Fact Check

Cell Phone Conversation in Restroom

Restroom user responds to cell phone user's conversation overheard from the next stall.

Published Jan 6, 2006

Legend:   Restroom user responds to cell phone user's conversation overheard from the next stall.

Example:   [Chattanooga Times Free Press, 2002]

I was traveling back to my hometown and, responding to Mother Nature, decided to stop at one of those rest areas on the side of the road.

I went into the washroom. The first stall was taken, so I went into the second stall. I had just sat down when I heard a voice from the other stall.

"Hi there, how is it going?"

I am not the type to strike up conversations with strangers while sitting on the john in restrooms on the side of the road. I didn't know what to do, but finally I said, "Not bad."

Then the voice said, "So, what are you doing?"

At this point, I was starting to find the situation a bit weird, but I said, "Well, I'm headed back east."

Then I heard the person, all flustered, say, "Look, I'll call you back. Every time I ask you a question, the idiot in the next stall keeps answering me!!!"

Origins:   Cell phones are a boon and a bane of modern existence. While they do help folks keep in touch

Cell phone

with one another and have assisted countless stranded motorists, they contribute to an erosion of the mannerly world when used without regard to surroundings. Yet boon or bane, mobiles are here to stay, even if the etiquette governing their use hasn't quite caught up with a society simultaneously enamored of its cells and frustrated by them.

This legend about a misunderstood wireless conversation showcases yet another aspect of cell phones' impact on the social order beyond their assault on civility via willful misuse — it is sometimes not possible to know whether you are an invited participant in a chat with a heretofore stranger or are merely overhearing one side of a private communication between others. The social cues relied upon in pre-cell days no longer apply across the board: whereas in times previous you could reasonably conclude you were the one being addressed if you were the only other person in the immediate vicinity of someone who had begun speaking in a conversational tone, such a hypothesis is now flawed.

In the legend, the stall sitter who believes he is being spoken to behaves as courtesy demands — he replies to the person he assumes is addressing him by responding to the questions being posed, even if the queries (and their setting!) do strike him as unsettling. He instinctively understands his greeting such salutations with silence would be an even greater breach of etiquette than was the other fellow's double-barreled faux pas of attempting to gab with a stranger while engaged in bodily eliminations. (Women who know each other well, it must be confessed, will sometimes continue existing conversations while urinating each in their own stalls in public restrooms. But they are most unlikely to simultaneously talk and tinkle with those they don't know


In attempting to do the polite thing (that is, answer a friendly-sounding greeting in a cordial manner rather than coldly ignore it), the person relating the story is lured into committing an even greater social boo-boo — he barges headlong into a conversation he wasn't supposed to be part of, inserting himself where he isn't wanted. He is mortified to discover his gaffe and feels chastened by the unseen cell user's "Every time I ask you a question, the idiot in the next stall keeps answering me!!!" comment.

The story has been around at least since 2001. So far we've encountered it told as having happened in a large city, at a highway rest stop, at an airport, and at a community college. As well as having been shared in face-to-face conversations and circulated in e-mail, it has appeared in Dear Abby's column and been related on Paul Harvey's widely syndicated radio commentary. It sometimes makes its way into newspapers as the recounting of an actual event:

[The New York Times, 2 January 2006]

I had barely sat down when I heard a voice from the other bathroom stall saying, "How are you?" I don't know what got into me, but I answered, somewhat embarrassed, "Doin' just fine." And the other person said, "So what are you up to?" (What kind of a question is that?)

At that point, I was thinking, "This is too bizarre," so I said, "Uh, I'm like you — just traveling." At this point I was just trying to get out as fast as I could when I heard another question. "Can I come over?" O.K., this question was just too weird for me, but I figured I could just be polite and end the conversation. I answered: "No. I'm a little busy right now."

Then I heard the person say, nervously: "Listen, I'll have to call you back. There's an idiot in the next stall who keeps answering all my questions."

[The New York Times, 4 January 2006]

A reader's contribution in the Metropolitan Diary on Monday misstated the origin of an anecdote about a cellphone conversation in a restroom that ended: "I'll have to call you back. There's an idiot in the next stall who keeps answering my questions." It has circulated for years; it was not based on the contributor's personal experience.

It is hard to doubt that at least some elements of the legend have played out in real life — that there have been actual instances of folks' mistaking the cell phone conversations of others for attempts to converse with them and, induced by their misassumption, replying to those remarks. However, the "I'll have to call you back — some idiot in the next stall keeps answering me" element strikes us as invention, a storyteller's flourish added to make the tale more amusing by giving it a big finish.

In 2008 we encountered a "Bluetooth used on a train" version of the tale:

[The Economist, 10 April 2008]

The spread of "hands-free" Bluetooth devices, with hidden earplugs seemingly attached to nothing, [can lead to embarrassing situations]. Steve Love, a psychologist, was traveling on a train from Edinburgh to Glasgow once when a girl standing next to him started talking to him. She asked him how he was and how his day had been, and Mr Love, though a bit shy, politely told her how much he was looking forward to watching Scotland play football that evening. As he spoke, the girl looked at him in horror, then turned away. Only then did Mr Love hear her say "OK, I'll call you later." Not a word or gesture was exchanged for the remainder of the (suddenly uncomfortable) journey.

As for cell phone usage in washrooms, we see more and more of it. Many public places are noisy, whereas their restrooms are generally havens from the bedlam. More people are now carrying cell phones, which ups the number of folks you will encounter who are trying to make or receive calls. Consequently, the number of folks retreating to public restrooms, cell phones in hand, is going up.

We'll leave it to the etiquette mavens to determine whether using one's cell while in a public lavatory is in itself a breach of decorum, or if its classification as a transgression depends upon whether or not such a practice can be accomplished without annoying one's neighbors. One further factor will complicate their job: how we feel about toilets. A number of bathroom taboos apply to activities that are regarded as unremarkable in other settings (e.g., while it is quite proper to scarf down a sandwich in the food court of a shopping mall, eating anything in a restroom is strictly verboten). Will cell phone use be classed along with noshing, that while you can do it most anywhere else provided you're quiet about it, you can't do it in the john? Or will it be classed with the application of lipstick, that hand-to-mouth bathroom taboos to the contrary, it is okay to slather on a bit of Dracula Red while in the loo?

Until society finally evolves a widely understood and accepted set of protocols governing appropriate versus inappropriate use of cell phones, such questions will bedevil us all.

Humorist Dave Barry's tongue-in-cheek analysis of the news stories of 2005 may hold the key to sorting out the social confusion:

A study by researchers at the University of Utah proves what many people have long suspected: Everybody talking on a cell phone, except you, is a moron.

Barbara "moron this later" Mikkelson

Last updated:   15 April 2008


  Sources Sources:

    Barry, Dave.   "Dave Barry's Year of Horrors: The Lowlights of 2005."

    3 January 2006   [syndicated column].

    Denton, Lisa.   "Laugh Lines."

    Chattanooga Times Free Press.   17 May 2002   (p. H35).

    Paul Harvey.   "New and Comment."

    1 June 2002   [syndicated radio segment].

    Seeber, Dorothy.   "Metropolitan Diary."

    The New York Times.   2 January 2006.

    Springer, Don.   "Touch of Life: Odds and Ends from the Springer Files."

    Charleston Gazette.   16 February 2005   (p. P2P).

    Van Buren, Abigail and Jeanne Phillips.   "Dear Abby."

    6 June 2002   [syndicated column].

    The Economist [UK]   "Family Ties: Kith and Kin Get Closer, With Consequences for Strangers.

    10 April 2008.

    The New York Times.   "Corrections."

    4 January 2006.

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