Here’s a scenario that happens about three times a day. I’m leaving my office to walk to the bathroom, when I spot my co-worker walking back from the bathroom. There’s 10 or 20 feet between us, and we’re moving toward each other at a steady pace. I know I should acknowledge him, but when? How? Eventually, the moment comes when we’re too close to ignore each other, and we give a slight nod before continuing on our way.
Everybody poops and pisses; this is not in question. Nonetheless, in America the expulsion of fecal and urinary materials is considered a wholly private act, incapable of being spoken into existence. In a relationship, it’s considered the height of intimacy to go to the bathroom with the door open and your partner nearby — and even then, you can never, ever poop in this context. Couples may separate before they descend into such hallowed circles of intimacy, but co-workers aren’t so lucky. You may work for months — and even years — with the same people, which means you’re forced to grow closer to them. You get unprofessionally drunk at the same bars; you learn about their failed relationships; you learn how to say “awww” when shown a photo of their baby. You are also given a tonnage of evidence that they piss and shit, just like you.
If you are a man, you often stand at a urinal next to someone you work with — maybe even someone you work with closely. Still, you cannot speak to each other; whatever camaraderie inside the office dissipates immediately, replaced with nothing but stillness. Did you have a thought you wanted to mention to Brad — something about the report due on Tuesday, or where Ellie’s birthday party will be on Saturday? Well, you have to wait until you’ve both left this fluorescent tomb. Maybe you can say something as you wash your hands at the sink, but not a moment earlier.
Or here is something that happens every so often, but can never, ever be remarked upon. You and your male co-worker enter the bathroom at the same time, and both head for the stalls, which often are directly adjacent to each other, because your bathroom is small or your other co-workers are also busy shitting. A moment before, you talked in the hallway, covertly planning to separate once you made your way inside. Ah, but now you can’t! You have to look at his shoes through the gap in the wall, and hear his farting and straining to bring a quick, merciful end to this process, which he hopes will not become the topic of discussion in some private Slack conversation if he farts and strains for too long — “I had to sit next to Jeff as he pushed out the turd to end all wars” — and pretty soon you realize you’re shitting, too, and here you are now, shitting together, separated by nothing but two inches of cheap metal. You can never talk about it.
I don’t know what it’s like in women’s bathrooms.
Anyways, the hallway look precedes all of this. The hallway look is the first hint that your co-worker — male, female, whatever, is not the effortless human you believe them to be in your normal conversations, but a biological dump truck like anyone else. And this is awkward, somehow? I’ve been fortunate to love — and I mean this, love — some of my co-workers, on a marrow-deep level that would lead me to drop basically whatever I had to help them if they ever needed it, and yet when we see each other in the bathroom hallway, it’s like we’re strangers on a train. I once worked in an office where the hallway between the bathroom and the office was probably about 50 feet. 50 feet of looking at someone off in the distance. If you wanted to acknowledge them, you could not even shout out for fear of seeming like a lunatic. You would have to wait to see the whites of their eyes, like soldiers on the battlefield. You had to do this with your friends. You had to do this with your boss.
There is a solution, I think. The people with the long hallways are totally screwed; they can only hope their office moves locations, or that they get hired somewhere else. But the rest of us can leap over the awkward chasm, and simply say what’s up. For example: You see Brenda coming out of the women’s bathroom. “Hey there!” you say, before one of you can react. Or maybe it’s John coming out of the men’s bathroom. “That’s where I’m going,” you blurt immediately. This time, it’s Eric who heads towards you — Eric, who you have a meeting with in 10 minutes! “Gotta take care of this before the meeting,” you say.
I know what you’re saying: That’s even worse. That’s foul. I don’t want to acknowledge my co-worker in the process of pissing or shitting. That crosses a line. But think of all the dumb, idle information you share with people in the process of working with them. Think of all the artificial boundaries placed around how you’re supposed to interact — no religion or politics, please! — while you’re still forced to learn so, so much about one another. Can’t we be a little closer, in a non-sexual way? Can’t we sigh and groan and share the few things we have in common, which is that our bodies are leaking garbage bags? We need to be professional, of course, but to deny this most average human experience is a lie that lessens and separates us. So the next time you’re in the hallway, and coming across the moment of the bathroom look, just get ahead of the awkwardness and say hello. Don’t be a stranger; it’s all we have left.