Have you ever waited inside a bathroom stall longer than you have to, not because you’re busy scrolling through Instagram or filling up a fantasy Shopbop cart you’ll never pull the trigger on, but because you’re waiting for someone outside the stall to leave? “Everyone does this,” was one response I received when I put this question to the Twitterverse. And I believe that’s true, because I’ve done it, and I’ve observed other people doing it to me, to the point that I sometimes feel bad if I take too long artfully half-tucking my t-shirt or fixing my lipstick in the mirror. (Also, to the point that, when someone doesn’t do it, I’m kind of like hey, stay in there, don’t you know the rules?!) This behavior seems especially rampant in the modern, open-plan workplace, where we’re pretty much face to face with one another for 40-plus hours a week. We can’t avoid our colleagues. Except, with a little extra effort, in the bathroom.
Beverly, a content sales manager in New York, also cops to “waiting to leave/exit the stall to avoid speaking to groups of workers,” and tells me she does this to “avoid any awkward social interactions or to avoid them from feeling rushed” while washing their hands.
Lurking in stalls long after we’ve finished our official bathroom business is one of a few notable, unusual behaviors office workers have adopted to assuage the fact that we’re peeing and pooping mere feet away from superiors, subordinates, and peers. If you have self-contained bathrooms in your office, you might not be familiar with stall-lurking, because you don’t have to worry about lines or small talk or bodily sounds. But you’re probably often concerned that you’re taking too much time in there, or leaving behind an unpleasant smell. And god forbid you should only have one toilet for your whole office. That’s enough to put you off coffee altogether. Unless you work in a place where you have you have very own private bathroom, chances are you’ve done something odd in regards to relieving yourself, whether it’s waiting until the coast is clear or leaving the building in search of a public restroom.
“I work on the seventh floor. I regularly march my happy ass up to the ninth floor — all conference rooms, very quiet — to poop,” admits Zoon, who works in the oil and gas industry. “I need my space!”
There are a lot of things about contemporary workplaces that can trigger our social anxiety: you can hear everyone’s conversations, smell everyone’s food, and intimately experience everyone’s strange little tics and habits (while they, in turn, hear, smell, and experience yours). Many of us clearly need to draw the line somewhere. And that somewhere is not having so-and-so from marketing know that you are the one making those noises next to them and then having to jostle for the hand soap while chatting about how you both “really can’t believe it’s only Wednesday.”
Even if you’re not shy about your bodily functions, often, bathrooms are the only place in an open-plan office where workers can find privacy. Thus, Ilana from Broad City’s habit of bringing a pillow into the bathroom stall and napping while on the clock at Deals, Deals, Deals really isn’t so far-fetched. “Using my nicotine vape pen secretly in the bathroom and raising my feet if any other workers or colleagues enter the bathroom to avoid being discovered, then simply waiting it out until they leave and making my own quick exit,” is something Beverly cops to doing. “Definitely not proud of this one, but it saves time on taking breaks outside and is simply vapor,” she says.
But, says Dr. Michele Leno PH.D., LP., founder of DML Psychological Services, this behavior has real psychological underpinnings. “You’re lucky if you get two seconds of privacy during the day,” she explains. “That definitely affects people. The bathroom is the one place where you don’t have to worry about anyone invading.”
Perhaps you’re the type of person who doesn’t mind small talk and doesn’t have any “bad” habits to contend with at the office, biological processes be damned. If that’s you, well, according to Dr. Leno, you’re the minority. “There are probably a handful of people who go into the bathroom and don’t really care,” she says. “And those are the people who are inclined toward making small talk. Because it’s like, it’s no big deal. Passing gas, no matter what they’re doing. They represent a handful or less of the population.”
For the rest of us, bathrooms are a double-edged sword. They’re rife with potential embarrassments and inconveniences, but they are also often our only respite from the harsh realities of office existence. We relieve ourselves in them, yes, but we also cry in them. We laugh at memes in them, we fix our makeup in them, and text our friends from them. But for a space that plays such an integral part in our day-to-day lives, it seems most companies don’t think too much about bathrooms. Emily Strachan, associate director of SquareFoot, a commercial real estate start-up, says for most companies she works with, “Bathrooms are always the 11th-hour issue, never the first issue. No one thinks about it.”
However, Strachan does typically advise clients that they should have at least one toilet for every 20 employees. “If more than 20 people are sharing it, things can get dicey,” she says. Strachan adds: “Company bathrooms should accommodate people’s needs for greater privacy, especially if they might run into a manager there. That can make things awkward for all parties. When an office has a single stall bathroom built in, you will probably get to know each other a bit too well. People have their regular morning routines, and you’re bound to notice who’s running on the same timeline as you are.”
Some companies seem to be taking steps to mitigate potential discomfort. WeWork bathrooms, for example, have spacious, floor-to-ceiling stalls and even make use of music, which can help people feel more comfortable and mitigate the awkwardness of sitting next to someone trying to do your business in an otherwise silent environment.
“I’ve thought that all public restrooms need to be renovated so that you have complete privacy from top to bottom,” argues Dr. Leno. “Most designs are really old school and just not there. The attitude is you’re in public and you don’t need privacy, but since going to the bathroom is so personal, it is that space you have for quiet time, and you really don’t want to be bothered.”
But would we so ravenously crave bathroom solitude if we felt we could access that in other places? For the introvert — or just the person having a bad day — the open-plan office can feel especially punishing. Perhaps that’s part of the reason that backlash to them seems to be brewing. What’s more, a 2018 Harvard study showed that they make teams significantly less productive. Meanwhile, there’s a push for gender neutralization in bathrooms, both of which could lead companies to re-think the physical structure of restrooms.
For now, though, the silver lining may be that there’s something humanizing about drying your hands opening the door to leave the bathroom only to hear someone finally, in your soon-to-be absence, clicking out of their stall. If no one’s above self-conscious stall-lurking, then perhaps we’re all a lot more similar than it sometimes seems.