The Psychology Of The Two-Urinal Rule

Every guy knows this basic rule about the use of a public bathroom: if someone else is using one of the bank of urinals, you need to choose a location that leaves at least one urinal between you and the other user. It’s one of those social conventions that is so widely accepted that you really notice a breach.

This week The Atlantic has a fascinating article about the psychology of the two-urinal rule and other phobias and taboos about the use of public bathrooms. I was unaware, for example, that there was a formal name for the condition that causes people to have anxiety about using a public bathroom to do “number one” — it’s called paruresis — and that affects about 20 million Americans to some extent or another. (The analogous condition about “number two,” called parcopresis, is far less common.)

IMG_4196Interestingly, men seem to be more troubled about use of public bathrooms than are women, and the free-standing, out-in-the-open urinal apparently is a significant part of the problem. Studies show that men worry that they are being watched while they are standing there doing their business, whereas women — safely seated in a flimsy yet shielded stall as they answer the imperative — tend to worry more about cleanliness and comfort. Some men’s rooms are now being designed with partitions between individual urinals to try to address the perceived privacy problem.

The article notes that, even in our wide-open culture, there are still many taboos and rigid behavioral norms about using a public bathroom — even though the notion of privacy while excreting is a fairly recent development in the long history of humans. We tend not to talk to anyone when we are inside. We don’t make eye contact with other users, and in fact strive to maintain a state of studied indifference to their very existence. And, of course, we do our best to ignore the sights, smells, and physical conditions in the bathroom and the fact that the facilities are being used by complete strangers for unpleasant but essential bodily functions.

If you use public bathrooms all the time, you incorporate these norms and obey them, accept the fact of bodily imperatives, and forget about it. For some people, that’s harder than for others. So if the guy ahead of you in the line for a urinal at the next Browns game seems to be taking a while, give him a break — he’s probably doing his best while dealing with the weight of some deep-seated psychological issues.

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In Appreciation Of An Airblade

Recently I was in a public restroom that featured a Dyson Airblade hand dryer, and it made me happy to be in America.

IMG_1134My thinking went like this.  When I was a little kid, there were two kinds of public restroom hand-drying options:  paper towels and a large cloth towel on a roller.  Both worked, after a fashion; you could dry your hands adequately, most of the time.  But both had their flaws.  The paper towels often came out in clumps and gave rise to serious bathroom litter issues.  The cloth roller, in contrast, avoided the litter problem, but often jammed, and it wasn’t uncommon to find a hopelessly disgusting, saturated, and soiled towel — which caused most guys to just wipe their hands on their shirts or pants.

In many countries, though, these two options would have been just fine.  Why waste money and the spirit of invention on a public bathroom?  Who cares if they are vile places?  But America is different, isn’t it?  Here, gas stations may actually advertise that they have clean bathrooms.  So some enterprising soul decided to use a hot air blower as a hand dryer.  It was better than the cloth towel roller or the paper towels — and certainly cheaper for the proprietor — but it wasn’t perfect.  You had to push a button, which had to be cleaned, and water dripped from your hands onto the floor as the blow-drying occurred, and the air often became uncomfortably hot and dried your hands unevenly.  Still, the initial generation of blow dryers would be plenty good enough for most places.

But not in America.  Now, we go into bathrooms with Dyson Airblades.  No button to push, no dirty cloth towel to yank, no mountain of paper towels overflowing from a trash can.  Just a sleek little device where you insert your wet hands to start the process and then withdraw them quickly, clean and dry.  Not bad!

It’s just another reason why capitalism is great.

“Toilet Gaming” And The March Of Human Progress

Just when you think we’ve reached the nadir in the arc of human social development, you read a story about “toilet gaming” — and you realize there are entirely new depths waiting to be plumbed by modern homo sapiens.

You read it right:  “toilet gaming.”  Or, to be precise, urinal gaming.  Apparently modern men simply can’t abide the 50 seconds or so of down time that usually accompanies the basic human function of bladder evacuation.  It’s just so damn tedious, standing there on the sticky floor of a public restroom, staring at the wall a few inches ahead while you answer nature’s call!  So, some enterprising British business has developed devices that allow the bored urinal user to play a video game that uses urine flow as a kind of hands-free joystick.  A good aim at inner urinal sensors that hits various targets allows you to get a top score in a skiing game or to correctly answer trivia questions, and your score shows up on a video screen directly ahead.  The developers think they’ll be able to sell advertising — presumably, for beer — on part of the video screen.

Have we really reached the point where men can’t even relieve themselves without playing a video game?  Can’t public restrooms just be devoted exclusively to their intended purpose?  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want the guy using the next urinal over to be focused on directing the stream in order to score well on a video game rather than paying careful attention to successful and prompt completion of the task at hand.