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Why Do Office Bathrooms Stink?

And why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?
“Bathroom visits at work are a source of stress for a lot of people”
“Bathroom visits at work are a source of stress for a lot of people”Photograph by Charlie Engman

In The Mezzanine, the wise and funny novel constructed out of everyday minutiae by Nicholson Baker, one of the wisest and funniest vignettes takes place in the office bathroom. A senior manager and a visitor are having a serious discussion of a female employee’s merits in the men’s room and are interrupted by an extremely loud emission from the stall-bound narrator—“a loud, curt fart like the rap of a bongo drum.” The two executives pause, just for a moment, and then pick up exactly where they left off as the bongo player tries to stifle his laughter.

The Mezzanine was published in 1988, and in the quarter century since, offices have made efforts to become more appealing, adding Ping-Pong tables, Wi-Fi, and even farm-to-table cafés—until you hit the bathroom, where almost nothing has changed. There have been some adjustments owing to the Americans With Disabilities Act: a wheelchair-accessible toilet, some grab bars, bigger handles on the taps. Perhaps the toilets use a little less water, particularly if the building is going for LEED certification. Apart from those nearly invisible tweaks, it’s still 1988 in there, or even 1958—those may as well be Don Draper’s feet poking under the stall door. Same bank of steel stalls, urinals for the gents, a wall of sinks, tile, overscented pinkish liquid soap. Some guy spending way too much time reading the paper as he sits. And, most of all, the same awkward interactions.