Michael Douglas and Matthew McConaughey exchanging information in a public restroom. The movie is called The Ghosts of My Ex-Girlfriends (2010).

It’s Sunday morning and the Ikea bathroom is surprisingly busy. There are agonising cisterns, childish tantrums, morning gargles, furiously slamming doors and colourful conversations. When I break into the toilet, I find that, of the three cubicles, only one is free. When I enter it, I discover with astonishment that there is no paper left. Do I stay waiting in the toilet for another toilet to be free, lurking between the urinals and the sink, disguising my doubtful behaviour maybe by whistling? Or should I wait outside, where the only way to peep inside (to check if a cubicle is free) is to stretch the neck like a voyeur every time the door is opened?

Using a public bathroom is subject to a long series of vicissitudes. Inside these receptacles are situations of complicated resolution. Some derive from the use of the facilities; others concern the inevitable interaction with the people who swarm there.

In addition, the bathroom at the office is not the same as that in a five-star hotel, nor is the bathroom in a neighbourhood bar like that in a shopping center. This is not simply because of the sanitation standards (though this factor also applies), but because of the attitude that one expects from others.

So, I have embarked on a tour of different men’s toilets. We will resolve the issues that arise with the help of an expert in protocol and good manners,  José Alfredo Escobar, a member of the Spanish Association of Protocol.

In office toilets

Inside our office toilets, we are not anonymous citizens. Everything we do (or stop doing) may be used against us. There we will encounter colleagues, and it is necessary to say hello. Escobar warns: “What we cannot pretend is to shake hands: it is neither the right place nor the time to do it.”

But sometimes uncomfortable situations can arise. On more than one occasion, this has happened to me. I try not to say hello to a workmate while he is brushing his teeth. You put him in a bind, since either you make him look bad because he cannot verbalise an answer, or you provoke a burst of toothpaste in the direction of the mirror. But if you do not greet him, is this wrong? The expert advises us to minimise our interaction. “Perhaps a look will be considered a greeting,” he says.

A near-universal fact of office bathrooms is that there is always something in them that is broken. This can cancel the possibility of choosing a urinal – a matter of no small substance. When one urinal is already occupied, is it acceptable to place oneself in the one next? Or, in order to prevent misunderstandings, is it better to go to the opposite extreme? “For the convenience of the person who is already using a urinal, it would be logical to use the one furthest from the one being used,” protocol dictates. That is, choosing the most remote urinal makes you not a sociopath but rather the opposite.

That “safe distance” does not prevent the conversation from flowing, which can be somewhat awkward given what we have in our hands. I ask the expert if this is in bad taste. “Between two people who have confidence, it is not wrong to break the ice in such an uncomfortable situation, making it look like a normal time,” he says reassuringly.

In shopping centre toilets 

Perfect strangers line up in turns in front of the urinals, side by side, with their eyes fixed on the tiles on the wall. The picture is not without surrealism.

I’m in the Ikea bathroom. All the toilets have closed doors. I decide to wait outside, scanning the interior when the door opens. I try to make my gesture more carefree and inoffensive: a security camera aims at me. Have I done the right thing? The expert says no. “The logical thing to do is to wait in the sink area, so as not to disturb the people who use the urinals and thus be aware of whoever ends up using it,” he explains.

At the end of the operation, I wash my hands. I take this opportunity to splash water on my face and neck. Surprise: there is no paper towel dispenser. Was it crazy to think that someone would use the tap for more than washing their hands, such as cleaning their glasses or removing a stain from their shirt? Here they have me. I am about to become a replica of the protagonist in Carrie, but dripping with water instead of blood, and with a narrow groove of hot air as the only alternative. I resort to the toilet paper, which dissolves and sticks. “When we are in a limited situation, we must use what we have at hand,” concedes the expert. He immediately accuses me of being not very far-sighted: “I choose to carry a handkerchief always in my pocket to use in case of an emergency such as this.”

In bar and restaurant toilets 

The facilities in the hotels that I patronise do not have much mystery: small rooms with a cup, a urinal and a school-sized washbasin. I have also found tiny toilets in hospitals, clinics and health centres – places that hypochondriacs frequent and where nerves induce urination. The probability of crossing paths with another human being is reduced to the moment when one person leaves (relaxed and relieved) and the other enters (impatient and agitated). I am not given to greeting someone in that circumstance, and I suspect that my behaviour is reprehensible. Do we not say “hello” at the doors of an elevator? “We do not fight education in any of the situations that we encounter throughout the day,” the protocol expert scolds me.

In football stadium toilets 

I visit the bathrooms at a new football stadium and they are more austere than you might think. The line of men reaches outside of the toilets. We all have to go at the same time, taking advantage of the break in the game. Inside, six or seven men align themselves in turns in front of the urinals, side by side (perfect strangers to each other), with their eyes fixed on the wall in front of them. Where should we be looking? “Looking straight ahead,” says Escobar, “will avoid making our neighbour feel bad . And it will be for a short time.”

In luxury hotel toilets

I visit the bathroom of an elegant hotel. I have left this one for last. If there is a place to apply all the manners learned, it is a five star hotel. Between marble and gold, here one is possessed by the spirit of grace, which disqualifies any vulgar behaviour. So I try to ensure extreme standards of hygiene, apply the highest accuracy to my aim, and contain any noise that my body can produce. On hygiene and precision there is nothing to discuss, but what about noises? If we make them at home, why not here? Escobar is blunt: “They should be avoided at all times. If we need to, we can get into a booth and do what we must, but I think we should avoid doing it when we have someone else with us.”

And, on the way out, I experience something common to all of the bathrooms: that pleasant sensation of lightness.