bathroom etiquette that one might like to know about only a handful of countries.

As always, a business traveler’s best bet is to check for such tips in various travel guides before visiting a new country, and to learn a few words to ask for simple directions. Otherwise, you may risk your dignity relying solely on the mercies and abilities of locals to help you circumvent an uncomfortable situation.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@lingotek.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

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