A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

14 Bathroom Etiquette Rules People Break All the Time—but Shouldn’t

Updated: Jan. 25, 2024

Presumably, you've been using the potty for many, many years now. Isn't it time to finally get it right?

Lost Phone and wallet.Forget the phone and wallet in toilet.
Sergey Edentod/Shutterstock

Not using your phone while doing your business

It’s “unseemly” for anyone to take the phone into the bathroom, private or public, says Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas. In a private bathroom situation, the person on the phone doesn’t want to hear you doing your business. In a public bathroom situation, the person on the phone doesn’t want to hear you and everyone else doing their business, and no one in the bathroom wants to overhear your conversation.

Clean male toilet row of urinals in a public restroom black and white
Quality Stock Arts/Shutterstock

Not minding your boundaries in public

It’s also unseemly to invade the personal space of others in a public bathroom, Gottesman points out, and personal space boundaries are more sensitive in public bathrooms than in other venues. So, when choosing a stall or a urinal, as it were, if you’re not erring on putting the maximum possible distance between you and anyone else who is already there, you’re breaking bathroom protocol along with these other unspoken rules of public bathroom etiquette.

Man getting dressed in a public restroom with mirror

Not dawdling in public bathrooms

This applies regardless of whether the bathroom is single- or multi-stalled. In a single-stall bathroom, your hanging around is potentially keeping other people waiting in line outside the bathroom. In a multi-stall situation, your idling is potentially keeping “bathroom-shy” folks from doing their business. In public and in private, these rude behaviors are easy to avoid. 

Business people in office bathroom. Young man using corporate restroom, washroom and lavatory. Public toilet in building with manager brushing teeth after lunch break
Diego Cervo/Shutterstock

Not making chitchat with strangers

In a public bathroom scenario, if you’re making small talk with strangers, you’re doing it wrong, says Gottesman. “A simple nod of the head or a friendly ‘Hello’ is all that is necessary.” Don’t miss these 50 other essential etiquette rules for basically any situation.

Bathroom sign, detail of an information sign
Sergio Foto/Shutterstock

Not volunteering to join your friend in the bathroom

You might be thinking, “Don’t women always go to the bathroom together?” But the fact is, if your friend wants you to join her in the bathroom, she’ll ask. If she doesn’t ask, you can assume she wants to do her business in private. As Emily Post points out, not everyone wants a partner or an audience when they’re using the bathroom. On the other hand, if you’re on a plane, this is the right way to use the bathroom without disturbing your seat buddy.

Close up of an occupied sign on an aircraft bathroom door indicating the bathroom is in use. The word "occupied" is slightly obscured by smeared ink in the middle of the word
Myra Thompson/Shutterstock

Not backing off if the door is locked

If the door is locked, what do you do? Do you jiggle the door? Knock repeatedly? If so, you’re making the person inside uncomfortable, according to, well, basically everyone who’s ever been in that situation. Just wait your turn and follow these other daily habits of naturally polite people.

Stainless steel door knob, closed wooden door, locked door, public toilet door

Not locking the door behind you

The only thing more embarrassing than having an unplanned guest walk in on you doing your bathroom business is being the one inadvertently walking in on an occupied bathroom. That’s because the person who doesn’t lock the bathroom door should have known better. Since the person who walks right into that trap cannot unsee what they’ve seen, is it really fair to put them in that situation?

Stainless tissue dispenser or paper towel holder on the concrete wall in the public restroom

Not cleaning up after yourself

It would seem to go without saying that in every bathroom, at all times, you should never leave without cleaning up any mess you might have made. But it’s important enough that etiquette experts unanimously remind us to clean up after ourselves. That doesn’t just mean wiping dribbles off the seat/floor/wherever. Polite people run the water in the sink to remove any soap bubbles they’ve left behind and place their used towels in the proper receptacle.

Woman sitting on toilet bowl holding tissue paper - health problem concept
Pair Srinrat/Shutterstock

Not flushing things you shouldn’t flush

Speaking of proper receptacles, if you’re attempting to flush things that shouldn’t be flushed, you’re violating a very basic rule of bathroom protocol. Things that shouldn’t be flushed: anything except your own “personal” waste and a reasonable amount of toilet paper—unless you’re in one of these countries where the etiquette rules are completely different.

Toilet stall in public restroom
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Not reporting a toilet malfunction

If you find yourself in the uncomfortable position of encountering an uncooperative toilet, don’t use it. If your use of the toilet is what precipitated the problem, then the first thing you should do is to try to fix the problem, within reason. If you can’t fix it, don’t just pretend there’s not a problem, rather, report it to the appropriate person (your host, for example, if you’re at someone’s house).

Woman spraying air freshener on dark background

Not using air freshener

Air freshener is there for a reason: to freshen the air after you use the toilet. If you’re not using it, you’re not doing your part toward making the next person’s bathroom experience a positive one. Neglecting to use the air freshener is one of the many broken rules that prove you’re not a good house guest either.

Air freshener on grey background

OVERusing air freshener

Yes, use air freshener. But no, don’t overdo it. The next person to use the bathroom should be able to breathe without getting a lungful of canned, scented air.

bathroom tissue on anthracite tiled wall
Bjoern Wylezich/Shutterstock

Not changing the toilet paper roll

If you leave the bathroom with the cardboard showing on the toilet paper roll, then you’re not being considerate to the next person to use the bathroom. If the toilet paper runs out while you’re using the bathroom, it’s your job to put on a new roll and throw the empty one in the trash. When you’re in a public restroom, let the appropriate person know it needs to be replaced (i.e. bathroom attendant or restaurant manager).

White man lathering and washes his hands with soap in the restroom while keeping the faucet water running. Concept for body hygiene, disease prevention, personal hygiene, and bathroom activity

Not washing your hands

Sudsing up post-potty is not just the right thing for you; it’s the right thing for everyone who touches the doorknob after you, as well as anyone who you happen to touch after using the bathroom and anyone who happens to touch anything you’ve touched after using the bathroom. You can, however, relax about following these 13 etiquette rules even experts don’t follow anymore.