An Explanation of Urinals and Urinal Culture

I recently learned that: a) my wife was unaware of the complex social and technical interactions associated with urinals; and b) there are sometimes couches in women’s restrooms.

Knowing these two things to be, I guess, facts, I felt that I should share my knowledge of urinals and men’s restrooms in general, for the benefit of those for whom these rarified spaces remain mysterious.

It is my hope that this begins a dialogue, as, believe me, I’m sure a lot of you know way more about men’s rooms than I do. I also hope that someone will explain this couch thing to me, because honestly I feel a little bit cheated, having never reclined while in a public restroom.

1. Urinals Vary Greatly in Design and Proximity

In general, urinals exist to facilitate the act of peeing on a wall. It is surprising how many variations on the core urinal design exist, and how many problems these designs create. For instance:

By Flickr user Jason Wilson, whose cameraphone did not pick the right white balance.

Classy old-style “tall” urinal — these are like opened coffins, standing upright, that you pee into. You see these in hipster bars, and I get the impression that they have been salvaged from even cooler (but defunct) bars, or maybe the Supreme Court. Key design problem: They are shaped such that the “divider” between urinals is the urinal’s massive porcelain wall itself. This division is generally inadequate, because the urinal is still kind of narrow (it being from the 1920s or something, when men were…narrower?), so you are forced to stand uncomfortably far back or risk touching the divider with an elbow or shoulder. Key design benefit: Minimal splashback.

By Flickr user Howard Lake, who has seen the loo of the future. The signs read “The Bees Need You,” which may distract from the actual task at hand.

Fancy post-Y2K waterless urinal — designed by NASA (I can only assume), these generally include a marker — often a little sketch of a bee — that you’re supposed to aim for in order to minimize splashing. (This works because of science and parabolas.) Key design problem: You’re peeing on a bee, and that takes a lot of attention. Key design benefit: You’re peeing on a bee that can’t even sting you, and that’s straight-up future magic. Secondary design problem: These waterless urinals are often accompanied by a sanctimonious plaque on the wall explaining how much water is being saved by us all peeing on bees together.

By the Wikimedia Commons user inexplicably named “Me,” who wrote, “I photographed this urinal in California” in 2007. Okay.

Trough — there exist urinal solutions in which dudes line up and piss into a metal trough running the length of the wall. Sometimes the trough runs downhill toward a drain, and includes a light trickle of water to move things along. These seem popular at sports arenas, and because of this, I have mostly managed to avoid them. I am not going to suggest that there are “key” design problems or “benefits” here because I don’t even want to think about this anymore.

All other urinals— some variation of a rounded porcelain bucket attached to a wall. Key design problem: Requires dividers between urinals, which are almost never optimally placed. (See below.) Key design benefit: You get to know exactly how much urination is going on all around you.

By Flickr user SuSanA Secretariat.

2. The Low Urinal

In most men’s rooms, I encounter urinals in roughly a 2:1 ratio with toilet stalls. When there are more than two urinals, one is often mounted substantially lower to the ground than the others. After much thinking, I have concluded that these are for use by aliens.

It is hypothetically possible that “the low urinal” is designed to be used by people who, for whatever reason, are situated close to the ground — by virtue of age, height, assistive technology, use of anti-NSA telepresence robot, etc. I have myself used “the low urinal” on some occasions, because it is usually located at the end of a row of urinals, which helps with optimal user spacing in busy restrooms. Which brings us to…

3. Optimal User Spacing in Busy Restrooms

There are two core problems to be solved here.

By Flickr user Elliot, showing both advanced photography skills and proper spacing technique.

A. Choosing an Unoccupied Urinal When Another Urinal is Occupied

Because urinals are typically installed in a row along a wall, the user has many options when choosing one. The problem comes up when one or more of the urinals is already occupied. Much has been written about this problem already. There’s even an xkcd comic on it.

Without rehashing this problem too much, let me simply explain: there is an unspoken protocol for spacing users at urinals. The problem is that it is unspoken, so there is no way to know whether your protocol matches that of your fellow pissers (pissants?).

Based on years of observation and awkwardness, it appears that most users attempt maximal spacing (meaning, the most unoccupied urinals possible between users) in order to minimize any social contact during the act of peeing. On the other hand, some users are rebellious and may choose a proximal urinal for reasons of aggression, friendliness (more on this below), or simply not giving a shit.

By Flickr user Ron Knox 2001, who notes that there is a Flickr group called “urinals.” You are invited to guess what goes on in there.

B. Dividing the Urinals from One Another

Depending on the restroom designer’s budget and priorities, urinals may have dividers (think, like, partial thin walls) between them…or they may not. These dividers may be tall, or they may be comically short. When they do not exist (such as in prison restrooms or certain movie theaters), it is up to the user to pretend that such division did exist. This is a convenient fiction that is all too easily destroyed by an errant glance. Yep, everybody’s peeing.

(Note: this is slight scope-creep given the topic of this article, but I should mention that sometimes men’s toilet stalls lack doors and/or dividers. This is pretty rare, but when it happens, it is super duper real. I was recently in a fire department where this was the case, and I respect the bravery of these volunteers.)

I once worked at a company with a very small men’s room. The single urinal was positioned next to the single sink, and the divider was comically low. I mean, it was so low that there was a substantial danger of junk-exposure at all times. This configuration meant that anyone washing his hands at the sink was extremely proximate to the person peeing. This created an ongoing social experiment: Does the person exiting the (single) toilet stall wash his hands before leaving, and in doing so, become very familiar with the person peeing? Or does he simply leave, revealing himself to be some kind of monster? In general, I am glad to say that my colleagues opted to wash up, despite the oddly real awkwardness that could arise from urinal proximity.

I will take a moment here to just put this out there: many men have shockingly poor handwashing practices after doing pretty much anything in a restroom. Why this might be, or what we can do about it, is beyond the scope of this article. But these people must be stopped.

I should also mention that in the (many) cases where urinals lack dividers, there is again an unspoken protocol about what is to be done while peeing. I can summarize this as, “Keep your eyes on the road and shut up.” Some users do not follow this protocol.

Image by Flickr user John Martinez Pavliga, who has been places.

3. Talking

Where I’m from, we don’t talk while peeing. This is just a blanket rule, applicable in restrooms both private and public.

But in my life, I have often been privy (sorry) to extended conversations conducted at urinals. I can tell you after decades of study that these fall into simple categories:

Friends— it is, for some reason, socially acceptable for friends to make conversation while approaching and using urinals. Generally this conversation is not about peeing, unless a lot of drinking has occurred prior to restroom use. (In this case, burping may also occur during peeing. This is gross, but it has been observed.) Also interesting is that when friends approach urinals, issues of optimal user spacing seem to be reduced. I encourage graduate students to investigate why this might be.

Weird Dudes— if you use enough urinals, you will eventually encounter a Weird Dude who just starts talking to you, sometimes without even looking at you. When this happens, it is optimal to grunt, ignore this person, and/or run.

Weird Dads — similar to the above, often this man is a friend’s dad (generally not your own, though if so, I have no advice for you). You will encounter the Weird Dad situation at almost all weddings. In this situation, you must humor the Weird Dad and then never speak of it, unless you are buddy-buddy with the Dad’s children, in which case you must speak of it, preferably while weeping. Note that Weird Dads never wash their hands, probably as part of their creepy power trip.

Cell Phone Dudes — I don’t even.

By Flickr user Rocky A, who illustrates my nightmares.

4. Advertising

Because of the above-mentioned protocols, your typical urinal user is basically staring straight ahead (or perhaps at an illustration of a flying insect that he is trying to hit with pee). This captive gaze may be used to deliver advertisements. These advertisements are uniformly awful, and mostly have to do with sports, vehicles, and expo shows featuring sports and/or vehicles (also: guns). It is customary in some pubs to put the newspaper’s Sports page up above the urinal (protected by plastic, thankfully), so that patrons may, I guess, read about baseball. Be aware that the presence of sports data in a men’s restroom can incite inappropriate Sports Talk during urination.

On several memorable occasions, I have encountered video advertisements running on little screens above the urinals. This is very uncomfortable. It feels like you’re peeing while watching TV, because you are. And that is not a precedent I want to set. It is a little bit like having a dream about peeing — you do not want to have such dreams, because you risk wetting the bed. One incongruous thing about the video ads is that they are often installed in fairly upscale establishments. I guess this is because it’s hard to run electricity in bathroom walls or something. If you run a business involving urinal video advertising, please contact me about a development deal. I have a lot of ideas for shows that last 15–20 seconds and would make you a lot of money.

By Wikimedia Commons user Richard Chambers, who is a urinal hero.

5. Urinal Cakes

The urinal cake is a deeply problematic object. It is typically a pink hockey puck that smells like extremely virulent cleanser. And you are expected to pee on it. It sits in the bottom of a urinal, usually at a gas station or highway rest stop.

Look, I understand that the concept here is that this thing “cleans” the urinal slightly during every use. This is the kind of idea dreamt up by a dude who will repeatedly explain to you that “urine is sterile,” which is, by the way, a whole category of dude whom you should never date. Anyway, the presence of urinal cakes always leads me to wonder whether that means the urinals are cleaned less often by human hands. I think the answer is clear, and gross, and let’s move on. But first, another major problem associated with urinal cakes is the temptation to pee directly on them (they make a nice bright-pink target in the absence of a bee outline), but this invariably causes substantial splashback, along with a whiff of yucky soap smell mixed with the urine of a thousand generations.

Note: there is sometimes chewed-up bubble gum alongside a urinal cake (further supporting my theory about the lack of cleaning going on here). You will also often spot a plastic mesh thing that covers the drain, presumably to catch the chewing gum and also prevent the cake from clogging the drain. I really wonder who chews his gum and then spits it into the urinal. But, you know, life is short. Spitting your gum into the pee hole is one of those fun things you can do while using a urinal that you really cannot do at any other time. Treasure it.

By Flickr user Tom Giebel.

6. Queueing Theory

In college, I took a brief course on queueing theory, the science of failing to optimize the process of waiting in line. It is thus completely appropriate that during this course, I messed up the urinal queue.

I was at an indie rock club in Tallahassee (called The Cowhaus), waiting in line for the one functioning urinal — which reminds me, I have neglected to mention that it is common (especially in airports) for one or more urinals to be out of commission, in which case they are usually covered by plastic trash bags. I guess they are really worried that users will not read signs.

Anyway, so there were three men in the restroom: my friend William, some guy standing along the back wall looking woozy, and myself. I believe the woozy man was there first, but was just standing there and being woozy when William and I entered. William used the urinal first, and then I went second, and then the woozy man went. It was only when I finished my business and noticed William wildly gesticulating at the woozy man behind his back that I realized that this was Frank Black, of the Pixies (both William’s and my favorite band at the time). (At the time he was touring as Frank Black and the Catholics. We were there, of course, to see his show.) After he completed his business, I apologized to Frank for cutting in line. I think I said, “You’re Frank Black, and I am sorry I peed before you.” He just looked at me woozily and said, “I’ve got the Mexican flu,” then washed his hands. He is a good man.

In Conclusion

Coming out of this article, I feel kind of gross and twitchy, which is appropriate, because that’s how I feel about urinals and restrooms in general. Let us never speak of this again.