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I am from an area where people just say they need the loo to pee or poo. In formal situations, when meeting just strangers, we are a bit less open and call it 'need the toilet' but I know that in other countries they are a lot less open about it.

Small children, at the potty training age, are quite open about what they do and such, but soon they learn the local 'polite' way to say things and it is frowned upon if they even mention the words again.
The words acceptable are likely very clear in the area but likely hard to use for those not brought up in the same culture.
I have heard words as 'nr 1' and 'nr 2' but also some that I could not even understand well enough to remember.

So as a foreign tourist, I know I should not use the words I would use at home, not even in the more polite translations into English.
But what is acceptable?

I get by with asking for the 'ladies' and looking a bit uneasy, but I know it will still be seen as impolite in some societies. In the past I have asked for the bathroom to be shown a bedroom, by the person I was asking not understanding the evation.

Can you tell me what to use and in what situation this is acceptable?
Location and social class might be needed to get a good picture.
To keep this from going too wide, I feel I restrict it to just English speaking countries but I would not mind learning English equivalents for what people use in other language areas.

  • 1
    Perhaps carry around a copy of this and pull it out when needed? amzn.to/23jWXlD – Doc Jun 19 '16 at 18:04
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    Do we need an all-adults-here tag yet? – Henning Makholm Jun 19 '16 at 18:37
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    Now this might sound like a joke, but it is NOT.. in flights to the Indian subcontinent, people make a fist while raising the little finger, that's the sign when they want to use the toilet. I never get it, I tried to ask, never got an answer for the reasons behind this gesture. – Nean Der Thal Jun 19 '16 at 19:23
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    @ZachLipton simple workers, they ae confused, many been on a plane for the first time, I am serious that's what they do.. – Nean Der Thal Jun 19 '16 at 21:27
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    @HeidelBerGensis They raise the little finger to mean number one, popular slang if you want to take a pee. I have not seen they raise two fingers for the heavy job though. – Ayesh K Jun 19 '16 at 21:55

10 Answers 10

6

If your looking for a universal way that fits all circumstances, your best bet is going to be to ask someone. Your going to be the guest of someone. Even in a store you have the employees to help. So find someone that looks like they know the place, or better yet, invited you, and quietly, discreetly, let them know what your looking for. Then listen to the words they use, and don't be afraid to use them too.

For example, ask the person who invited you to the dinner party, quietly, "I don't really know how to ask properly, but I need to pee." They will respond based on their culture. If your talking with just one person and your quite, then it will be hard for them to be offended.

If your not comfortable with that, then ask for the "Lavatory". It's not exactly correct, but almost every English native speaker will be able to know what your after without making a scene.

As another general rule, there is no reason to state why you need that room. Again if your talking to one person, and that person is your host, or guide, then your probably fine. If your speaking to a group or something, then I would, generally, avoid saying why.

After a few days in an area, your should get the hang of it. When in doubt, ask the service staff. There the least likely to be offended by a simple, quite, question.

  • +1, as it will work in most places. But I did ask for people to tell me for their area/social class and polite society, (so not at a friends house nor a black tie dinner.) – Willeke Jun 20 '16 at 18:56
  • Well that's kind of the reason for this answer. At least here in the US, your going to to get a very different answer depending on rather your shopping at Wal-Mart, Lowes, Target or Sears. And that's just if you ask in a store. What about a business meeting, are people wearing T-Shirts, Polos, Sport coats, or full suites. Are you in an area that has a lot of foreigners (international areas near airports, or tourist areas?) It can even be as simple as are you in a part of town dominated by one race or another? Maybe even, is the social gathering dominated by one gender or the other? – coteyr Jun 20 '16 at 19:11
37

In the United States, the more polite terms I hear are usually either the restroom or the ladies' room/men's room (always including room). Washroom sounds Canadian to me. British terminology (such as loo) may well be understood but would sound odd.

So, I might ask: "Where's the restroom?" If I already knew, I'd most likely excuse myself without explanation.

BEWARE: In the United States, using the word toilet to mean anything other than the actual porcelain fixture sounds shocking or rude. The difference between British and American English in this regard is quite pronounced. The first time I visited the UK, I was quite surprised to see signs which read "Toilet." You would never see such in the US.

Also, I've encountered people in the UK who don't understand the word restroom, which is usual in the US. So, even within English, there's significant variation from region to region.

P.S.: In the US, bathroom and restroom are synonyms. However, bathroom is more informal, and is more likely to be used in a house than in a public building. Restroom, while more formal, is quite acceptable in all situations and is the best default choice if you're unsure which is the best option. That said, using bathroom in a formal situation would only be a minor gaffe.

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    Bathroom in the UK means a room with a bath. There might not be a toilet. – David Jun 20 '16 at 15:03
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    @fr13d: And in the US, the only place we use lavatory is for planes and buses. David: In the US, baths are optional in bathrooms. All: Quite a lot of regional variation, isn't there?! – Scott Severance Jun 20 '16 at 15:15
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    In the U.S., I say "where's the rest room?" if I don't know, or "the rest room's just down the hall, right?" if I do. Then, I say "I'll be back in just a minute," or "I'll be back in a few minutes," as appropriate. Substitute "washroom" or "lavatory" in Canada, "lav" or "WC" in England. There is no word that is both well-understood and polite in both the U.S. and U.K.; forget Canada, Australia, or other places. If I thought of it, I'd ask a cab driver "how would a fancy person here say he has to go piss?" (The less-polite words are well-understood everywhere.) – Jeffiekins Jun 20 '16 at 18:06
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    What part of the US are you from? I've never thought that using toilet in this fashion is shocking or rude. – bob0the0mighty Jun 20 '16 at 18:22
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    In the UK, if you ask for a bathroom, then unless people recognize the Americanism and make allowances, they will assume you want a bath. And if you ask for a restroom, then (unless people recognize...) they will assume you want a rest. – Michael Kay Jun 20 '16 at 23:06
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This question has been asked twice on English SE, the second in a British English context:

Too summarize that, loo or a bit more polite lavatory would be perfectly fine in the UK, while bathroom can be slightly confusing. People are more direct and also WC and toilet are not deemed inappropriate.

Instead in the U.S. you will find bathroom, washroom or restroom appropriate choices, whereas toilet, lavatory and others are used in slightly different contexts and sound strange if used in your intended context. See this excellent answer here for more details.

This being a basic need of mankind, you will be able to find tons of synonyms, some of them questionable.

If you want to extend your vocabulary, also this blog post might be helpful. Unfortunately it does not distinguish much between British and American English.

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    How common/polite is the use of the word 'loo'? From my friends in England I never hear the word when in big company nor do they seem to approve of it. Most of my friends are from the southeren parts of England, Cambridge to Bristol and south of that line. But our group is spread a lot wider, up into Scotland. – Willeke Jun 19 '16 at 19:07
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    @Willeke It's reasonably common and not really impolite...but it is a working class word and perhaps a little bit quaint. You won't hear it from an RP Oxbridge alumnus, but it's not unusual to hear it, for example, in a pub. Younger and trendier types will probably prefer "the gents" to "the loo". – J... Jun 19 '16 at 22:47
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    Canadian English favors 'washroom', which, while typically understood below the 49th parallel, is largely not used there. – LessPop_MoreFizz Jun 20 '16 at 4:16
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    @Willeke J is kind of right, but "the gents" is very definitely in a public space. A restaurant or pub has a "gents" and a "ladies", as two separate toilets. A house simply doesn't, so it would quite likely lead to jokes about "is my house a hotel now?" As mts says, "loo" is informal - you'd use it with your family and friends but probably not at a job interview, if you see what I mean. – Graham Jun 20 '16 at 10:11
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    I'm a native Brit, and I have never heard anyone say "lavatory" or "WC" out loud. Don't use "bathroom", that's where the bath is, not (necessarily) the toilet. The "most" correct phrasing would be "Could you tell me where the toilets are please?" (formal), or "I'm just nipping to the loo" (informal) – Jocie Jun 21 '16 at 9:14
9

If I am looking for the toilet in an establishment I usually ask for the bathroom or the men's/women's room. My understanding is that the term bathroom is perceived as less crude than the word toilet hence why I don't user the latter.

If I am at a formal event, such as a black tie dinner, I usually just say "excuse me" and then stand up and leave. No need for details in this case.

  • +1. Bathroom sounds more polite. I once had a totally confused restaurant worker though. They did not have shower facilities, so I always keep "toilet" at the tip of my tongue. – Ayesh K Jun 19 '16 at 21:58
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    Bathroom is normal in the US. It might not be so common elsewhere. – Scott Severance Jun 20 '16 at 1:16
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    "Bathroom" is extremely U.S.-specific. Most non-American English speakers would have no idea what you meant. – Jeffiekins Jun 20 '16 at 18:14
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    Most British English speakers understand "basic American English", even if they don't habitually speak it. I expect the same would be true for any English speakers who regularly watch American TV and movies. – alephzero Jun 21 '16 at 4:12
8

The politest thing to do is to not draw attention to the fact that you need the toilet.

Don't indicate to all and sundry that you need the toilet.

If you need to know where the toilet is, ask where is the toilet/restroom/bathroom/lavatory, please?

If you are desperate to go during a meeting or conversation, quietly excuse yourself at an opportune moment and just say I'll be back in a minute. Everyone doesn't need to know where you are going and what you are doing.

Avoid slang terms.

People know that foreigners sometimes speak a little strangely and use unconventional words occasionally.

Use common sense propriety and nobody will think any the less of you.

  • Exactly. If I know where the restroom is, I simply say "I'll be right back" on my way to the door, and everyone understands. – Mason Wheeler Jun 20 '16 at 19:53
  • When I ask for the facilities I do not shout it out, but at times you need to get directions out of the room you are. If you know how to ask in the local polite version, you can do so much less observed. – Willeke Dec 22 '16 at 21:57
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+50

I'm Australian. We like directness. Among friends we can be very blunt: "Where's the dunny?"

Among foreigners we tone it down to merely informational and if we think the other person might be offended we use a more discreet low tone and start with a warning about impending directness: "I don't know the local polite form so I'm going to be direct. Where is the toilet, men's room or whatever you call it here?"

You won't offend and you will get two important pieces of information.

  • Thanks Peter, that is the kind of information I was looking for. – Willeke Jun 21 '16 at 14:41
  • Aussies. Always fun. Take it easy =D – Jan Jun 21 '16 at 18:53
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    An observation to keep you out of trouble down under: the closer you are with someone the more direct you can be. If people exchange appalling insults but keep smiling this means they are lifelong friends. It does not mean you can speak to them like this. Stick with direct. Flat out rude is a privilege reserved for long-time friends. – Peter Wone Jun 22 '16 at 5:41
5

Just indicate that you need to wash your hands. That usually gets the idea across in polite society.

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    "The toilet is occupied. Just use the kitchen sink." – Anko Jun 20 '16 at 1:17
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    @Anko I know some people who wouldn't mind "using" the kitchen sink.. – Nean Der Thal Jun 20 '16 at 1:49
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    I thought, "this urinal is rather high." Then I woke up. – WGroleau Jun 20 '16 at 2:28
  • In the netherlands they will show you the kitchen sink or fountain when you ask to 'wash your hands'. Can you add where you are from, that might help me with where to use it. – Willeke Jun 20 '16 at 17:35
  • @Willeke "fountain" is not a correct translation for "fonteintje", I think. – SQB Jun 21 '16 at 8:26
3

It pretty much depends on which part of the world you are in.

Your choice of words could be limited by their command of English and their history (e.g. an American colony in the following example).

I remember arriving to Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, and asking to a member of the airport crew where could I go to the loo, wc, gents, bathroom...and so on, until I hit on the toilet word. "oh, you want to go to the toilet..."

Actually asking for the toilets is not the difficult part, as the habit is pretty universal. The tricky part is the variations in cultures and habits about the cleaning part...

2

The joys of English mean there's no actual word as such for the room in question. Everything is a euphemism.

a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.

Which means that just about anything on the list is valid.

Americans seem to like Restroom and Bathroom. In the rest of the English speaking world you're likely to be sent to the wrong place in either case as they might think you want a rest or a bath.

In England, in quiet mixed company a question of Where's the um..? will usually get you to the right place. Toilet, lavatory or loo are quite acceptable. Little boys room (if gender appropriate) also quite acceptable in a social setting though might raise a laugh. John, Head, Karzi, Bog, Lav are situational and you'll rarely be in the situation. Crapper is actually well understood but almost never used and if you're among people you know you could just stand up and state that you need to take a slash, which way should you go.

  • Never heard of a slash, in the U.S. – LarsH Jun 21 '16 at 14:58
  • @LarsH it's UK slang, possibly regional certainly common around me growing up – Separatrix Jun 21 '16 at 16:07
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+100

Many years ago, a coworker (new at that time) mentioned to me in a matter-of-fact way that he intends to visit the boys' corner. I was confused and asked him what he meant, to which he translated it as "toilet". I was amused with the realisation! It may not be a polite way of inquiring with the other gender, though!

  • Welcome to Travel SE. This is more of an anecdote than an answer and maybe should rather be a comment?! How does it help the OP? – mts Jun 21 '16 at 8:52
  • Apologies, if that us not formatted well enough for an answer. My initial intention was to add it as a comment, but my inexistent reputation forbade it. – alwayslearning Jun 21 '16 at 9:06
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    I see that you are unable to comment yet, in that case don't worry, this answer will be taken care of and you are still very welcome to participate here :) If you want to gain reputation quickly, have a look to our bounty questions, which are especially plentiful this month, a good answer will quickly gain you rep here. – mts Jun 21 '16 at 9:09
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    While not a formal answer, I do appreciate the information. – Willeke Jun 21 '16 at 14:40

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