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When you’ve gotta go, Michael Sykes would like you to keep his etiquette advice in mind.
DON’T use the restroom stall or urinal next to someone else unless you have no choice. DO wash your hands. DON’T talk on your cell phone. And if you’re a guy in a public restroom, DO refrain from you-know-what.
For 15 years, Sykes has been providing this kind of helpful advice at the website of The International Center for Bathroom Etiquette (“Performing #1 and #2 in comfort and style since 1995”). He serves as president, founder and rulemaker.
Sykes is serious. He’s a native of Canada who works as a researcher at The Scripps Research Institute and lives in Carmel Valley with his family. And he really does want to bring better etiquette to restrooms and bathrooms. With the help of media organizations from around the world, he’s become the world’s leading expert on the proper way to take care of business.
It’s good to have a hobby. But, as an FAQ on his site puts it, is he mental? His answer: “Possibly.” Whatever the case, he agreed to sit down — at a table outside a coffee house, mind you — and talk about his role as the “Emily Post of the Loo.”
How does a nice guy like you become an expert in properly going to the bathroom?
We had a terrible bathroom in the student union building where I went to school at the University of Alberta. The problem was that you had a bank of urinals, and then you had the paper towel dispenser immediately beside the urinals and then sinks and a whole other row of urinals. You inevitably got some idiot who was taking a pee literally two inches away from the paper towel dispenser. It was horribly designed.
That’s what started the whole business: I started this site in its original incarnation in 1995 on the heels of discussions with buddies of mine.
Most people would just avoid that restroom. What made you decide to take a stand?
I’m a nerd or a geek, a computer geek. It was 1995, and the internet was just starting. It was like, “I should make a webpage.” I think it was called “Toilet Training: An Online Guide to Urinal Etiquette.”
What were you hoping to accomplish?
Obviously if I wanted to get rich or pick up chicks, it was a really bad idea. There was no reason it was a good idea, and it’s still probably not a good idea. But I can’t let go. I can’t stop.
You’ve been quoted all over. Why do you think the issue of bathroom etiquette has so much resonance?
Everybody goes to the bathroom, and everybody suffers from people who have bad bathroom etiquette. It’s one of these universal things.
My role here is to just express the rules that everybody already knows. Like urinal etiquette: Leave a gap. I didn’t come up with that: 90 to 95 percent of guys know that rule and instinctively follow it. I’m trying to share all this information, although I have arbitrarily made up rules from time to time.
What is the most common violation of bathroom rules?
I would say the biggest, both in terms of frequency and in terms of grievousness, is not washing hands. It happens a lot, and it’s really gross.
What are the best and worst bathrooms?
The worst are bar bathrooms. Maybe the theory is that people are drunk enough that they don’t care. Those can be pretty bad. The best are at fancy hotels in the lobby: They’re huge, they’re clean, and there’s nobody in there.
What do you think about automatic toilets and faucets in restrooms?
I can’t use the automatic toilets without having them flush five times. I don’t want them to flush while I’m on there. So I hate those.
Automatic sinks should be great. You put your hand under there and water flows. But really, I’m waving — does this work? — and then I’m waving my other hand in the other sink, and one of them kind of starts. It’s a bit of disaster.
If the automatic sinks can be perfected, great. But leave the flushing out of it.
What do you think about the whole phenomenon of men making a big production out of sitting on the pot — hogging the bathroom for a long time with a newspaper and some deep thought?
Is it that men and women have physiological differences? It’s probably more likely that it’s a diet difference. Maybe it’s that men are more comfortable in there. I know as a man I’m going to just sit and make sure I’m done. Maybe it’s a comfort level with going poop. We’re men, we’re gross, we’re primitive. We’re willing to take that time in there.
What is the biggest issue for women in restrooms?
There’s a whole social component: Women are talking in there and doing all sorts of stuff. It’s one thing if you’re in there with your girlfriends, and you’re chatting it up a little. But I feel like some of them take this social aspect of the bathroom too far and talk on the cell phone.
Despite this fascinating hobby, you still managed to get married. How’d that happen?
It’s a continuing struggle to not mention anything about my wife in the bathroom in any kind of media interview. A divorce is possible.
I think my wife’s been kind of proud of the exposure. But it pissed my mom off. She’d always say nobody ever called the house desperate to speak to me about my work or sporting achievements. It’s always about the damn bathroom site.
Are your kids old enough to realize that you do this?
No. I’m sure they’ll be embarrassed at the appropriate time.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I hope that my personal family and career lives are successful enough that the ICBE is not a major fixture in my obituary.
You know it’s going to be in the first line.
Oh jeez. I’m going to have to write my own obituary.