Saturday, August 22, 2009

A subject of some delicacy

...and the cause of a great deal of cultural misunderstanding:

What do you do with a used hunk of toilet paper?

If you're a U.S. or Canadian North American, you throw it in the toilet.

If you're a Mexican or Central American (or South American??), you throw it in the wastebasket that is carefully placed next to the toilet. If the wastebasket isn't there, you may throw it on the floor. Any place but the toilet.

Why? The drains here have much smaller dimensions than in the U.S./Canada, and toilet paper very quickly clogs them. [Later note: Sheila McShane, who runs a health clinic in Guatemala, reminded me that any drains at all are a bit of a luxury in Latin America - in the countryside toilets may flush, but the contents will end up in the river.] Latinos well understand how frustrating it is to deal with a clogged toilet, and considerately, carefully will place toilet paper elsewhere.

When Latinos follow their considerate and careful customs in the United States, North Americans are appalled at having to pick up the mess. When North Americans follow their healthful and hygienic customs and throw toilet paper in the toilet in Latin America, their hosts are appalled at having to pay for a plumber to get their drains working again.

And it all comes down to the practical necessities caused by drains of different sizes.

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