The office "bio-break": for men, a bull ring; for women, a careful ritual

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August 20, 2002 // UPDATED 1:29 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Elana Centor
Elana Centor

Or why there are newspapers on the men's room floor, but never on the women's

Nowhere are the differences between men and women more evident than in their attitudes toward taking a "bio- break." A male worker will fold a newspaper under his armpit, announce to anyone within earshot that he's going down the hall, and then strut down the walkway like a matador going into the ring to conquer the bull. Twenty minutes later, he will re-emerge, victorious.

You'll never see a woman with a folded newspaper under her arm. In fact, as far as most women are concerned, they'd just as soon you think that they never need to take a bio-break -- of any kind.

Kathy takes this to an extreme -- rarely taking a bio-break at all. Kathy, her friend Lynn and I were having after-work margaritas, when Kathy excused herself rather suddenly, saying she hadn't been to the restroom all day. When she returned, she explained she has bashful bladder syndrome. People with this condition have difficulty using public restrooms. For Kathy, it was primarily work-related. Kathy's bladder may be bashful, but she's not bashful when it comes to discussing what it's like to work when you have this syndrome.

"For starters, I don't drink any liquids at work. I get all my liquid requirements after 6 p.m.," said Kathy, sipping her margarita.

"You don't drink anything all day?" I was thinking about my double-shot low-fat cappuccino with a half shot of sugar-free vanilla, followed by numerous glasses of water, tea and more coffee. "Don't you get thirsty?"

"I've trained myself," Kathy replied.

"You must need to take a bio-break sometimes!"

"On those rare occasions, I make sure to check out the shoes. If I recognize any of them -- and especially if I spot my boss's shoes -- I just leave."

"What do you do if you're already in the stall, and you see a pair of shoes that you recognize?"

"I stop what I'm doing and wait for them to leave."

I didn't have the heart to tell Kathy that after she has kids, the ability to stop the action in midstream will be a bit more challenging.

Turning to Lynn, I asked, "Do you have bio-break rituals?"

"I do prefer to have a vacant stall in between me and anyone else in there...Oh!" she added, "I do have one more ritual. When I see the shoes of someone I don't like, and they become very quiet when I walk in the bathroom, I deliberately take my time. I comb my hair, put on make-up -- anything to make them suffer."

Lynn's confession took passive-aggressive behavior to an entirely new level.

Over the next week, I talked to a lot of people about bio-breaks.

Women, on the whole, take great lengths to avoid using a public restroom for anything that could create noises or odors. Those are strictly at-home activities. In those rare instances when nature refuses to live by the 9-to-5 rule, women will go to a different floor, or better yet, the bathroom in the Oval Room at Marshall Field's.

This brings me back to my male counterparts. I wanted to know why they were so comfortable using public bathrooms, when women are so public bathroom-averse.

The men, I found, were not eager to discuss bio-breaks with me.

Josh, a former co-worker who I definitely remember as a paper-toting bio-breaker, adamantly denied ever taking a newspaper along for a bio-break. But he did share a very interesting bit of information: "I'm sure you're correct that a lot of men do read the paper in there, because there are always lots of newspapers on the floor."

"You know, Josh," I said, "there are no newspapers on the floor in a women's restroom. Ever."

Next, I asked my friend Ted. He, too, denied ever taking reading material along for a bio-break. "But," I probed, "aren't there newspapers on the floor already that you can read if you want to?"

"Well, yes, there are," he admitted, and then added thoughtfully, "but I don't think it's so much about reading as it is about having time alone."

"Time alone?" I asked; the concept is rather alien to many women.

"You know, the bathroom is one place where you know no one is going to bother you. No one is going to ask a question, pressure you, remind you that you have a deadline or that the budget is due."

The more guys I talked to, the more concurred with Ted.

That's when I realized that I may have judged men unjustly. What I thought I was observing might not be what I was observing at all. Carrying a newspaper down the hall may not be an act of male bravado. Instead, it could actually be an act of male vulnerability. I never imagined it was a guy's way of letting the rest of us know that he needed to spend some time in his safe place.

Elana Centor is a former Downtown resident and worker who owns a Minneapolis writing/marketing company. If you have a workplace dilemma, or just a good story to tell, please contact her at ecentor@mn.rr.com.