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To flush or . . . how to flush?

Some modern toilets are so buttoned up, it’s hard to find.


Some modern toilets are so buttoned up, it’s hard to find.

My kids have spent the last few years living elsewhere, so I’ve traveled a lot and have become increasingly perplexed by the bathroom technology I’ve encountered. Simply put, bathrooms have become bewildering. Flushing the toilet, washing your hands, and drying them can be a high-tech challenge.

First things first: How to flush? Obviously, where there’s a handle, there’s a way. All’s well that ends well.

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And by the way, a lot of people flush toilets with their feet, the better not to get cooties on their hands. Two-thirds of Americans do that, according to a recent survey by the Bradley Corp., which makes bathroom furnishings. So the other third, it would seem, are getting germs not from other people’s hands, but from their . . . shoes.

Being a germaphobe, I’m with the foot crowd, myself. I’m also with the 60 percent who use paper towels to open bathroom doors.

But what if there is no toilet handle? Often, there is just a button to press, which can be impossible to find, or if you do find it, it doesn’t always work.

An unusual flushing mechanism.


An unusual flushing mechanism.

My least favorite is the self-flushing toilet. The flushing can come when you least expect it. Or it may not come at all. If you’re one of those who refuses to sit on a public toilet seat, instead employing a modified squat, well, what’s a smart toilet to do? It can’t work if there’s no “signal.”

My friend Linda, back from a trip to Japan, reports that the Japanese are bathroom-obsessed, and have all sorts of new-fangled contraptions to make things pleasant, including heated toilet seats. They are also obsessed with privacy, and when Linda went into a public restroom, she found a contraption on the wall of the stall that began making faux flushing sounds, and then played Muzak to cover up any, um, natural noises.

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Which brings us to the washing of the hands. This, too, has become confusing. It used to be that you’d simply turn on a spigot and the water would flow.

But spigot handles are being replaced by sensors. You’re supposed to wave your hand in front of a sensor, or beneath it, or God-knows-where. I’ve seen people in bathrooms who look like they’re doing the hokey pokey, trying to find the sensor. In fact, I’ve been one of them.

Then there are the faucets that one is supposed to push up on, or perhaps down on, releasing the water. Good luck with those.

The worst case scenario happened to me as I was about to board a 16-hour flight to Bangkok. There I stood in the airport bathroom, soapy hands and all, searching frantically for a way to turn on the water.

I could hear my flight being called. Should I leave with soapy hands, or at least dry them with a paper towel? Alas, there were no towels, only some device with the unfortunate name of Airblade that you actually had to stick your hands into.

Thank the bathroom god, a woman appeared, took pity on me, and somehow turned on the water. I ran for the plane.

I’m not the only one perplexed by public bathrooms. My friend Charlie, in his 60s, says he’s given up washing his hands. My friend Emily, in her 20s, moans about those old-fashioned cloth towels you pull down to release a clean swath of towel.

“They’re usually all used up, and they look gross,” she says. “Who wants to even touch the edges?”

I realize I’m sounding like a spoiled Westerner, only because I am one. Last year, when I arrived at the school where my daughter was teaching, on the Thailand-Myanmar border, there were only squat toilets. Needless to say, there were no sinks.

On the road in Myanmar, we stopped at public toilets, most of which had a cistern of rain water and a bucket for self-flushing. Not ideal, but at least I could figure them out.

My friend Rick is teaching English at a Chinese university. A colleague of his was handed a written notice from a student about putting toilet paper into the toilet. Apparently, it’s a no-no.

“The power of water is not enough, so that the toilet papers will block the pipe,” the notice said. “If you do that, it will take some troubles to you. Meanwhile, it is not easy when our workers clean the pipe.”

I bet it isn’t. I think I’ll stop complaining about modern bathroom technology.

Bella English can be reached at

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