What is the proper etiquette for bringing
coffee into the restroom?
— Constantly Caffeinated
I must admit that I was initially caught off guard by your question. The vast amounts of literature that exist on matters of social protocol are startlingly silent on matters of public restrooms. The abundance of portable coffee containers and the proliferation of public restrooms as we know them today are relatively recent phenomena for which Emily Post could not have anticipated the need for guidance. Indeed, it was not until I received your question that I myself considered the need for a synthesis of restroom and coffee etiquette, so I took up the task of doing some research.
The concerns regarding one’s bringing any sort of beverage or food item into a public restroom fall into two categories: sanitation and social courtesy.
The former may not immediately strike one as so much a matter of etiquette as of personal health, but upon any deeper consideration, how could it be otherwise? One’s own health is of significant importance to everyone else one encounters because of the dangers of spreading disease. Sharing a laugh, a handshake, a tabletop or a pen could be the difference between a happy, productive day out and about or a miserable day wasting valuable time in self-quarantine. Respecting one’s own personal health is central to respecting another’s happiness and productivity, which is at the very heart of etiquette.
Washing amenities make restrooms the front lines in combating the germs that cause disease. Nevertheless, the other activities that take place in public restrooms also make them the most likely place to succumb to them—and one of the most dangerous places to consume food or beverage of any kind. This latter observation alone is sufficient grounds for me to advise avoiding the bringing of coffee—or any food consumption item—into any restroom, bathroom or washroom whenever possible, for the sake of the public health. This may not always be one’s most convenient option, but it is probably the best in nearly all cases.
This raises the question of what one should do with one’s coffee, then, if one has pressing biological needs. I spoke with several people for input on this point and came up with a set of guidelines, which, though not from any authority on matters of etiquette, are rooted in the principle of courteousness to others.
Pre-empt the situation.
As a rule, use the restroom before you buy coffee, even when the urge is absent. Controlled studies suggest that people who consume coffee, whether caffeinated or not, can experience significant laxative effects within minutes.
Registered nurse Catharine Vader, coordinator of the Wellness Outreach Center, recommends hand-washing before consuming any food or drink and always after using a restroom.
“There’s more germs [in restrooms] than other places,” she said.
The American Restroom Association (ARA) also recommends the use of hand sanitizer even after leaving a restroom.
“Not everyone washes their hands after using the toilet. Those that do should not be required to touch potentially unclean surfaces after they have scrubbed,” the ARA Web site states. “Where a door handle must be used to exit the restrooms, waterless hand sanitizers should be provided on the wall adjacent to the door.”
One can find wall-mounted hand sanitizer dispensers all over Western’s campus. Whenever possible, use a restroom that is near one of these dispensers.
Keep your coffee out of the way.
When one must use a restroom before finishing a coffee, one should be courteous of common spaces before setting one’s coffee down someplace.
“Ask a friend to hold your coffee while you go in,” Vader suggested as an alternative to leaving coffee unattended or carrying it into the restroom.
If one is alone, one should try to locate a stable surface in a high-visibility, low-traffic area outside the restroom on which to set one’s coffee container, using a napkin or a small sheet of paper as a buffer between the container and the surface.
One should never set a coffee container on the floor or on an unstable or unlevel surface, as it increases the likelihood of someone bumping into it and causing a spill. Hygiene issues aside, such surfaces are extremely scarce in Western’s restrooms, so one should not crowd them with beverage containers. However, some newer restrooms, such as those in Academic Instruction Center West (AW), now have shelves located near the exits, where one may set a coffee if restroom traffic is low.
Knowing where such surfaces are ahead of time can help one avoid scrambling for one when finding the nearest restroom is a more single-minded pursuit.
Bring a reusable container.
Accidents can happen even in the best of circumstances. Spills are far less likely to occur when one carries one’s coffee in a durable, reusable container with a secure, closable lid. This will reduce unnecessary conflict if someone accidentally does knock over your container and make the situation far more manageable.
Such containers have many other advantages. They keep hot beverages hot and cold beverages cold more efficiently than disposable containers, they help the environment by reducing waste and they save you money because many coffee vendors offer discounts to those who bring their own mugs.
Take responsibility for spills.
If one spills another’s beverage by mistake, it is good form to apologize and offer to buy them another. If one sees one’s beverage spilled by someone else, calmly offer to help in the cleanup and politely pardon the accident without condition. When a spill is large, risks staining or damaging property or is in a high-traffic area, notify someone who is able to contact the custodial department right away.
Concern for the welfare of others is a much more attractive quality than evasion of short-term embarrassment.
Support the cause.
You should be commended for having the courage to seek information on restroom etiquette, as many consider the subject taboo. While showing sensitivity toward another’s discomfort about a subject in some contexts is warranted, one should never be afraid to break taboos when open communication is used as a constructive tool to solve real social problems.
Nov. 19 is World Toilet Day. The World Toilet Organization’s Web site calls it “a day to celebrate the importance of sanitation and raise awareness for the 2.5 billion people (nearly half the world’s population) who don’t have access to toilets and proper sanitation.” As Americans, we take bathrooms for granted and consider poop only as the subject of the basest humor, but we should never let the gross-out factor silence earnest discussion of real problems and solutions.