If the correct thing to do isn’t obvious or easy enough, we usually do whatever seems best at that moment, even if it violates norms.
When norms are violated multiple times, though, they generate a data set that should prompt change. The repeated violations show that either the norm is no longer relevant or the tools and structures meant to implement it aren’t working correctly.
There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame
Here’s a funny example. Recently, while having dinner at a local French restaurant, I visited the ladies room between the main course and dessert. The door was marked “Dames,” the French word for women. Inside were two stalls, not side-by-side, but with one perpendicular to the other. Both were empty. I took the stall farthest from the outside door, facing the other stall.
After a moment, someone occupied the other stall. I was startled by the sound of the seat being thrown up to hit the tank — perhaps someone wasn’t feeling well? Then I noticed that the shoe placed merely three feet from my own, was pointing toward, rather than away from the toilet, and belonged to a man.
I was surprised, but not frightened. Perhaps the man was confused or drunk, or the men’s room was fully occupied and he couldn’t wait. So long as he didn’t bother me, I felt no need to react. But to avoid creating any more awkwardness for either of us, I paused before exiting my stall. I didn’t want to meet him, uncomfortably, at the sink, since I couldn’t imagine what the appropriate pleasantry would be: “Come here often?”
So, after hearing him wash his hands, and exit, I opened my stall door and almost ran into an alarmed-looking woman who was just then entering the ladies’ room. She seemed quite relieved to see me, and took the stall I was just exiting rather than the empty one with the raised toilet seat.
I washed my hands, returned to my tablemates, and told them the story. Later, a fellow in our party went to use the men’s room, and found that the facility for “Hommes” was, unlike the one for the “Dames,” not visible from the dining room, but down a short hallway.
Lost in Translation
I didn’t report the incident to the restaurant’s management, as I didn’t feel personally threatened, and I certainly didn’t want to cause any trouble for the fellow who might have simply lost his way and didn’t realize it until it was too late. But perhaps I should have spoken up, since the woman who came in after me may not have mentioned it either.
Not everyone asks for directions (especially, at least in popular folklore, men), so if this circumstance happens with any frequency, it could mean that the signage isn’t clear enough. Maybe “Dames” needs an accompanying illustration. Or maybe the bartender needs to cut off some patrons sooner!
Either way, my non-reporting effectively caused the absence of a data point, so the next time I visit this restaurant, I’ll think about saying something. Not even the best hosts can resolve the problems their guests experience — or cause — if no one ever complains.
Onward and upward,