A Tale of Two Toilets

Lake Lucerne

I was in a restaurant in Lucerne, Switzerland, a predominantly German-speaking city. I needed to use the bathroom. One bathroom door said “Toilette Damen,” the other, “Toilette Herren.” There were no symbols for men or women, so I looked back and forth between the two doors in despair.

“Damen” must be for the men, and “Herren” sounds female, like for her. So I pushed open the door that said “Toilette Herren” and saw a wall of urinals, and I immediately realized the error of my thinking. A waitress chuckled as she walked by. “Damen is for women,” she said, smiling.

I walked back to the table and told J what happened. Swiss women must be weird, using urinals, he joked. But it makes sense, he said, because “dame” means lady in German, so “damen” must be plural for ladies.

From this incident, I learned a bit of German. It also reinforced the notion that designs for signs, buttons, etc. should symbols, color, and contextual clues, not just words.

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