My grandmother recently told me, after a lull in conversation at a family get-together, that putting toilet paper on the seat “doesn’t do a damn thing.” As it goes, I have little to no recollection of how we got to this particular topic, but, as it goes, there we were talking about it. I thought about it for a moment, and decided she might have been right. If there was something infectious on the seat, a thin piece of toilet paper wouldn’t, as it were, do a damn thing. The more I thought about it, though, the more I began to think that even if it didn’t actually do anything germs-wise, I felt like it did, and that was enough for me. So, after a brief moment of silence and a few nods, I responded, “You’re probably right.”

I excused myself and went to sit in the next room, where I found my other family members talking ad nauseum about work, school, new shows they were watching, what they simply could not stand about the woke generation etc., and started to feel bad about leaving my grandmother hanging on the much more interesting conversation of bathroom etiquette. 

This is how I see it, in a broader sense: I don’t put toilet paper on the seat at home, because I know who’s using my toilet, and can be almost certain that they won’t infect me with something. Public bathrooms are an entirely different story, and actually, strangely, reveal a considerable amount about human behavior. 

It is a universally held belief that public bathrooms are disgusting, because most of the time, they are. There is something within this disgust, though, that goes deeper than miscellaneous fluids on a toilet seat; there could be nothing on the seat and I’d still put paper down. What it is is a distrust of others, the fact that people we don’t know have the capacity to be disgusting. We feel distrust because we understand this capacity within ourselves; in effect, our feelings about public bathrooms exemplify a heightened self-awareness, our own self-hatred, even. Absolutely thrilling stuff which, if I’d tried to explain to my grandmother or other family members, would’ve made me sound like a pretentious lunatic. I resolved that it was better I’d said nothing. 

And there is the upside: Much like a bathroom, my thoughts were private (though the eye contact made with strangers through the, frankly, windows of cracks in stall doors is nothing short of deeply frightening and a staple American experience). Maybe that is why public bathrooms scare us so. There is no way of knowing what someone is really doing in there, just as there is no way of knowing what someone is really thinking. It is for the best, really, that we do not know either.

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