Every day, office workers must enter and use the most intimate public space in the building: the shared office bathroom.
With this need comes the daily anxiety and annoyance of running into colleagues and bosses who may not share your preferences for how to act in the bathroom. Some professionals treat the space as their personal conference room to text, conduct phone calls and discuss business out loud.
A company hierarchy may even continue behind stall doors. “If my manager noticed me going to the bathroom, she would also go to the bathroom, pick the stall next to me and then give me tasks to do,” said Monika, a customer service associate for a department store.
For Monika, this was an unwanted interruption into her personal time. “Like, this couldn’t freaking wait?” she said she thought. “I’m having ‘me time,’ get out.”
The lack of sound and smell privacy already has some professionals hiding their feet when completing their business, or waiting forever for the bathroom to empty. A colleague who talks to you out loud can make the experience all the more fraught. But if you end up with a work bathroom chatterer, know that you do not have to be an unwilling participant in the conversation. Ending work talk in the bathroom just takes a tactful deflection and a simple assertion that this is not the right time.
Understand where the desire to chat may be coming from
For some people who are especially connected to their work, it can seem natural to discuss deliverables in an office bathroom.
“It’s a function of some people having lower, porous boundaries,” said executive coach Monique Valcour. “For some people, it’s that it doesn’t occur to them that you wouldn’t launch right into professional work matters when you see somebody.”
At its extremes, an aggressive workplace culture can extend to the bathrooms. One anonymous former Amazon employee described a men’s room to Motherboard as “an extension of the office” where “engineers would talk to each other through stalls. On many occasions, I heard people take phone calls while mid-business. It was hard to tell if someone was groaning because it was difficult to code or difficult to poop.”
Workplace design can also be encouraging professionals to seek out the bathroom as a space for conversation. “If your workplace is a very open layout, then the bathroom is a place where you can have more private conversations,” said Melody Wilding, an executive coach and licensed social worker.
Know that sometimes acknowledgment in the bathroom is actually necessary
For sensitive people attuned to other people’s energies, not receiving any form of acknowledgment from a colleague can be interpreted as a signal of not being valued or liked. This doesn’t require chatter between stalls, but a brief acknowledgment of existence when in spaces where talking is more acceptable, like locker rooms and sink areas.
“The farther you get from the act of defecation, and urination next, the more OK it becomes. When you start the sink business, you start to be a little more open. As you’re drying, you’re really getting more open. And then as you toss the paper towel in the can and make your way toward the exit door, I think that you can then have more license to chuckle, to say something,” said Harvey Molotch, a professor of sociology at New York University and co-editor of “Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing.”
Molotch noted that he thinks women are more likely to connect in this way than men. And the bathroom sink can even be seen as a site for potential relationship-building. During one of her first magazine internships, freelance writer Mara Santilli said she did not introduce herself to the glamorous editor-in-chief at the magazine at the office bathroom sink, but she thought about it. “I almost wish I would have said ‘screw it’ to my sartorial insecurities and introduced myself to her at the sink ― maybe I would even have a job at that magazine by now!” Santilli said.
Valcour said she’s heard stories of people wondering if their colleague hated them from the way they were ignored in the gym locker.
“Boundaries are the thing where you can be too rigid or too porous,” Wilding said. Pretending your colleagues that you know well don’t exist when they’re by the office sink can be too rigid, for example: “It kind of violates the social norm of what people expect, that friendliness.”
“A brief warm connection can have benefits in and of itself,” Valcour said. “General baseline strategy is to acknowledge each person that you see that you at least know by sight with a smile, eye contact, maybe a, ‘Hello, good morning/good afternoon,’ and be consistent in doing that, which should help to allay any anxiety arising over how other people behave toward you.”
You can’t control how people react to you by the bathroom sink, but you can model how you want to be treated.
“If you’re consistently being pleasant, friendly, professional, then if somebody else is reacting sort of strange, it’s likely more to do with what’s happening internally with them than what they think about you,” Valcour said.
Assert your boundaries when you don’t want to talk
If you’re made uncomfortable by your resident office bathroom talker, know that you’re not alone. “I think bathroom anxiety is very, very common, and I think more people experience it than not,” said licensed psychologist Michele Leno.
“It’s the most intimate place and yet we’re doing it in public. This sets it up as fraught with anxiety and tension,” Molotch said. “What you do is you make-believe when you go into those little stalls that you’re private when you’re not.”
Having a colleague talk to you in a stall can feel like a violation against this unspoken agreement.
To set the boundary, you can state, “‘Hey, can you give me a few minutes? I need to use the restroom,’” Leno said. “Leave it at that. You don’t want to give a long explanation. If a person can’t understand that, it’s really not your problem.”
Wilding said if you’re confronted by a bathroom talker, you can gradually escalate, becoming more and more direct if the talker doesn’t get the hint. Initially, the language could sound like, “‘I appreciate that you want to talk about this. It would be better if we wait till we’re outside of the restroom.’ Or ‘We could have a better conversation once we’re back at our desks,’” Wilding said.
If those hints are ignored, get more specific with language like “I’d rather not talk while I’m in the bathroom. Please excuse me. I’ll come find you when I’m done,” Wilding suggested. She said the next escalation could be an outright refusal like “No, that’s not something I can talk about right now. I need my privacy. Thanks for respecting that.“
Wilding said advice for asserting this boundary is the same regardless of whether the talker is your boss or your colleague.
“It comes down to personal privacy,” she said. “If anyone violates that, whether they’re your boss, or your co-worker, you have a right to that privacy to do those things in the way you want to do them.”