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8 Unspoken Etiquette Rules for Using a Public Restroom

Using a public bathroom isn't just an exercise in being quiet and using your leg muscles to hover elegantly—it's also an etiquette adventure course for even the most seasoned travelers and professionally polite people. Here's what you need to know to gracefully handle even the ickiest of situations.

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Give a little space

“No crowding,” shares Sharon Schweitzer, an etiquette expert. “In a multiple stall bathroom, don’t choose a stall immediately next to one in use. Sound a little extreme? It’s not. Taking care of private business in a public bathroom is unnerving when a stranger insists on crowding what little privacy is available in a stall.”

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Hands off the handicapped stall

No, unless you’re genuinely handicapped. “Avoid using the handicapped stall unless you are entitled to do so,” explains Schweitzer. You never know if someone will need it after you’ve made your way in, and you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of that faux pas.

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This is not the time for a handshake

“A wet, clammy handshake is unpleasant enough. It’s worse when the question is whether it’s water, or another liquid on that hand. So offer a greeting instead if you must.” But proper bathroom etiquette also says you should refrain from discussion between stalls or over the urinal. This is especially true in the office, when you never know if another co-worker—or your boss—has snuck into the stall next to you and may overhear whatever complaint or gossip you share. (Find out the signs you can’t trust your co-worker.)

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task at hand

Focus on the task at hand

Maybe you’re an absolute pro at going to the bathroom, but there’s a good chance you don’t realize that being a chatty Kathy at the sink is breaking all the etiquette rules. Schweitzer suggests, “When in the bathroom at the sink or drying hands, avoid eye contact.” Head down and eye on the prize—hygiene!

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Put the phone away

Schweitzer wants you to know this is one of the worst displays of poor etiquette in the public restroom arena. “Never take out your phone while in a public restroom. In this day and age of social media, it’s shows poor judgment.” If you’re thinking that you just want to pass the time by reading news updates while you’re going about your business, no problem—but save it for the stall. It’s downright creepy to wait in a bathroom line in front of someone with a phone out.

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Don’t hog the roll

We’ve all been in the stall with sparse toilet paper left, and Schweitzer wants us to be friendly humans to preserve proper etiquette. “Remember that Seinfeld bathroom episode about what to do when your stall has no toilet paper? In this precarious position, it’s perfectly acceptable to quietly ask for toilet paper to be passed underneath the adjacent stall wall. The reverse is also true—if a fellow bathroom citizen is in need, do them a solid and ‘spare a square’.” But also, if you see the roll running low, do your best to leave a square or two for the person after you. Restroom karma is totally a thing.

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Keep it quiet

“If the bathroom is totally empty and you’re encountering stomach troubles, do what you need to do, but still keep it as hushed as possible,” says Jason Danbury, a hotel manager in Galveston, Texas. “If you’re next to at least one other person in a neighboring stall, please do your best to keep your internal percussion to a minimum. Tinkle sounds are acceptable though in America, within reason.”

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Keep chatting to a minimum

There’s a good chance, especially if you’re a woman, that you’ve headed to the restroom with a close friend in the middle of a meal or a concert. You’ve probably both headed into stalls and continued your conversations, but did you know that’s bad form in the world of bathroom etiquette? “Generally speaking, the whole restroom doesn’t need to hear you and your co-worker talking about payroll, your boss’s new wife, or the weird rash your kids have all gotten this week. Try to keep chatter in general to a minimum.” Danbury adds that there is always time to discuss life as you reach for paper towels and exit.

Bryce Gruber
Bryce Gruber is an expert in gift ideas, shopping, and e-commerce. You've likely seen her work across a variety of women's lifestyle and parenting outlets and on TV shows. She lives and works in New York's Hudson Valley with her five small children.