There exists etiquette for all social situations. It is in equally poor taste to eat pot roast with your fingers or send an email in shouting capital letters to your boss, and we all know why. Rules of etiquette do not need to be lengthy. They need only cover basic manners in social situations.
Awkward as it may be, a public bathroom is a social situation, whether you engage the other occupants or not. I use certain rules of etiquette that reduce the offensiveness of using such facilities. To clarify, I am not talking about throwing paper towels in the trashcan instead of on the floor, or making sure you flush. Those actions are obvious, though overlooked in many public bathrooms. I am talking about respecting the limited privacy of others in a public bathroom setting.
There are few places I loathe more than public bathrooms. There is something about the total anonymity of a public bathroom that justifies the disgusting. Workplace bathrooms are especially awful. Total anonymity does not exist in the workplace. I don’t know if men do this, but ladies, your shoes give you away. You know what I’m talking about.
I despise sharing a bathroom with others. I know this is unreasonable. People have to use the bathroom. At best, I tolerate sharing the space when my bathroom business isn’t … um… urgent. However, if the door should open during a critical moment, the unseen person, the intruder, is invading my space. I grit my teeth and hurl silent, frustrated curses at them, thinking at them oh-my-god-just-hurry-up-and-leave. I become obsessed with questions about them.
Intruder to Fictitious Other: You are not going to believe who I smelled in the bathroom today!
Fictitious Other: *gasp* The one with the black Mary Janes?
Some people handle this discomfort by going to a bathroom on another floor. I have tried this. It was worse.
I felt conspicuous as I stepped off the elevator. I was sure everyone knew what I was doing there. I actually heard the Mission Impossible theme song as I fought the urge to sneak around every corner. Also, every workplace bathroom has a rhythm. There are certain times of day when there is more bathroom traffic. I couldn’t gauge the timing in the foreign land of this new floor. It seemed like there were a thousand women milling about the hallway to get into one of the three stalls. Admitting defeat, I tucked my tail between my legs and returned to using the bathroom on my floor.
By chance, I discovered a single occupant bathroom. It is the only handicap accessible bathroom for 3 floors, so I felt terrible using it, like I was parking in a handicapped space. But does guilt trump a bathroom emergency? No. It does not.
The entire time I was in this gloriously private space, I was certain there was a desperate handicapped person doing the pee-pee dance in their wheel-chair on the other side of the door. When I exited the bathroom the Mission Impossible theme song was replaced with a red strobe light and a loud voice announcing, “WHOOP WHOOP! NON-HANDICAPPED PERSON IN THE HANDICAPPED RESTROOM! WHOOP WHOOP!”
I fast-walked back to the elevator, head down, face an unflattering shade of crimson, not daring to look anyone in the eye. Once I was safely back in the elevator, I learned to breathe again. I hadn’t been caught. And, in spite of all the guilt and imaginative paranoia, will I use that bathroom again, rather than go next to someone in the three-seater?
My own bathroom emergencies are not the only situation that will drive me out of my floor’s bathroom. Sitting in the stall directly next to someone else having their own bathroom emergency will do it, too. If I have the choice of
a) using the stall directly next to another occupied stall, or
b) going to another floor,
I will go to another floor. The bathroom is and should be an intensely private place and, let’s face it, bathroom habits are weird. I have heard people hum, sing, talk on the phone and (this really baffles me) talk to other people who are also physically in the bathroom while doing their business. This is intensely uncomfortable to listen to. I neither want nor need to participate in another person’s bathroom experience. Sitting next to another person while this is going on is inconceivable.
I have developed a personal bathroom strategy to mitigate the risk of being too involved in another person’s bathroom experience. I have found these simple rules to work well in the workplace.
Meghan’s Bathroom Etiquette Rule #1: Choose wisely.
Stall selection is important. Do not take the stall immediately next to another person unless every other toilet in your entire building is occupied. If you walk into an empty bathroom, choose a stall that will not force the next person that enters the bathroom to sit right next to you. This builds a cushion of space between you and the humiliation being endured two stalls over.
Meghan’s Bathroom Etiquette Rule #2: If you are done in the bathroom, leave.
The way I see it, there are two categories of bathroom intruders in the work place. Every person falls into one of these two categories. The First Category of intruder, of which I proudly consider myself a member, recognizes that the person in the next stall needs time and privacy, not an audience. First Category intruders conclude their business quickly. The Second Category of bathroom intruder, though, is either blatantly inconsiderate or agonizingly dense.
Second Category intruders linger.
Initially, the two categories follow the same process when they are leaving the bathroom. They flush the toilet, and wash their hands (well… most do). First Category intruders now leave the bathroom. Their business is done. They have no need to stay. They touch up their lipstick, or comb their hair at their desk. Second Category intruders loiter about while you try to have a personal moment in peace. They are ignorant of the torment they are inflicting upon you.
From my seat behind the stall door, I wonder why they are still there. Why, for the love of God, are they hanging about after their business is so obviously done, and mine is so obviously not…?
I hear little sounds of hair being fixed, teeth being brushed, and on one gag-worthy occasion, snot-rockets blown into the sink. In an uncomfortable silence, I imagine mascara being reapplied or waistlines being studied to see if the chocolate cake from the break room has caught up with them yet. When I find myself at their mercy, I work on my telepathic skills and fire little emotional bullets of desperation at them, insisting that they leave, leave now, just get out.
Meghan’s Bathroom Etiquette Rule #3: If an unpleasant sound is imminent, flush.
Bathroom sounds are my kryptonite. Office bathroom acoustics are such that even small squeaks and splashes are amplified and reverberated tenfold. I have kids. I understand that these sounds are sometimes involuntary and thereby forgivable. What is not forgivable is an audio recap of the Mexican food the executive down the hall had for lunch.
When there are others in a public bathroom, a well timed flush can earn you sainthood. I have been told that a flush can mitigate damage to the air quality in a bathroom. I have not observed this to be true. Bathrooms have smells. It happens. However, being a member of the First Category of intruders, I do not stick around long enough for smells to matter much. And if the air quality is bad, why, for the love of God, would you Second Category women want to stick around? Do you want your lipstick to pick up that smell?
That’s it! Believe me, if I could run home every time I had to go (or GO!), I would. Sadly, office bathrooms are a necessary evil. Simple, polite and universal bathroom etiquette can make this slightly more bearable. Please, be aware of those around you.
And if you find yourself caught behind a stall door, praying to whatever God you believe in that the !@#$& at the sink will remember she has a meeting to go to right now, try to keep perspective:
At least you are being paid to sit there.