I was in a famous Oxford college on the weekend, and encountered this helpful sign. My initial reaction was that this was so funny I just had to photograph it. But then my reaction became more dubious as I realised how complex and nuanced the issue truly is.

So what do you feel when you see this sign? It may be that like me you find the whole idea of a sign to tell people how to use the lavatory very funny indeed. Or perhaps there is self righteous indignation- of course we are being kind in telling people how to use the toilet - and even kindly making the sign a picture one for those with limited English... 

But let's dig down a bit here: there is a fundamental assumption here that this sign instructs people how to use the toilet "properly" - presumably these pictures all depict ocurrences that have regularly greeted cleaners and other users... But is that enough reason for such a sign? There are around 7 billion people in the world today, a mere 60 million of whom live in the UK. I am pretty sure all 7 billion of us (barring say a few tens of million of the very young and very old who are in diapers), but other than that most of the 7 billion people on earth today are rather well versed in lavatorial etiquette. Of course half of the world's population are men and (presumably) this sign is directed in the first instance at women as men would mostly use public urinals- and I haven't been to see whether equivalent signs adorn those.

So the assumptions behind this sign seems rather shallow- why is our way best: Why, instead of printing signs, don't we install floor level toilets that let people squat, if that is what many want- or at least give people the choice by providing a few cubicles of each sort. Why don't we provide foot washing facilities and plugs instead of telling people they can't have or do those things? What would be the harm?

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And what of humility and gentleness? In the UK we are proud of our multicultural society- but I wonder whether that's just shorthand for an increasingly militant stance whereby we convince ourselves that educating others to do things our way is the only way. How is this different to colonialism?

Perhaps, I hear you argue, the many tourists who obviously struggle to use the loos "correctly" actually enjoy being immersed in this foreign culture and find that the toilet is a part of that experience. I myself will always remember piling out of a bus somewhere in the north of India and following the other women to the much needed toilet- which proved to be a slightly angled 4 metre by 1 metre long slab of concrete! That for me was authentic India- and because it was a public space for women rather than private cubicles I quickly understood what was required - even without a picture showing me what not to do with a giant red crosses.

As I understand it feet washing is often a religious observance- (as well as perhaps being a sensible response to a hot day of sightseeing!). That makes the poster wholly different in tone- there is no indicator given as to where feet washing should properly take place instead of in these sinks- the default assumption being that there need be no foot washing at all. Why too this insistence on opening the door with your hand? Aside from the totally fantastical proposition of manouvering yourself to use your feet in such a tiny cubicle- what really is the problem with using a foot instead of a hand? Especially if it's been washed?

No on reflection I'm not at all sure that this sign is in the least funny - and I wonder whether we really are all that good at multiculturalism here in the UK after all- or whether institutionalised colonialism still reigns in the ivory towers of middle England...

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