Workplace Bathroom Etiquette Question of the Day
August 6, 2019 5:21 AM   Subscribe

I have the most ridiculous question ever but it's driving me batty. A few times a week I work at a site where there is a breakroom, a restroom, and some work culture practices that leave me conflicted. Help.

This particular worksite has six other staff members, a small break room (perhaps 12'x12') and a single restroom accessed through a door in the break room. The restroom does not have a fan. I've noticed that when the other staff go in there, two things happen:

1. All but one of the staff members who are on break in the break room will actually leave the room and go hang out in the hallway or go to their desks until the restroom-user has emerged from the bathroom. The one staff member that always remains in the breakroom wears headphones while on break.

2. The person in the bathroom will turn on the sink faucet for - what I imagine is - camouflage sound. They let the water run for the entirety of the time that they are in the bathroom. This happens every single time one enters the bathroom.

I grew up in a small house with one bathroom and lots of people. I have also had many, many roommates and housemates in my life and am apparently not as squeamish as some when it comes to the Mysteries of the Restroom. I just tune it out (unless something extremely rare and truly exceptional is happening, of course). I think that the constant running of the faucet is a horrible waste of water, and that the actual leaving-the-room when someone is in the restroom is ridiculous. We only get 15 minute breaks, I don't want to spend my whole break standing in the hallway out of some weird abundance of delicacy.

I am in zero position to ask for, procure, or install any sort of fan. The bathroom does not have a window. We can't have music playing in the breakroom or anywhere else in the building (this is non-negotiable).

So, what should I do when I'm in the breakroom and someone enters the restroom?

1. Leave the room when someone enters the restroom, like most of the staff. They all have desks that they can go hang out at, but I'd be hanging out in the hall because I am not a regular staff member. I guess I could go sit outside, but it's not that nice out there. There's a bench at the bus stop but that's not where I want to spend my breaks.

2. Buy a pair of headphones so that I fit in with the other breakroom-stayer when someone is in the restroom. I read on my break, and don't like listening to anything while I read. But I can just plug them into my phone and listen to nothing while I read.

3. Just stay in the breakroom without headphones and stubbornly enjoy my 15 minutes regardless of whether the bathroom is occupied or not.


What should I do when I am in the restroom?

1. Turn the water on in all situations, like the rest of the staff. My opinion is that water is needlessly wasted but it would maintain the rather Victorian level of politeness to which the rest of the staff seem to adhere.

2. Turn on the water ONLY in truly exceptional situations. I would hope that I'd just stay home in situations like that, but you never know.

3. Leave the water off, because the only guy in the breakroom is wearing headphones and the others leave the room. Also, because I believe that the muffled sounds of someone peeing is not shocking enough to justify wasting water.

Thanks for reading. I'm probably way overthinking this, but I don't want people to think of me as some sort of gauche bathroom weirdo.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is buying a sound machine and plugging it in either in the break room or bathroom a nonstarter?

I can’t believe this level of... bashfulness, I guess? I would stubbornly stay in the break room, personally. But if you’re worried about causing a stir, I think headphones guy has the right idea. As for when you’re in the bathroom - cripes, definitely don’t waste a bunch of water to cover the sound. Everyone’s leaving the room anyway!
posted by amro at 5:30 AM on August 6, 2019 [8 favorites]

I agree it's a waste of water to mask noise. How about using a white noise app on your phone?
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 5:32 AM on August 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Leave the room or put on headphones (for appearance's sake) when someone else is in the restroom. It's not particularly unusual for people to be delicate about this (and / or to be unable to use the toilet when others are present / within earshot), and staying in the break room without the fig-leaf of headphones is likely to cause problems.

When you're in the restroom, do what you want.
posted by inire at 5:57 AM on August 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

For your first question: #2.
For your second question: #3

Let go of the "wasted water" issue. I mean, don't turn on the faucet when you're in there - but let go of judging the water wasted by your coworkers. You're not the water police, there are bigger fish to fry in terms of water savings, on much larger scales than your co-workers' bathroom time.
posted by vitabellosi at 6:19 AM on August 6, 2019 [9 favorites]

2 and 2 would be the middle path of more toward what you want whilst not standing out much from this (weird) culture that has arisen.

I bet one day five years ago someone had a really unpleasant experience in that restroom/break room and it someone this strange practice developed and entrenched.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:27 AM on August 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

You could buy one of these Japanese machines online. Google "Oto hime toilet". Either install one or get a portable.

Sound Princess

posted by whitelotus at 6:36 AM on August 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

Put on headphones, no sound in them. It could be earbuds, even; the strong implication is you're not listening. It is little or no cost to you and will keep the peace.

Do whatever you want in the bathroom. You don't mind what they hear; they can take care of themselves.
posted by gideonfrog at 6:38 AM on August 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

Are you sure that the people leaving the break room are leaving out of courtesy to the person in the bathroom? Maybe they're leaving the break room because that's what they want to do for themselves — they don't want to be around for that. So my recommendation would be for you to do what's best for you. Don't feel obligated to leave the break room if you're not averse to what's going on in the bathroom. And if you're in the bathroom, don't waste water if you don't want to waste water.
posted by emelenjr at 7:26 AM on August 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

First thing is to let go of the waste of water distress. It's not water you're paying for, and compared to the amount of water routinely wasted in agriculture, your employer's running faucet is negligible.

Next thing is to use the facilities your employer has provided for the purposes they're provided for. Sit in the break room when you're having your break and read your book. Anybody who is uncomfortable with knowing that a person on the other side of a door might hear them laying logs is perfectly placed to sit with their own feelings and sort them out for themselves.

If somebody has an issue with you sitting outside while they do their business inside, it's on them to raise it with you face to face. You're not obliged to provide your coworkers with headphone theatre.

Like SaltySalticid, I suspect we're looking at a five monkeys and a ladder scenario here. Perhaps the head of marketing five years ago had intestinal flora with the superpower of making the break room truly unbearable?
posted by flabdablet at 7:26 AM on August 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

Be courteous and leave the breakroom with everyone else. Some people honest-to-god can't go if they know someone can hear them.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 7:35 AM on August 6, 2019 [7 favorites]

Assuming there is no smell issue, geez, stay in the breakroom. There's a closed door. If a person is ultra-sensitive to being overheard, let them run the water. Otherwise....there's a closed door.

My only caveat would be if you are in a non-Western country; I gather for some of them the sound of a toilet flushing is considered more indelicate, and you should probably go along with local mores.
posted by praemunire at 7:59 AM on August 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Etiquette rules don't have to make sense - the whole point of them is to make people comfortable in social situations, whatever the logic behind them. So if it's not hurting anyone, then I would just do what everyone else has collectively agreed to do.

Acknowledging your acceptance of group social norms at work is probably more beneficial in the long run than having a few extra minutes sitting in a break room by yourself.
posted by Umami Dearest at 8:04 AM on August 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Ask yourself "What is the kindest thing to do?" then do that. Usually works for me. But usually inconveniences me as well. Such is life.
posted by cross_impact at 8:41 AM on August 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Get the pair of headphones. It's the best of both worlds: you enjoy your book, without people the person that breaks this little social custom.

You don't really know why they go this far. It could be that there is someone who has difficulty going to the bathroom when they could be overheard. It could be that someone had a noisy, unpleasant time once, and there's lingering social awkwardness. Who knows? If you're on close terms with one of them maybe you can ask.

If you like earbuds, a bonus is that they can muffle the sound and make it easier to focus on your book whether you are listening to anything or not. (You can also play ambient noise, which I often do.)

Do whatever you want when it's your turn in the bathroom.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:47 AM on August 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Get 2 Marpacs - one for the bathroom and one for outside the door.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:03 AM on August 6, 2019

As a courtesy to your co-workers, I would follow office etiquette by running water while you’re using the restroom, and wearing headphones if you must stay in the break room while the restroom is in use. Many people (myself included) would prefer to pretend no one knows they’re using the restroom. Plus it may also be how co-workers pretend the restroom isn’t so unappetizingly close to where they presumably sometimes eat/drink on break. It does not seem like a hill worth dying on.
posted by elphaba at 9:16 AM on August 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Wear the headphones, playing nothing. The other guy might actually be doing this himself, for all you know. It is apparently part of the accepted "illusion of privacy" in this space.

Don't run the water when you go. You are not embarrassed of your normal bathroom sounds and everyone leaves the room anyway, so it seems unnecessary. I assume no one would even know, except perhaps headphone guy, if in fact he is not actually listening to anything.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:55 AM on August 6, 2019

"I am not a regular staff member"

My advice is this: Don't rock the boat. Do what everyone else is doing. It's the safest thing to do.
posted by JD Sockinger at 9:58 AM on August 6, 2019 [8 favorites]

it makes me twitch when I see water wasted too, so I entirely get your emotional reaction, but everyone who's saying you gotta let that go are correct.

Also correct are the folks saying it's a kindness to give people at least the feeling of privacy in the bathroom, and to do what one can to make sure unpleasant sound does not travel from the bathroom into a space where co-workers eat. Peeing is the least of it, you know what I'm saying? If staying in there with headphones is considered ok, then do that. Otherwise just clear out with everyone else.

Fitting in at work should be your #1 concern in any case.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:19 AM on August 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Is this a hill worth dying on? Wasting water sucks, but I guarantee that you will not win any friends by trying to get everyone to turn off the water. Just because you are fine with the noises doesn't mean people are fine hearing yours (in a room where people eat!) or are fine with you hearing theirs. The kindest thing is to wear cheap earbuds while listening to nothing and follow the general office etiquette otherwise.
posted by Anonymous at 12:25 PM on August 6, 2019

Okay, this is a little odd, but it's... nice? Others have mentioned that perhaps there was some weapons-grade activity in there prior that led to this. But it's also possible that maybe there was (is?) someone who was neurodivergent, or just shy and this practice was helpful to their comfort level? Or maybe people are grossed out at the proximity of bathroom noises and food. Wearing headphones seems like the most harmless way to do what you prefer.
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 3:30 PM on August 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Having a small asss breakroom with a small ass unventilated bathroom attached to it is bad design. I would wear decoy headphones and try my best to only use that restroom for peeing. I would not run the water. If i had to poop i would try to do so in a more out of the way restroom where poop fumes would not be invading foodspace. If you gotta poop there then it is what it is, but maybe then it qould be worthwhile to pursue a stink mitigation solution.
posted by WeekendJen at 12:30 AM on August 7, 2019

Yeah, I'm curious if there's air freshener or something in the bathroom, and if people replace it quickly when it runs out. If not, going to the dollar store and bringing some back would probably make you a heroine for the ages in this environment.

(Also, flabdablet, that link you gave thoroughly debunks the "five monkeys and a ladder" fable. It's a cute story whose moral perhaps has relevance here, but in the only experiment cited as the story's probable genesis, the new monkeys appear to have been as likely to teach the old monkeys to stop the previous behavior as the opposite.)
posted by mediareport at 4:09 AM on August 7, 2019

(Well, a cute story except for the made-up part where the monkeys beat the hell out of each other.)
posted by mediareport at 4:11 AM on August 7, 2019

I'd go into the hallway and say to the group, "By the way, why are we doing this?"
posted by TrishaU at 7:22 AM on August 7, 2019

that link you gave thoroughly debunks the "five monkeys and a ladder" fable.

Indeed it does. That's why I picked it.

It's a cute story whose moral perhaps has relevance here

Indeed it does. That's why I picked it.
posted by flabdablet at 11:47 AM on August 7, 2019

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