Toilet Paper Orientation

over under

Toilet paper when used with a toilet roll holder with a horizontal axle parallel to the wall has two possible orientations: the toilet paper may hang over (in front of) or under (behind) the roll. The choice is largely a matter of personal preference, dictated by habit. In surveys of American consumers and of bath and kitchen specialists, 60–70% of respondents prefer over.

Despite its being an apparently trivial topic, some people hold strong opinions on the matter. Advice columnist Ann Landers said that the subject was the most controversial issue in her column’s history. Defenders of either position cite advantages ranging from aesthetics, hospitality, and cleanliness to paper conservation, the ease of detaching individual squares, and compatibility with a recreational vehicle or a cat. Celebrities and experts are found on both sides. Some writers have proposed connections to age, sex, or political philosophy; and survey evidence has shown a correlation with socioeconomic status.

Solutions range from compromise, to using separate dispensers or separate bathrooms entirely, or simply ignoring the issue altogether. One man advocates a plan under which his country will standardize on a single forced orientation, and at least one inventor hopes to popularize a new kind of toilet roll holder which swivels from one orientation to the other.

In the article ‘Bathroom Politics: Introducing Students to Sociological Thinking from the Bottom Up,’ Eastern Institute of Technology sociology professor Edgar Alan Burns describes some reasons why toilet paper politics is worthy of examination. On the first day of Burns’ introductory course in sociology, he asks his students, ‘Which way do you think a roll of toilet paper should hang?’ In the following fifty minutes, the students examine why they picked their answers, exploring the social construction of ‘rules and practices which they have never consciously thought about before.’ They make connections to larger themes of sociology, including gender roles, the public and private spheres, race and ethnicity, social class, and age.

Moreover, Burns argues that there is an additional lesson: ‘Sociologists are often concerned that their discipline is seen merely as an elaboration of the trivial or the obvious. Therefore, the theoretical point illustrated through the paper-hanging exercise is not that small-scale realities are the opposite of big picture sociology, but rather that the big picture does not exist separately ‘out there.’ Minor details and ‘taken for granted’ rules and beliefs are the built-in meta-narratives of society, and this is what makes them so powerful.’

Burns’ activity has been adopted by a social psychology course at the University of Notre Dame, where it is used to illustrate the principles of Berger and Luckmann’s 1966 classic ‘The Social Construction of Reality.’ Similar everyday topics that have been used to awaken the sociological imagination include games of tic-tac-toe, violations of personal space, the rules of walking, and the etiquette by which men choose urinals in public restrooms.

Christopher Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, classifies the choice of toilet paper orientation under ‘tastes, preferences, and interests’ as opposed to either values or ‘attitudes, traits, norms, and needs.’ Other personal interests include one’s favorite cola or baseball team. Interests are an important part of identity; one expects and prefers that different people have different interests, which serves one’s ‘sense of uniqueness.’ Differences in interests usually lead at most to teasing and gentle chiding. For most people, interests don’t cause the serious divisions caused by conflicts of values; a possible exception is what Peterson calls ‘the ‘get a life’ folks among us’ who elevate interests into moral issues.

Morton Ann Gernsbacher, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, compares the orientation of toilet paper to the orientation of cutlery in a dishwasher, the choice of which drawer in a chest of drawers to place one’s socks, and the order of shampooing one’s hair and lathering one’s body in the shower. In each choice, there is a prototypical solution chosen by the majority, and it is tempting to offer simplistic explanations of how the minority must be different. She warns that neuroimaging experiments—which as of 2007 were beginning to probe behaviors from mental rotation and facial expressions to grocery shopping and tickling—must strive to avoid such cultural bias and stereotypes.

In his book ‘Conversational Capital,’ entrepreneur Bertrand Cesvet gives toilet paper placement as an example of ritualized behavior—one of the ways designers and marketers can create a memorable experience around a product that leads to word-of-mouth momentum. Cesvet’s other examples include shaking a box of Tic Tacs and dissecting Oreo cookies.

Sometimes toilet paper is simply entertaining. In between songs at a concert, John Hiatt will sometimes tell the tale of his wife switching her preference. Broadcaster Jim Bohannon, who once spent an hour on toilet paper orientation, explains that such issues are good for talk radio: ‘It is an interactive medium, a certain kind of clash, it doesn’t have to be a violent clash, but at least a disagreement would certainly be at the top of the list. It has to be something that’s of general interest.’

There is a difficulty in the medium of television: on the major American networks NBC and CBS, as of 1987, toilet paper was not allowed to be shown hanging next to the toilet. The 1970s sitcom ‘All in the Family’ was the first show to include a discussion of toilet paper, when Archie yelled at Meathead for hanging the paper under. In a 1995 episode of ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily,’ the children are confiscated by Child Protective Services, who hand Marge a note citing her home as a ‘squalid hellhole’ where the toilet paper is ‘hung in improper overhand fashion.’

In their 2006 book ‘Why Not?’, economists Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayres write that the debate over toilet paper is a debate about symmetry. (They also write that too much paper has been wasted on the issue, and that they prefer over.) By taking an approximately symmetric situation and flipping it around, one can sometimes arrive at a new solution to a problem with its own surprising advantages. Other physical examples include peeling a banana from the apex rather than the pedicel, or steering a car from the rear rather than the front.

There is a reflection symmetry between the left and right sides of the roll, so whether it rotates clockwise or counterclockwise is ambiguous; it depends on one’s point of view. The up/down and front/back symmetries are broken by the force of gravity and the locations of the wall and the user, so one can distinguish between two orientations: Over (the end hangs away from the wall and dispenses over the top of the roll when pulled); and Under (the end hangs next to the wall and dispenses under the bottom of the roll).

This nomenclature can also be read ambiguously. In 1991, a customer wrote to Herb Kelleher, chairman of Southwest Airlines, with an unusual complaint: ‘Dear Herb: … Last week in my journey to SFO someone put the toilet paper in wrong. Any damn fool knows the papers come out the bottom of the roll and not over the top. I couldn’t figure out how to correct the error …’ Kelleher replied, copying his senior management committee, general counsel, and customer relations manager: ‘Dear Jim: What the hell were you doing upside down in our lavatory?’ Kevin and Jackie Freiberg cite this episode in their book ‘Nuts!’ as an example of Southwest’s unconventional approach to customer service.

There are other everyday objects that dispense a sheet of material from a roll: fax machines, cash registers, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and parchment paper. One columnist who believes in the importance of toilet paper orientation writes, ‘all have to exit in the correct direction or it doesn’t work, or you cut yourself, or both.’

The main reasons given by people to explain why they hang their toilet paper a given way are ease of grabbing and habit. According to over advocates their way reduces the risk of accidentally brushing the wall or cabinet with one’s knuckles, potentially transferring grime and germs; makes it easier to visually locate and to grasp the loose end; gives hotels, cruise ships, office buildings, public places and homeowners with guest bathrooms the option to fold over the last sheet to show that the room has been cleaned; and is generally the intended direction of viewing for the manufacturer’s branding, so patterned toilet paper looks better this way.

Those who prefer ‘under’ counter that their method provides a tidier appearance, in that the loose end can be more hidden from view; reduces the risk that a toddler or a house pet, such as a dog or cat, will completely unroll the toilet paper when batting at the roll; and, in a recreational vehicle, may reduce unrolling during driving. Partisans have claimed that each method makes it easier to tear the toilet paper on a perforated sheet boundary, depending on the direction of pulling and the use of a second hand to stabilize the roll.

It is unclear if one orientation is more economical than the other. ‘The Centralian Advocate’ claims that ‘over’ saves on paper usage. A reader of ‘The Orange County Register’ found a ‘six-month study’ by a ‘university in the U.S.’ that came to the same conclusion. But a reader of the ‘Cape Argus’ wrote that a ‘British loo paper manufacturer’ came to the opposite conclusion. In his humor compilation ‘How Hemlines Predict the Economy,’ Peter FitzSimons writes that placing the hanging flap against the wall ‘is generally twice as economical.’

In the academic field of evaluation, British polymath Michael Scriven writes that the question of the correct way to insert toilet paper is a ‘one-item aptitude test’ for measuring one’s evaluation skills. These skills include the evaluative attitude, practical logical analysis, empathy, teaching, and being a quick study. To prove one’s competence, one may either derive the ‘one right answer’ or prove that the test is or is not culturally biased.

In 2010, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Thomas Crapper’s death, Cottonelle launched a ‘Great Debate’ advertising campaign, inviting American consumers to vote their preference at a Kimberly-Clark website. The result was announced during the 82nd Academy Awards: 72% had voted over. In a more traditional preliminary survey of 1,000 Americans, Cottonelle found that ‘overs’ are more likely than ‘unders’ to notice a roll’s direction (74%), to be annoyed when the direction is incorrect (24%), and to have flipped the direction at a friend’s home (27%). Besides orientation, toilet paper manufacturers and survey authors have studied other private practices around toilet paper: how much is used; whether it is torn off with one hand or two; whether it is torn off right-to-left or left-to-right; and whether it is crumpled or folded before use.

Sinrod observed of his survey, ’60 percent of those who earn $50,000 or more prefer it to be over and 73 percent of those who earn less than $20,000 prefer under.’ On what that proves: ‘I don’t know, but it’s sure interesting.’ In one local election in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, new voting machines were given a trial run by asking the question, ‘Are you in favor of toilet paper in all public washrooms being installed with the loose end coming up and over the front of the roll?’ The answer was yes: 768 to 196, or 80% over. It was thought to be a question ‘which carried no political association.’ Yet one teenager’s science project at the Southern Appalachian Science and Engineering Fair, and a favorite of the fair’s coordinator, was a survey concluding that liberals roll over while conservatives roll under.

In his 2003 book ’10 Steps to Sales Success,’ Tim Breithaupt proposes a set of four personality types evolving from Carl Jung’s work: ‘Socializer, Director, Thinker, and Relater.’ Breithaupt writes that toilet paper management is an important detail for Thinkers, while Directors don’t care so long as the paper is available. In her 2001 book ‘Three Keys to Self-Understanding,’ Pat Wyman locates having an opinion on toilet paper hanging on the Enneagram of Personality, which classifies people as Ones, Twos, Threes, and so on: ‘Ones know the answer to such dilemmas.’

Gilda Carle, a therapist and Cottonelle consultant, offers her theories on character traits: If you roll over, you like taking charge, crave organization and are likely to over-achieve; if you roll under, you’re laid-back, dependable and seek relationships with strong foundations; and if you don’t care as long as it’s there, you aim to minimize conflict, value flexibility and like putting yourself in new situations. David Grimes, a columnist, takes a more sarcastic attitude towards bathroom-informed personality tests: ‘If you are the kind of person who prefers the paper to roll over the top, then you are an outgoing, free-spending type who gets his kicks trying to sneak 11 items through the 10-items-or-less line at the grocery store; if you are the kind of person who prefers the paper to roll from the bottom, then you are a naturally suspicious sort who vacuums his house three times a day and thinks Jerry Springer is god. Or perhaps the other way around.’

Toilet paper orientation is often mentioned as a hurdle for married couples. The issue may also arise in businesses and public places. Even at the Amundsen–Scott Research Station at the South Pole, complaints have been raised over which way to install toilet paper. During the six-month-long polar night, a few dozen residents are stuck living together, and while many of the headaches of modern life are far away, food and hygiene are not. Despite the challenges posed by the hostile Antarctic climate, ‘It is in the more mundane trials of everyday life that personality clashes are revealed.’

The ‘Tilt-A-Roll’ is a swiveling toilet paper dispenser invented by Curtis Batts, a Dallas-native industrial engineer. His patents on the invention published in 1996 and 1997, summarize its design: ‘An adjustable angle coupling secures the yoke to the mounting assembly and permits rotation of the yoke about an axis directed orthogonally through the spindle such that the paper roll can be oriented to unroll paper either from over or from under the roll as desired.’

A Grand Rapids, Michigan, toilet paper enthusiast named Bill Jarrett argues that previous toilet paper orientation polls have been too small. He wants a national referendum with a least one million votes, with the result to decide a ‘national toilet paper hanging way’ to be enforced by ‘the toilet paper police.’ Jarrett refuses to reveal his own preference; he even removed the toilet paper from his house’s bathrooms before inviting in an AP reporter for an interview. ‘I’m not saying because I don’t want to influence the vote.’ Voting requires the purchase of a $5 debate kit. His value proposition to the nation: assuming that one can spend half an hour per year searching for the end of the toilet paper, the United States should save 90 million hours at home per year—and $300 million at the workplace.

Toilet paper orientation has been used rhetorically as the ultimate issue that government has no business dictating, in letters to the editor protesting the regulation of noise pollution and stricter requirements to get a divorce. In 2006, protesting New Hampshire’s ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, representative Ralph Boehm (R-Litchfield) asked ‘Will we soon be told which direction the toilet paper must hang from the roll?’

David O’Connor’s 2005 book ‘Henderson’s House Rules: The Official Guide to Replacing the Toilet Paper and Other Domestic Topics of Great Dispute’ aims to solve disagreements with a minimum of debate or compromise by offering authoritative, reasonable rules. The ‘House Rule’ for toilet paper is over and out, and a full page is dedicated to a diagram of this orientation. But O’Connor writes that ‘if a female household member has a strong preference for the toilet paper to hang over and in, against the wall, that preference prevails. It is admittedly an odd preference, but women use toilet paper far more often than men—hence the rule.’

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