Doors of Few Words

Washroom or restroom doors might not be the most appropriate venue for concise communication. In some places, clarity trumps all.


Shopping for hiking gear at a large huntin’ and fishin’ supply store, I am interrupted, appropriately enough, by nature’s call.  Tracking the wily restrooms through the tangled undergrowth, I come upon doors labelled Bucks and Does.  But the doors also carry the more-or-less standard male/female pictograms and the English words: Men and Women.

Irritated, I stop to glare at this mish-mash.  How redundant.  How inelegant.  Does no one know when enough is enough, any more?   

Through more than 20 years of business writing and editing, I have become a ruthless eliminator of redundancy.  Extra words: Out!  Repetitive content: Out!  Unnecessary thoughts: Out!

Often working with a page limit, I have no need to justify this spare style to anyone.  Never waste space: that’s the rule.  So it is that a practice appropriate, nay, necessary, in my work day has insinuated itself into my day to day.  I mentally edit menus, signs, and brochures, muttering under my breath about the lack of concision.  In this case, for example, surely a single label would have sufficed.

Yet as I stand before the thrice-labelled doors, still shaking my head, part of me acknowledges that restroom-door labels have been confusing me—in all my many versions—for almost as long as I can remember.

There was the grade-schooler me, standing in The Highlander, a Scottish-themed hotel in Calgary, baffled by two doors: Laddies and Lassies.  The former was tricky close to the Ladies I might reasonably use, and the latter was a word a grade-schooler had no reason to know. 

There was the young-teenager me, living through the advent of pictograms in place of words: a practice rooted, perhaps, in the wishful-thinking notion that communication problems are rooted in language.  As my older-and-therefore-wiser brother remarked drily, he always had to check the alternative. 

There was the twenty-something me, noting the rise of cutesy restroom names.  XX and XY in a bar near a university?  Well, OK, maybe.  But Buoys and Gulls in a seafood restaurant?  Pointers and Setters in a country bar?  Even I had to check the alternative: these punny labels would give fits to anyone for whom English was a second language.

Nor are puns the only source of confusion; nor is my demographic the only one confused.  Our recent sojourn in metro Phoenix saw us hosting two grade-school girls.  As each, in turn, headed off to the restroom in the Southern-California-themed restaurant, I had a clear sightline of their progress.  I watched as each, in turn, paused slightly at the entrance to the restroom hallway before making their slightly uncertain selection.

When it came my turn, I saw the issue.  The first door I could see said Bros in curvaceous script.  Bros?  I looked around for the alternative.  Bettys.  OK, then.  Given those options, the choice seemed clear, if not entirely understandable.

And I guess that’s all I really want when nature calls: that the choice be clear.  Preferably without having to check the alternative.

As I finally push open my restroom door, sure of avoiding all bucks, men, and male pictograms, I have to admit that sometimes, clarity and certainty are worth the inelegance of a little redundancy.

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14 Comments

      1. Isabel Gibson

        Barbara – Or a sign that says, ‘Toilet’ might work. And while we’re on the side topic of speed, there are restrooms in parks in metro Phoenix where all that’s behind the door(s) is the toilet. The sinks/basins and handtowels are outside. That’s gotta be cheaper!

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Ralph – Yes, I saw one like that just this weekend – both pictograms on one door; and in a seen-better-days gas station out in the wilds of the Canadian Shield, two side by side with the signs long-since ripped off. At least in this part of the world, unisex restrooms are limited to ‘singles’ – which is a problem for large establishments.

  1. Barry

    ” I have to admit that sometimes, clarity and certainty are worth the inelegance of a little redundancy.”

    A good example is the signs in the terminal at Qikiqtarjuaq. They only have pictographs using figures dressed in male or female parkas. Can you recognize/ remember the difference in the Inuit dress code? I can’t.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barry – No, can’t say I ever knew (much less now remember) the gender differences in Inuit parkas. And I especially wouldn’t count on it in a hurry! Maybe this is a subtle way of exercising a land claim.

  2. Dave

    You would probably be a fan of the nautical version of this conversation point – the HEAD. Four letters, non-sexist in its approach and simplicity in extremis. Works best on smaller vessels – larger ones tend to favour your discussion points today.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Dave – Yes, where space and usage numbers permit, I’m all for unisex restrooms. Of course, anyone unfamiliar with navy jargon would have some initial confusion . . .

  3. Alison

    Just last weekend I was in “Milestones” restaurant, and as I sought the “Ladies” had a moment to pause before the two doors, both marked with a stylized “M” . For the name of the restaurant apparently, but not at all helpful as you tried to determine which door to go through.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Alison – Gotta keep branding! I wonder how many complaints they get? There’s an upscale burger joint in Scottsdale where the restrooms are clear from your table, but when you get right up to them, the doors seem to disappear into the wall. Not that’s enough to make you feel stupid.

  4. Jim Taylor

    Maybe, in the interests of brevity (and egality) we could eliminate the signs altogether. I was at a Tim Hortons (without the apostrophe) in Golden one day where the lineup for the women’s washroom stretched out into the main seating area — almost as long as the lineup for service — and the men’s washroom had no one inside when I left it. Several of the women glanced at each other, and then took over the men’s washroom, thus shortening their delay considerably.
    Jim

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim – Yup. I never understand why building designers provide the same number of stalls/rooms for men and women. Given the difference in cycle time, there should be twice as many for women, I’m guessing. Or else just make it a free-for-all, as in Golden.

  5. Slightly O/T, I used to feel I should never use the large cubicle “reserved” for those handicapped, but when I mentioned this to a friend, he said, “Nonsense, when you have to go, you ARE handicapped.”

    That was 30 years ago and I’ve never looked back. They have so much more room! and an angled bar to hoist yourself up with if need be…

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – And they make an excellent change room when you’ve just driven in for an event, and didn’t want to drive in your dressy clothes. There’s actually room to turn around.

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