German Bathrooms: They’re Awesome and Praktisch!

I must say, entering a bathroom in another country can be as much of a culture shock and learning experience as a conversation with a native.  It may sound ridiculous, but if you’ve ever travelled outside of the United States you can certainly relate.

In a way it makes sense though.  I’m finding more and more that it is the relatively trivial things that reveal the most about another culture.  The bathroom is a prime example of such things.  We all use it everyday and unless put into a foreign environment probably don’t think much about the motions we go through while in a bathroom.

That being said, what is it about German bathrooms that are so “Awesome and Praktisch?”  Well, to start, the whole approach just makes a little more sense then what you find in the United States—with a few exceptions of course.

To begin, the concept of privacy seems to be more appreciate, and quite frankly understood here.  What I mean by that is, taking a bathroom break is often considered a private affair, one in which it is better to be done beyond the gaze—and nostrils and ears—of others.  The ubiquitous failure of the American bathroom is the sheer lack of privacy.  Now, for the men out there, urinals are all the same, but stalls are a whole new world in Germany.

The term WC (or wash-closet) is taken seriously here.  When you go into a bathroom you don’t find a row of stalls, but a series of doors going into a WC.  This, if you have never seen one, is simply a closet sized room with a toilet.  The great part about it is that it is a closet sized room, rather than a closet sized enclosure made of thick plastic.  In the WC one actually enjoys the experience of privacy.  This is where the American bathroom falters.  I don’t know many people who when they think of “privacy” immediately think of the American bathroom stall with its top and bottom opened walls that do little to cover up the occupant.

Not every WC is so ample in its wall space, but I have found that in my personal experience, the vast majority reflected more of what a private bathroom is than the American stall (let’s put it this way, even if it essentially a stall, the walls still go floor to ceiling).

The wildly engrained separation of genders in bathrooms spaces also differs here.  One common trend in German bathrooms is that sinks are shared by men and women and are in a room centrally located between the gendered rooms for the men’s and women’s WCs.  There is a practicality to it that isn’t found in the United States; it saves space and necessitates fewer sinks for people to wash their hands.  It just makes sense.  It’s praktisch.  Use less space and fewer resources to do the same thing that having two sets of sinks would do.

Water use in German bathrooms has to be considerably less than in American bathrooms as well.  In almost every bathroom (I can only think a small handful of exceptions) the toilets are equipped so that when it’s time to flush, only the suitable amount of water is used.  Toilets here are often built with a flush button with two options: one for a smaller flush and one for a larger flush.  Why use more water when unnecessary?  It is so useful and so logical it’s still kind of hard to figure out why that isn’t seen more in the United States (I can think of only one location in Madison where toilets include options for flush flow).

Toilets with flush buttons that allow the user to manually stop the flow as soon as they think it is necessary join these types of toilets.  Perhaps this means the amount of water used to flush is at the mercy of human error (maybe you over or under judge how much of a flush you need), but disregarding that, it is still an attempt (which I do think is relatively successful) at lowering the amount of water used by toilets to flush.

It is things like this that 1) reveal odd peculiarities of German Praktischkeit and 2) make American bathrooms a little illogical.

It is clear going into a bathroom that Germans are concerned about conserving resources.  This is definitely a reflection of a strong awareness of environmental issues in Germany, but honestly a logical practicality that doesn’t seem to exist in the United States.  Why should we use more water than necessary on things like flushing a toilet for example?  When you really think about it, it seems stupid to use so much water for such things.

There has to be some criticism though.  In a lot of public bathrooms it is necessary to pay a small fee to use the facilities (this is really common in train stations, where fees can be as much as one Euro).  Often the fees are whatever small change you may have on you.  And I do get it.  The money that goes into cleaning and maintaining a bathroom has to come from somewhere, but let’s be honest, it’s annoying to have to grab change to use the bathroom, and in this instance the German way of doing things isn’t to praktisch and lacks the efficiency stereotypical of Germany.

You should see the lines of people waiting to get into the bathrooms at some train stations.  Just hope when you do, you don’t really have to go.

2 thoughts on “German Bathrooms: They’re Awesome and Praktisch!”

  1. Very interesting observations, Michael. One point deserves a bit of historical perspective: the water conservation aspect. I personally like the 2 flush option as well and, of course, had them installed them at our place because they essentially pay for themelves over the years.

    But the reason behind this and many other water conservation matters in Germany–a country, mind you, with sufficient amounts of rain and no real water shortage to speak of–was that in the 1970s many German cities were outgrowing the size of their sewage systems. And instead of installing bigger low pressure pipes to accomodate the increased volume, German utilities launched a very successful publicity campaign to encourage people to conserve water. The most convincing argument? It is good for the environment!

    Guess what, the campaign has been so successfull that by now there sometimes isn’t enough water going through the waste water system to flush the sewage pipes — the utilities end up spending more on maintenance and occasionally need to add water to keep things in proper flow. A nice little example of the law of unintended consequences. And yet, every time you push the little button it makes a person feel good to be saving water. 😉

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I’m very fond of the 2 flush options often found abroad. The Education building at UW has new-fangled toilets with 2 flush options.

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