February 25

Men’s Room Protocol

February 25, 2007

Personal Growth

One day while I was in the operating room, I overheard two nurses talking. One of them said to the other, “Yesterday I was in the ladies’ room at a restaurant, and I met this interesting woman. She said . . .”

What I had just heard was so shocking that I stopped what I was doing, put my instruments down — the patient was under general anesthesia — and without thinking interrupted her by asking, “You talked to a stranger in the restroom?”

She said, “Sure” in a tone communicating that such an event wasn’t unusual at all for her.

I shook my head and said, “Do other women do that?”

“All the time,” she said.

I was more than forty years old and learning this stunning fact for the first time. “Men do not speak in restrooms,” I said. “Ever.”

That experience made me think about how men interact with each other under many conditions, and I realized that there are unspoken, but still rigid and powerful, guidelines that govern how men relate to each other, and these guidelines speak volumes about our nature. Let me share with you some of these guidelines:

1. Men usually speak to each other only for a specific and limited reason: to pass on information, for example, or to accomplish a well-defined task. They call each other to order lumber, to arrange a meeting, to negotiate the price of a product, and so on. If a man calls another man and doesn’t come to some kind of point — an item of business, a vital piece of information — within 10 seconds, the other man will say, “What can I do for you?”

2. Men gather together only to accomplish a specific task: to hold a meeting, to attend a ball game, to play softball, to put up a barb-wire fence, and so on.

3. If men are put in a position where they’re in the same room without a specific reason to speak or work together — like waiting in a doctor’s office where there is no barb-wire fence to put up — they simply do not speak. If they are absolutely trapped in close quarters, like sitting next to each other before a meeting starts, they speak only about the most superficial subjects: sports, the weather, the war in Bosnia, and so on.

It’s these general guidelines that helped shape the very specific, time-honored, and inflexible rules that govern the behavior in a men’s room.

1. This first rule determines all the others. Men go to the restroom only to perform their bodily functions. Period. During that time, the privacy of each man is inviolable.

2. Men do not speak to each other in restrooms. Ever. It is forbidden. A men’s restroom is like a sacred tomb. Speaking would turn it into a social gathering, which would be entirely inappropriate in a place where private bodily functions are the principal goal. If a young boy accompanies his father into the restroom and starts talking to his father, that is a barely forgivable offense. The child is not killed only because of his age and his ignorance of the code. The other men in the room then look at the father and relay the unspoken message that he’d better inform his son in a hurry about The Rules. No father forgets The Look twice.

3. Men do not make eye contact with each other in the restroom. To do so would be an unconscionable violation of the privacy of another man in a sacred place. If you doubt this, station yourself outside a public men’s room and watch the men and they go in and out of this holy chamber. You will never see one pair of eyes lock with another. Sacrilege.

4. Men do not wait in line in restrooms. In the rare circumstance where a men’s restroom is full, men may pretend to comb their hair, examine the ceiling tiles for structural integrity, repeatedly wash their hands, or leave the restroom and come back when it’s not full. But they will never stoop to actually stand in a line. To stand behind another man at a urinal or to obviously wait outside a toilet stall would be an intolerable breach of etiquette and personal privacy.

5. If there are multiple urinals in the restroom, men must use alternating urinals unless absolutely unavoidable. Let’s imagine, for example, that I come into the restroom and there are four urinals on the wall. If another man is using the second one from the left, I may use the fourth, but never the first or third, which would place me next to the man standing. The same rule applies to multiple toilet stalls.

6. If you have no toilet paper in your stall, that’s just tough. You’re out of luck. The fates have abandoned you to your dismal end. Next time you’ll check before you sit down, won’t you? A man does not speak to get the help of another man to save him in such a humiliating situation. He simply handles it in as dignified a fashion as possible — the possibilities of which are never to be spoken.

7. After relieving oneself, if there is no soap at the sink — as there usually isn’t in a public restroom — a man must pretend to wash the bacteria from his hands with plain water. Otherwise, everyone will assume that he was raised in a barn with the pigs. There is some flexibility with this one rule because many men WERE raised in a barn and are proud of their porcine heritage.

8. Under no circumstances whatever may a man standing at a urinal look down and to the side. The proper position is always to stand still while looking straight ahead at the wall. Graffiti is sometimes provided for reading material.

There are no penalties for violation of these rules — commandments, really — because violation is simply inconceivable. Boys are taught these rules from an early age, and they don’t even realize they’re learning them. Keep in mind that I was over forty years of age before I even realized that I wasn’t speaking in men’s rooms. Recently I was walking into a men’s room at a theater, and right behind me was a boy, about age fourteen, who in turn was followed by his younger brother, maybe four years old. They were talking as they approached the men’s room, but the moment the four-year-old’s foot touched the threshold of the inner sanctum, his older brother put his finger to his lips and said, “Shhhhh.” In that moment, if I had asked the older boy why he was shushing his younger brother, I guarantee you that he would not have known the answer. He would simply have known to his core that in that sacred place there should be no talking.

A man’s time in a restroom is no laughing matter. Many men will not use a public restroom at all. Or they walk into a restroom to be sure no one else is there before they will use it.

I share all this partly because it reveals so much about the nature of men. Most men are not even consciously aware of the rules, but they keep them anyway. Virtually no women are aware of this code of conduct, and it has a bearing on their understanding the behavior of men everywhere they go.

There’s a point to all this. Women often blame their husbands for the lack of intimacy in their relationship. They get angry because their husbands aren’t more communicative, warm, and sensitive. But we see just from this tiny glimpse into the lives of men in restrooms that men have learned from the time they were very little boys that the more they communicate, the more they open themselves up for criticism, ridicule, and pain.

As I describe typical male behaviors — restroom behavior being just one example — men all nod their heads in agreement, remembering these moments very well. Women shake their heads and think I’m talking about another species. Actually, men and women are NOT so very different. They both have the same central need to be unconditionally loved. However, they do tend to react differently to the absence of Real Love. Women were taught to please other people and to earn their praise, one form of Imitation Love. Men were taught above all to avoid criticism and being laughed at. They protect themselves to maintain their sense of power and to ensure safety, which are other forms of Imitation Love.

Watch a group of second-grade boys during recess, and you can see that they’ve already learned the traits that will make them men and that will make them unhappy the rest of their lives. Girls will hold hands as they skip along. Boys never touch each other except to hit each other or to interact in some form of athletic activity. Girls will encourage each other during a game and help someone who lags behind. Boys will laugh at and make fun of almost anyone who isn’t proficient at a task or sport. They choose the poor athletes last for their teams. They make fun of a boy who has anything at all different about him: an unusual last name, a speech impediment or accent, hair that’s different, glasses, a body that’s too short or fat, being too smart or too dumb, and so on.

So boys learn to stay as inconspicuous as possible. It’s more important to avoid ridicule than it is to earn praise, although praise is still a desirable thing.

The point is that most men live in fear. We’re afraid because we don’t feel loved and we’re afraid we never will be. We’re afraid people will see our flaws and will never care for us. THAT is why men usually fail to be intimate with their wives and others, not to intentionally deprive anyone of love.

We can learn to change all that. We can learn to tell the truth about ourselves and find those who will unconditionally accept and love us. And with sufficient Real Love fear vanishes, along with our Getting and Protecting Behaviors. What’s left is genuine happiness, and that’s worth every effort we make to find it.

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