Bathroom Etiquette 101

I was watching the first episode of Broadchurch on Netflix last night when a scene gave me pause to think that maybe it’s time for a column about office restroom etiquette, specifically about people using a cell phone while in an office restroom. The scene involved a woman who had just been passed over for a promotion and she was in a restroom stall having a conversation on her phone. Now, in this instance she was fully clothed and not using the stall for its intended purpose but rather as a place to have a private conversation.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with cell phone use in restrooms. They are not private spaces, as the woman found out when someone else in the restroom shouted out that fact to her.

I know it’s a temptation to multi-task by using a phone in a stall in an office or communal restroom, but it’s actually intrusive to other people who are using the space. They are trapped. Until they finish, they have no way to easily excuse themselves from your conversation, and just not listening is not possible. I also wonder: Is the person who enters the restroom first and then hears the start of a phone call by a person who comes in after them obliged to announce their presence? For example: “Marge, FYI I’m in here, too. Just thought you should know.” Given that Marge may not have realized she wasn’t alone, probably making that announcement is the most courteous thing to do.


Most times when I’ve witnessed calls made in restrooms, people don’t simply go into a stall just to make a call, they have other business to attend to as well. For the person on the receiving end of the call, it is plain rude to be subjected to the various unavoidable noises either from the person making the call or from any other people using the restroom.

The same basic problem exists when men use urinals. More than once I’ve been subjected to a man coming up next to me with his phone in hand conducting a conversation while he starts doing his business. (Let’s not even discuss the obvious hygiene issues here.) The etiquette dilemma I struggle with is: Do I flush or don’t I flush? I don’t care if he hears my flush but is my flushing rude to the person to whom he is talking? So far my choice is to flush, but it still makes me uncomfortable. Any rudeness belongs to the person using the phone for subjecting both of us to an awkward if not downright unpleasant situation.

The etiquette of the office restroom is simple: Don’t make a call while in the restroom and if your phone does ring, send the call to voicemail.

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.


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