Urinal chess – Nature or Nurture?

There’s an important phenomenon, well-known to my male readers, that is likely to be a complete mystery to any female ones: urinal etiquette. The rules around urinals are (to men) extremely clear, and the consequences of violating those rules relatively severe. And yet, I for one (as a male) don’t remember ever being explicitly taught these rules. I’ve often wondered: did I learn these rules from observation whilst growing up, or are they inherent? In other words, do most men have a built-in set of urinal rules that automatically comprise the etiquette?


Let’s assume for a minute that none of you know what I’m talking about. Male public toilets are very strange places. For one, they’re not places you want to linger in. They don’t smell great, and they’re very seldom designed for form –  nope, male public toilets are all about the business. Typically, male public toilets follow an almost universal design. There are a few stalls (usually no more than three), and a row, or rows of urinals. These are either free-standing (see photo) porcelain jobs (typically between three and 10 depending on the size of the loo), or a long stainless steel sheet set along the wall with a trench underneath (it looks and smells as delightful as it sounds).

Now here’s the weird bit: there’s a very distinct, but never talked about set of rules regarding use of the urinals. These rules are compulsory, but unspoken. They go something like this (feel free to correct me in the comments below if you think I’ve got these wrong or have left anything out):

1) If you enter the toilets and they are empty, go to one of the urinals at the extreme end, preferably the one furthest from the door.

2) For all situations above and below: Once urinal is selected immediately commence urination, do NOT look around, do NOT start a conversation, finish up as quickly as possible, and exit ASAP*, preferably via the sinks to wash your hands (note, and this is disturbing, many guys don’t wash their hands post urinal because of the “logic” of having only touched their own body part – I know, men…).

3) If, when entering the toilet, a urinal is occupied, select the urinal furthest from the occupied one. This should be at the opposite end of the row unless some idiot has violated rule number 1. If this is the case, it’s acceptable to use a stall.

4) If when entering the toilet, conditions 1 and 3 (above) are met (i.e., the two farthest apart urinals are occupied), select the middle urinal or a stall. Do NOT stand next to someone who is using one of the urinals (i.e., under no circumstances take a free urinal directly adjacent to one that’s currently being used).

5) Occasionally, due to crowds or poor form, the entire row will be occupied (by very uncomfortable men desperately trying not to make eye contact). In this situation select a stall. If there are no stalls available, leave the toilets and seek an alternative. Do NOT linger waiting for a urinal or stall to become free (unless there is NO OTHER ALTERNATIVE).

6) If someone breaks these rules, do NOT point it out. Instead, condemn him with evil thoughts, and exit the toilet as quickly as possible. Do NOT give it any further thought (this would justify the actions of the fool who violated the rules).

You’ll note that these rules are relatively complicated, and yet most men seem to know them intuitively. Likewise, most men will feel acutely uncomfortable when these rules are broken, and thus strive to maintain the etiquette. Often, it feels a bit like playing chess without remembering ever having learnt how.

So the question becomes: did I learn these rules growing up, or were they always built-in? If I learnt them, how did I do that without any instruction? How and when did I learn to feel uncomfortable when the rules are broken? These are difficult questions to answer. In fact, straight up, there are no scientific studies (that I’m aware of) evaluating urinal etiquette. As a behavioural scientist and ex-researcher myself, I’m not even sure how one would even examine the origins of this behaviour. I do have an evolutionary theory though, let me know what you think.

Imagine if you will, a scenario set 100,000 years in the past. Urgh and Ugh are out hunting together when they decide to stop for a piss break. They select a convenient boulder. Chances are that Urgh and Ugh instinctively selected the opposite sides of the boulder to do their business; they would not have stood shoulder to shoulder. There’s a few potential evolutionary arguments for this behaviour. One, the act of urination is a vulnerable one. Why increase the vulnerability by standing close to one another? In fact, why not decrease the risk (and enhance survivability) substantially by taking a stance close to, but  away from your hunting partner (watching each other’s backs rather than fronts so to speak)? Two, collaboration requires cooperation, not antagonism. Whilst hunting together, why introduce any level of competition that could reduce the ability to collaborate effectively and, therefore, increase the risk? Last (and perhaps most tenuous), alongside a strong sense of self comes a measure of dignity (or at the very least, as sense of self-consciousness). Urinating is a potentially undignified behaviour that can make us feel self-conscious (unless you’re male and drunk) and, thus, we separate ourselves from those around us when doing so. In fact, this is a major expression of our humanity. Unlike many other animals who use urine to mark territory (and thus piss whenever it’s advantageous for them), for humans urinating is a solitary act that reminds us of our humanity (the need to void waste shows us that we’re the same as those around us; even the most powerful and elite have the same, base needs). Therefore, we attempt to forge a bubble of privacy around ourselves when urinating (or the illusion thereof).

I think, therefore, that I never actually learnt urinal etiquette. Instead, it was an instinctive application of inbuilt rules, applied to the constraints of the male public toilet. I’m sure you’ll agree.

* Note – the only times these rules are routinely violated is when men are drunk.


One Reply to “Urinal chess – Nature or Nurture?”

  1. I never thought it in that way, my explanation was that simply modern social taboos wont let us see others “private parts” and neither do we like others seeing ours so probably urinal etiquette really was taught to us. But we will have to ask Ugh and Urgh to see who’s right

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