Wednesday 19 May 2010

But it's customary to do it..

Customs are funny things. And no I am not referring to the custom in some countries where burly blokes wear tartan skirts with work boots and socks to footy games as well as other lesser, but still momentous occasions like their weddings (that's just for you Mike, the best Scottish blogger around).

I want to talk about customs and public toilets in particular. No, not the squat toilets in Asia, the toilet slippers in Japan, outside urinals in Africa or garderobes in castles in the UK. None of these have particularly concerned me.

I'm talking about public bathrooms in the USA.

I think the most uncomfortable tipping situation that I have ever encountered would have to be the bathroom attendant. There is nothing worse look than leaving a public bathroom in a classy establishment with someone running after you asking for payment is there?

It's not like Europe or some other parts of the world where an odd looking person sits at the entrance of a toilet facility and demands payment before allowing tourists with full bladders in.

In the US it can be a whole different experience. If you visit an upmarket establishment in some parts of the US and need to run off to the bathroom, there's a very good chance a very nicely dressed person will be standing near the sink holding fresh paper towels.

Once you relieve yourself, they will offer you the towel.

They will also likely have breath mints, lollies, chewing gum, cologne in the men's or perfume in the women's. Some attendants may have cigarettes for sale.

It's customary to hand over a dollar or two to the attendant after they hand you a paper towel and allow you to pick through the lollies, freshen up your breath and slap on some scent.

If you decline their goodies, but still receive a paper towel, it is still a good idea to hand over a dollar ... at least.

Most Aussies like me are confused by tipping in general. When, how much etc.

I've never felt comfortable with it simply because it's not customary in Australia to tip, other than perhaps at a restaurant if you REALLY, REALLY think the service and food are great.

And it's also unnatural for most Aussies to mingle with strangers in toilets, let me tell you.

My first toilet attendant tipping experience happened twenty years ago in the lovely bathroom of a fine New York restaurant. I was oblivious to the whole concept of toilet attendants.

I saw this person approach me, offering a sway of goodies and I panicked (as I am wont to do with anything outside my comfort zone). I went to the sink, declined the person's invitation for a paper towel, grabbed my own, and rushed out. I may have been feeling a little sensitive because a few nights earlier I was picked up at the airport by a 'fake' cab and charged a fortune. I also may have wrestled my own luggage from the driver in an effort not to allow him to carry it into the hotel and thus avoid having to paying a tip on top of his large fare....
The next day someone explained the whole tipping/bathroom attendant protocol to me i.e. you've got to be prepared to tip everywhere, even the bathroom. After that, I couldn't stop thinking about how the attendant probably had five starving kids at home and the only job she could find was hanging out in the toilet offering paper towels and perfume to passers by.

I went back the next night and handed her $5USD. She was happy. My conscience was relieved.

I've never visited a public toilet since without at least a $1 note in my pocket just in case.

What customs have you come across in your travels that you don't understand? I am sure we have loads here that make no sense to tourists either.


  1. Reporting in from the Chicago area - I have NOT seen a restroom attendant around here in years. Maybe I need to go to higher class places. Yes I do recall seeing them somewhere only a few times in my life. I have only been to New York for an evening so I'm clueless if it's common there.

    When is the last time you found this going on?

    The last attendant I saw was in Peru and not a high class affair. You had to pay for paper (not much but still).

    The Central America and South America practice of not flushing paper is disgusting. I was told that their plumbing is not too good.

  2. I hate using the public toilets here in Turkey because of the attendant who sits outside and expects your money first before you can empty your bursting bladder, and until you hand it over you don't even get toilet paper. After you've washed your hands you exit with them dripping wet before being handed your paper towel by the attendant.
    I often wonder what would happen if you had no money or refused to pay? Would they still let you use the facility? I've never attempted to find out.
    On the plus side it's an example of how jobs will be found for people to keep them occupied and give them a wage. We still have pump attendants in petrol stations...even though self-service is just as efficient and more cost-effective.

  3. On a note that is admittedly a generalisation, I think that some cultures don't understand tipping partly because (like us Brits for instance) we secretly feel there is something demeaning about being of "service" to others, which is probably also why we're not good at it and why so many of both sexes can be bloody awful lovers...

    Other than that... strange customs? The expression in Australia of "throw another shrimp on the barbie" perhaps? Why on earth would anyone want to put an additional miniscule crustation on a plastic doll?

  4. Lilly, sometimes i feel like shouting and saying that there is still a world left outside Europe/US/Australia. Where toilet paper is not used, but water is. Squatting on the haunches is probably a healthier method of organizing for the toilet.

    Earlier , the fancier you got, the more chance that it would cost you money to use the loo. Big malls and stuff dont charge you here to use the loo. The sort of stuff you describe, happens mostly in airports and stuff, without the candy and chocolates. Most folks here would consider it the height of stupidity to sell/offer things to eat inside a place used for expelling the results of imbibing and eating.

    Today, there is a chain of public loos coming up, where you pay a very miniscule amount that is used for the upkeep and cleaning. These places even offer showers sometimes, and are many times the only thing available to the homeless.

    But by and large, travelling folks will generally look for some large trees and bushes in the countryside, of which we have plenty. Hotels on highways always have complementary loos for everyone.

    The interesting thing is that the "introduction to paying for a bodily function" is something that they have implemented at the International airports. No chocolates though.

    Maybe thats good anticipatory training for stingy folks...

  5. What I don´t get (and don´t like) is when the tip is ALREADY added to your bill. I think it should be a matter of choice to tip and should only be done according to the service received!
    I didn´t know that this "bathroom tipping" went on. I thought it was only a thing done in "our" third world countries, where we have to tip to get toilet paper. THAt I am used to, but tipping for a mint or perfume??! No thanks.

  6. oh I didn't know you had to bathroom tip in North America...I remember one time we were in Salzburg Austria and a lady dumped some Eastern European coins by mistake into the attendant's basket and she came running out with a disgusted face and returned the coins.

  7. New York and Los Angeles are the two places I've experienced the "attendant" in the potty. Some are fine and a nice perk paid for by the restaurant of the hotel but you can sure spot the attendants that are there on their own dime and working only for tips. THAT is not cool as they are so in your face about it.

    But the worst thing going on a lot these days is the "flower lady" who comes into a restaurant and goes table to table selling long stem roses for a hideous amount of money. Talk about putting a guy on the spot. I could never figure out why a restaurant owner or manager would allow that. Grrrrr.

    Hope all's well with you Lily.

  8. It works like that in London too - not for me I am afraid! Loved AF1's comment about the shrimp on the barbie, he he.

  9. I've been in a couple pretty posh places before but, I've never had to deal an attendant before. There was one place at a mansion but tipping would have been considered to be in pour taste.
    I did have to pay a guard at a bathroom down in Mexico one year. That was kind of weird.

  10. I haven't travelled overseas since I was a child and at that time I took it all in my stride. I find the toilet story amazing!!!

  11. Toilet attendants? They are very rare in Europe indeed! As is tipping...

  12. Bathroom attendant, really? My gosh, we have some upscale restaurants in New Orleans. New Orleanians LOVE their food, but ummm, no toilet tipping here. I think that's funny and I wouldn't want someone approaching me in the bathroom either! Lol.

    Now, tipping -EVERYWHERE else, I've heard of - luggage, hotel attendants, room service, restaurants, etc. It gets very pricey when it comes to vacations.

    I have heard that a lot of people from Europe don't tip and thought that was interesting :)

  13. wow, guessing you weren't in the hospitality of the Southern USA ;-)

  14. Lilly,
    Uhmmm, the lingering of meals and late dinner hours in Europe.
    In Paris for instance, the earliest it is normal to START having dinner at a nice restaurant is 8:00 p.m. and expect to be there for 3 hours.
    At home in California, I eat at 5:30 and am usually done by 6:30

  15. One of the best things we liked about traveling through Japan is not having to tip. Woohoo!

    I HATE tipping! I'm never quite sure exactly how much to tip and I live here! I know restaurants now expect 20% and they say if you can't afford to do the tipping, you really shouldn't be eating out. Oh sheesh! On top of that, they expect the big tip even if they give lousy service.

    Sheesh! Sheesh!

  16. It is so long since I have been in a Public Toilet where there was am=n attendant. There is a restaurant in Hollywood that ysed to have this and I never understood there. There were only two stalls and the attendant was practically in the stall with you because the bathroom was so small---PLUS, the bathroom smelled horrible. What is the customer getting out of this???

    I am used to the whole concept of tipping and having known so very many waiters and waitresses who really count on their tips to acrually earn a living, I think it is something I take for granted here....One thing I don't quite understand is tipping the person who brings you your "take-out"....I mean, they pick up a bag and bring it to you....! Hmmmmm. And obe really must tip the driver who delivers food to your home---I do understand that--again, the pay stibks and so the tips are how these women and men survive.
    It's kind of out of whack in restaurants IF the service is not good---I don't think a waitress or waiter should get 20%. Just my opinion.

  17. I think only in New York, New York that this practice happens because anywhere I've been in the U.S. hasn't been like that.

    Traveling in the Philippines is another story. The last time I went there, the attendants rationed toilet papers. Three sheets just don't cut it for me, especially for #2. So, I started carrying my own roll of toilet paper wherever I went.

    My daughter said that when she travelled to France, she had to put coins to use any public bathrooms.


  18. We have toilet attendants in nightclubs in the UK. They are a bit annoying but I don't think they expect tips even though they offer perfumes/sweets etc. Maybe they are expecting it?

    love the blog though :)

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