It happens all the time, all around us, in public bathrooms around the world: people are unwittingly placed in uncomfortable situations which, in all likelihood, were entirely avoidable. Broadly speaking, my goal with this post is to provide you the tools with which to avoid awkwardness between you and anyone else utilizing the same facility.* The bathroom occupancy quandary is not the exclusive domain of men nor women, so I will address the topic for each gender individually.
1. IF there is a single toilet and no urinal, you are in a bathroom intended for single occupancy. Turn around and you’ll most likely find a lock on the door. Use it, and enjoy what’s bound to be a relaxing event.
2. IF there are multiple urinals in the bathroom, you are in a bathroom intended for multiple occupants and bound again for a straightforward, carefree – albeit more social – experience. Claim any unoccupied urinal as your own. In the case where both/all urinals are occupied, forming a line within the bathroom, space allowing, or just outside of it is generally acceptable (as opposed to scenario #1, where lines inside the bathroom are typically discouraged).
3. IF neither section 1 nor section 2 apply, and there is one toilet and one urinal, the odds of an awkward encounter can increase dramatically, but the opportunity for you to demonstrate your savvy increases, as well. The following mental steps should be performed quickly, and appear effortless – in fact, they should be imperceptible – to any casual observer(s):
Take stock of the door. Is there a lock? Is it the type of door you would expect to see in a residential bathroom, which might suggest single occupancy? Or is it a common-style door with no knob/latch, which might be indicative of intended multiple occupancy?
Survey the size of the room, as well as the proximity and placement of the single urinal and toilet in relation to one another. This is key. Would the average male be comfortable operating in tandem with a stranger given the space provided? Go with your gut instinct on this; chances are, it will serve you well. If the answer is “yes, he would be comfortable,” proceed to section 3(a). If the answer is “no,” proceed to section 3(b).
3(a). If you are alone (i.e. the first in), proceed to section 3(a)(1). If one or more people beat you to the punch, check out section 3(a)(2).
3(a)(1). If there is a lock on the door, you are within your right to use it, but do not use it simply because it is there. In the eyes of your fellow patrons, the questionable practice of disallowing the concurrent use of a perfectly good station can easily overshadow the subtleties of etiquette. Be smart about it; take everything into account. The style of the door noted in section 3 can also weigh into this decision, but don’t be afraid to stand by that instinct which got you to 3(a) in the first place. Whatever you decide, act with confidence.
3(a)(2). Under no circumstances do you lock the door. If there is a station open it, go for it. If both toilet and urinal are occupied, make a quick determination whether there is sufficient room to wait in line within the bathroom (in my experience, scenario #3 does not normally lend itself to internal lines); otherwise, wait outside until one person exits.
3(b). If you are alone (i.e. the first in), proceed to Step 3(b)(1). If one or more people beat you to the punch, check out Step 3(b)(2).
3(b)(1). A lock on the door is a green light for you to stake your claim to exclusive use of the facility during your tenure. It would be wise of you to use it. If there is no lock, you will likely be at the mercy of anyone who follows during your time inside; suck it up. It isn’t a bad idea to consider the style of the door at this point; though such knowledge can’t really be put to use by you directly, it might help you get inside the head of the next guy who walks in.
3(b)(2). Someone dropped the ball, and it wasn’t you. If no eye contact is made, casually make your way out of the bathroom to wait. If eye contact is made, diffuse the situation by combining a head-tilt motion toward the door behind you with the pointing of your thumb back over your shoulder, indicating to the occupant you’ll just wait outside.
Enter the bathroom and take note of current occupancy of any stalls. If one is available, use it. If not, turn around and take a seat on the couch until one becomes available.
On a personal note, I had a recent experience with scenario 3(b)(1), which was actually scenario 3(b)(2) for the other guy concerned; one in which *I* dropped the ball. The bathroom offered fairly tight quarters, but I think I was thrown off by the common-style, non-latching door. At any rate, I neglected to thoroughly inspect the door, and it is exactly this kind of cavalier attitude which causes problems.
I had assumed my position at the single urinal when shortly afterward the door opened and a guy about my age made his way to the adjacent toilet. Not only was this toilet in close proximity and sharing a wall with the urinal, but a large mirror between them and on the same wall made the situation doubly awkward. I have to believe this guy was not in peak form, either, because he was fully committed, standing almost directly in front of the toilet, by the time he realized the error of his ways. His next actions, while obviously desperate and wholly unpredictiable, were arguably effective.
He took a step back from the toilet and proceeded to do some callisthenics in order to buy himself some time. I respected that; it struck me as conciliatory but without retreat. As I finished and turned toward the sink, I issued him what I imagined was a knowing glance with the hint of a smile. The look was returned in-kind. As I expediently dried my hands on the way out, I noticed on the door, at an unusual height, a small lock I had not seen during my initial inspection. I grumbled to myself; classic mishandling of a 3(b)(1).
* This post assumes normal operating conditions. It would be foolish of me to ignore the fact there are occasional, unfortunate states of distress where desperation trumps formal etiquette; consider such frightful scenarios hereby acknowledged by me as extenuating circumstances.