Public Bathroom Behaviors
Germs are near unavoidable. They lurk on our electronics, our bedsheets, and on every inch of our flesh. We even use ride-sharing services that see hundreds of customers without pause despite them carrying 6 million units of bacteria per square inch on average, yet the microbes lingering in public bathrooms give us particular pause.
We’ve all been there. Whether you’re at the office, a restaurant, or in the grocery store, sometimes you just have to go. And that means using a public restroom.
Navigating the ins and outs of public bathrooms isn’t always clear – especially when they’re not exactly known for being a bastion of cleanliness (although public restroom germs aren’t likely to be a danger to your health).
If you’ve ever been embarrassed, confused, or disgusted by using a public restroom, you’re definitely not alone. To learn more about common lavatory concerns, we polled over 1,000 people about their bathroom habits. Keep reading to find out how many people are worried about being heard while on the toilet, what they’re willing to do to hide the evidence, and how to navigate the potentially germy facilities.
Embarrassed by the Act
No matter who you are or how healthy you think you are, everyone has bodily functions. Farting, burping, and pooping are all facts of life whether we like it.
Despite the universality of passing gas or using the bathroom, there are still plenty of people who are embarrassed to use public restrooms. Around 61 percent of respondents (over 50 percent of men and roughly 71 percent of women) worried about what strangers smelled when they used a public restroom, and nearly 59 percent worried about being heard while on the toilet (women more so than men). Bathroom embarrassment isn’t just something that people face when confronted with a communal commode, either. There are even gadgets that can help mask the noises coming from your home bathroom.
Over 52 percent of men and nearly 61 percent of women said they were embarrassed by going to the bathroom around other people, and almost 47 percent of people admitted they couldn’t poop when other people were present.
In a time of relatively tense political divide, it’s fair to admit there are some genuine differences between people across the aisle. As it happens, those differences might also be apparent in the bathroom.
Compared to 55 percent of Independent voters and 60 percent of Republicans, nearly 66 percent of Democrats worried about what other people smelled when they used a public bathroom. Conversely, 62 percent of Republicans were concerned with being heard on the toilet, followed by just under 60 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Independent voters.
However, 22 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of both Democrats and Independent voters agreed they couldn’t urinate when other people were present. So while our political opinions may be polarized, we do share bathroom anxieties.
Going to Great Lengths
Being embarrassed by someone walking in while you’re on the toilet is one thing, but how far are some people willing to go to avoid these awkward situations?
Considering how many people were worried about being heard while using the restroom, it should be no surprise that respondents were willing to create noises to help conceal their activity. While women were almost eight percentage points more likely to flush the toilet while using the bathroom, men were six percentage points more likely to put toilet paper in the bowl to help muffle the sound.
Need something even more distracting? We found it’s not entirely uncommon for men and women to make other noises (like coughing), and 1 in 4 people confessed to running the faucet while on the toilet.
Put Your Phone Away
Maybe it’s because you need a distraction while using the bathroom in public, or it’s because scrolling through Instagram is just the easiest way to pass the time, but there’s a fairly high chance your cell phone is dirtier than your toilet seat.
Studies show our cellphones have 10 times the amount of germs compared to the average toilet seat – and that includes the kind linked to E. coli. The next time you offer to take a picture with a stranger’s phone, consider this: Roughly 63 percent of men and 39 percent of women admitted to texting while pooping in a public restroom.
Breaking the Silence
Talking to strangers is already stressful enough, and it’s not only because our parents taught us that engaging people we don’t know could be risky.
The bathroom is no exception, but it might be slightly worse for women compared to men. Of those surveyed, nearly 68 percent of women were uncomfortable talking to strangers while peeing in a public bathroom. And just because men aren’t offered the same level of privacy as women in most public restrooms doesn’t mean they’re OK with striking up a conversation in the middle of the act, either. Close to 62 percent of men felt awkward talking to a stranger while using the restroom.
Of course, if you want to avoid unnecessary chatter in the bathroom, you might want to be careful who you’re next to. While over 69 percent of Democrats were put off by the idea of conversing with someone between the stalls, less than 62 percent of Republicans agreed.
A Better Solution
United We Flush
Public restrooms aren’t known for instilling confidence in cleanliness. And while some concerns could be unfounded according to scientific research on the matter, that doesn’t stop some people from going to great lengths to avoid coming into contact with germy surfaces.
While roughly 28 percent of men and women kept things simple by using their hands to flush public toilets, others got much more creative. Around 57 percent of women and 48 percent of men used their feet to flush the toilet, while another 13 percent of women and 14 percent of men grabbed a piece of toilet paper first before touching the handle. Concerns over bathroom cleanliness could be rising with each passing generation, too. Millennials (almost 56 percent) were more inspired to flush with their feet compared to Gen Xers (nearly 54 percent) or baby boomers (35 percent).
When it comes to politics, there’s a lot that can divide us. However, when it comes to avoiding potentially gross restroom surfaces or steering clear of germy toilets, we’re more alike than different.
Over half of the people surveyed (including 55 percent of Independent voters and 51 percent of both Democrats and Republicans) used their feet to flush public toilets. A few brave souls, including 29 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of Republicans weren’t worried about flushing the toilet with their hands, although roughly 14 percent of each political affiliation used toilet paper to flush. In either case, it’s always best to wash your hands if you want to avoid picking up bacteria from a communal bathroom.
Every Party Poops
No one likes being bored while using the bathroom, but that still doesn’t mean pulling out your phone is the best solution.
Texting on the toilet wasn’t exclusive to one political affiliation, but there’s a chance Republicans could have more germs on their cellphones than either Democrats or Independent voters. Considering not everyone is willing to be honest with their doctors about their health concerns, you might not expect them to honest about their germy habits either. Compared to 47 percent of Independents who texted on the toilet, nearly 51 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Republicans could be exposing their technology to some pretty nasty bugs.
Keeping Things Comfortable
Using the bathroom is a universal experience, but doing it in the presence of strangers may never feel comfortable. A significant proportion of people have trouble being honest about natural parts of the human experience with their physicians in private spaces, so it’s unsurprising they hold qualms about sharing personal activities in public ones. For some people, even pooping in front of their significant other is hard, and pooping near a stranger might be downright impossible. While many people feared that public toilets were dirtier than the average home bathroom, interactions with new people during their most intimate moments got a lot of people worked up as well.
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Methodology and Limitations
We surveyed 1,017 people using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk as a distribution. Of our respondents, 532 were women, and 483 were men; two respondents chose not to disclose their gender. The average age of our respondents was 36. These data were not weighted and should be taken purely as content and trends. Further research will help to clarify if these trends are statistically reliable and worthy of a more thorough study.
Fair Use Statement
Want to help share the unwritten rules of public bathrooms everywhere? We welcome the sharing of this study’s findings for any noncommercial use. No need to talk about it — just make sure to include a link back to this page so that our contributors get credit for their efforts on this project.