Future Tense

Which Bathroom Stall Is the Cleanest? These People Think They Have It Figured Out.

Four bathroom stalls, one with an exclamation point on its door and three with X's on them.
Which stall should you use? Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

For some, the knowledge was passed down by a germophobic parent. For others, it was a glossy teen magazine, or a sign in a math classroom. One person told me she might be making up the memory of learning it at all, though she somehow follows protocol religiously. The secret? That the first bathroom stall is the least popular—and thus the cleanest.

I suppose this is where I should admit I had not heard this precept before I was assigned this article. Each time I set foot in a public restroom, I perform the inane calculus all over again, wasting brain space on The Great Stall Choice. Maybe the first stall seems too obvious, I’ll think, so better go for another one. Sometimes, on a whim, I’ll head to the far end. I’ve noticed recently that I gravitate toward the middle stall (more on that dreaded choice shortly).

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More than a few, however, are unburdened by this daily decision-making process. These first-stall devotees are part of what is effectively a private club—though a less exclusive one than its members would hope. As it turns out, first-stall hearsay has been making the rounds over the past few decades.

Leigh, a consultant in San Francisco, told me, “I really thought it was this life hack that only I had.” She’s been a first-stall user since high school. “Every time that I’m in the first stall and that it’s clean, I feel a little tiny celebration,” she said. “I just feel so happy that I cracked this code and had this lesson on early on in my life.” (And it was indeed a lesson—the information was on a poster in or the chalkboard of a high-school math teacher.) Leigh’s sentiment was shared by a number of Slate’s editorial team, who, like her, were recently unsettled to discover their “secret” lies somewhere between actual secret and, as Leigh put it, “universal truth.”

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First-stall users range from dogmatic to casual. Leigh, for instance, always chooses the first stall unless it turns out to be unclean. Slate writer Christina Cauterucci also strictly follows first-stall advice, which she learned from her mother a decade or two ago, with three notable exceptions: When “it’s visibly gross, it’s a handicap-accessible stall, or there’s someone in the stall next to it, in which case I’ll pick a stall with at least a one-stall buffer between me and that person if possible,” she said. The buffer is an important exception—one that others, such as Slate writer Molly Olmstead, adhere to, even when it means walking farther. As Molly said, “My sweet spot is the intersection of laziness and personal space.”

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Former Slate writer Ruth Graham heard the advice as a preteen. (Ruth is now at the New York Times; here I will confess that I first reported this article back in late February 2020. It was delayed for obvious reasons.) She’s less regimented and said she probably chooses the first stall “more than half the time.” June Thomas, a Slate Podcasts producer, is similarly uncommitted. (She’s a first-stall user, but of the rare variety that hadn’t heard the claim.) “I like to think I let my intuition guide me,” June said, “but chances are it always leads me to the first stall.”

It’s unclear whether the claim holds up, though researchers do estimate that the middle and farthest stalls get the most traffic. It’s not uncommon to see warnings to avoid the middle stall at all costs. This line of reasoning is based on what psychologists call “centrality preference,” which posits that people prefer the middle option when presented with similar options. A 1995 study, which analyzed toilet paper usage over a 10-week period in a public restroom in California, supports this argument: Sixty percent of the finished rolls were from the four-stall bathroom’s two middle stalls, while 40 percent came from the end stalls. However, other research shows that women in particular gravitate toward stalls farther from the door. This could be because they’ve assumed, like Isabella, a curator in São Paulo who has used the farthest stall since she was 14, that “fewer people would make the effort to go the distance.” But it more likely has do with privacy and the fact that U.S. bathroom stall doors often have gaps at the sides.

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Indeed, the vague suspicion of a privacy factor is perhaps the most important piece of evidence supporting claims about first-stall cleanliness. Philip Tierno, a professor in the department of pathology at New York University, told the Healthy in 2019, “It’s true that if you take a survey … people tend to (subconsciously or not) go to the stalls that are in the more sequestered section of the bathroom, and avoid those up front.” Privacy is also something Pennsylvania Senate candidate Dr. Oz has used to explain avoidance of the first stall (though it’s worth keeping in mind that he’s a known pseudoscience promoter).

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When I mentioned the privacy factor to the women I spoke with, their responses were mixed. Some noted that middle stalls feel even less private than the first. Others realized they subconsciously choose stalls farther back in, for instance, an office restroom—that intermediary space between private and public that June described as “a topless beach in the sense that we all act like those monkeys that can’t see/hear/whatever the other ones do.” (Though June did say that she doesn’t “see much difference in terms of privacy.
The door to the first stall is as comically inadequate as all the rest.”)

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Ruth’s stall choices have little to do with privacy, either. “I don’t have a lot of bathroom hang-ups,” she said. “Even using the first stall is not something I do because I’m particularly worried about germs; it’s just satisfying to use what feels like a secret trick.”

What’s missing from this analysis, as you’ve probably noticed, is men. It’s perhaps too gender-normative to conclude that men simply care less and leave it at that. So I talked with a few of my male friends, all of whom were too embarrassed to attach their names to this highly scientific endeavor. None cared about germs or stalls with the most foot traffic. For the most part, they were surprised to hear that people even think about this, though one did mention that he never chooses a stall adjacent to another person and prefers stalls near a wall (again: privacy). Another admitted he has a “slight bias” for the first stall due to convenience; he also brought up urinal etiquette—choose the far end, space yourself out with gaps in between—but said that it doesn’t extend to stall use: “Stalls are stalls! They have the highest level of privacy afforded already!”

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The verdict? The first stall is probably still your safest bet if the least germy toilet is important to you and you’re in a women’s bathroom. That is, until people see this article.

The truth at the heart of all this was clearly expressed when Christina told me, “The more people who know about this, the germier the first stall will get!” To those concerned about this, including Christina, who “object[s] to this article on those grounds”: I’d like to apologize in advance for spreading the word.

But the first-stall club doesn’t just point to a shared commitment to cleanliness. It’s also about secrecy for secrecy’s sake. It’s fitting that every “member” I’ve talked to first heard about it in adolescence—that time of secret handshakes, passwords, treehouse clubs. Few have discussed it with others, even those they’re closest to. For some, like Ruth, that’s because “[i]t’s one of those pieces of brain flotsam that disappears as soon as [she] leave[s] the scene.” But for others, that reticence stems from a certain caginess—and excitement. “If you can somehow figure out another person is a first-stall user,” said Leigh, “then you’re like, ‘Oh you’re in the club. We can discuss this together.’ ”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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