Urinal etiquette in a smartphone age

Entry originally appeared in Peter Post’s E Word blog for The Boston Globe.

Please pardon me for what I am about to bring up, but I’m actually serious. I’m in a men’s room doing my business when someone steps up to the urinal next to me, talking on his cell phone as he proceeds to do his business. A host of questions come to mind each time this happens, and each time I hesitate to respond, so clearly I am still vexed as to how to handle the situation.

First, there’s any noise he or I happen to be making. There can be a noticeable sound, anywhere from a garden sprinkler to running water. Should I attempt to quiet the “noise,” or let it rip?

Then comes the question of flushing. No doubt about it, flushing is audible. Even if the person on the other end of the phone hasn’t figured out what is going on, the flushing is a sure give away. So, as I finish, do I step away quietly and not flush or do I flush? I think: “Flush. “

Now the last time this situation arose, he finished before me. I was curious: Would he flush? It turns out he had a modicum of concern for the impact on the person he was speaking with. He kind of stepped back, about as far as his arm would let him, and then he yanked the handle, quickly stepped away and was gone. And, of course, that raised the issue of does he put the phone down to wash his hands, or does he, ugh, skip that sanitary step? I think to myself, “I hope I don’t have to shake his hand.”

And then there’s a third issue about phones and public places like public restrooms. Not that it’s happened to me, not that I really think it will. But smartphones have cameras and frankly, I don’t want to be the subject of surreptitious photos.

Now I am speaking only from the male experience here, although I have also heard women speak out on the subject. And the advice I have for everyone is: Put the phone away when you’re in a public restroom, please. If I’m on the other end of the call, I don’t want to hear you doing your business. And if I’m standing next to you, I simply want to get done and not be embarrassed or put into an embarrassing position.ou.

Peter Post’s Essential Manners for Men was first published in 2003 and became a New York Times bestseller for advice books. Essential Manners for Men 2nd Edition is available now.


  1. Jerry

    As an initial matter, I don’t use the phone when I’m in the restroom because I find it inconvenient. But, the topic about whether someone can use the cellphone in a public restroom is much ado about nothing:

    1. If you’re not afraid to “let it rip” because someone is standing next to you, why would you be afraid to “let it rip” because someone was standing next to you while talking on his phone? You ordinarily owe no duty to quiet your bathroom noises; why would you owe a duty to quiet your bathroom noises merely because someone is talking on their phone? Any ambient noises are between the caller and the recipient of the call. (Or would you hold the subway responsible for ambient noise if the caller decided to make a call during a morning commute?)

    2. With respect to flushing, see point 1.

    3 With respect to hand washing. I am actually able to hold my cell phone between my shoulder and my ear so as to be “hands free” for minutes at a time. I do this on occasion in the kitchen. (Also, what if I’m using an earpiece? See point 4, infra.) Please do not pass judgment on others’ ability to manage their hygiene.

    4. With respect to the camera functionality on many modern phones, it’s kind of obvious when someone is using the phone as a camera and when they’re using it as a phone. But more importantly, what are you doing in the rest room — in what sort of state of undress are you — that you’re worried about “surreptitious photos?” (This is a serious question.) Because if you’re dangling your parts out there for all to see, you’ve probably got bigger problems than camera phones. (And if you’re not dangling your parts, what are you really worried about?) Does your calculus change at all if someone uses a hands free blue tooth device? If not, why not?

  2. Jody

    I’m speaking from a female viewpoint here. If I’m in the restroom stall “doing my business” and somebody is in there with a cell phone, I feel no obligation to hold back on noises. It’s a restroom, not a phone booth after all. There are some individuals who step into the restroom or stairway to make what they think are private calls, but fail to realize (or don’t care) that not only does the tile room make the phone echo, there are the extraneous restroom noises the caller will hear.

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