The only thing worse than a cold toilet seat is a warm one.
Nothing much going on in the Advanced World this week, so I thought I’d take a moment to talk about toilet-seat temperatures.
You’ve probably heard that people are irrational creatures, and you probably don’t believe it because you’re irrational. But it’s true. We procrastinate even though it only lengthens the discomfort associated with the task we can’t face, we play the lottery even though we would almost certainly make more money putting that investment into a savings account, we are afraid to fly even though driving is more dangerous, and we are convinced that a “gut feeling” is valid even if the data prove us wrong. And, of course, we think that toilets are incubators of ass-borne diseases but think that somehow washing our hands—but not our asses—with lukewarm water and soap will protect us. In fact, if someone walks out of the bathroom without washing their hands, they are considered disgusting.
Just to show you how nonsensical this is, we often have this thought at around the same time as grasping the door handle the subhuman, non-handwasher just used.
Our relationship with toilets, specifically, is perhaps even more irrational. If they are wet, we wipe them off with toilet paper, which has no germ-killing properties. We use our feet to flush, even though we are likely going to use our hands elsewhere in the bathroom. This protects us from nothing, and we’ve also just ensured that anyone using their hands will get the germs from the ground you’ve walked on as well. So you don’t avoid your problem, and you make someone else’s worse. This is actually somewhat rational because you’re acting in your own self-interest, unless you do this in a bathroom you use regularly, which would mean that you will be exposed to those ass-, foot- and hand-borne germs sooner or later.
I’ve actually been able to overcome my irrational feelings about the bathroom. I know, and, more important, believe, that germs are everywhere. If anything, the bathroom is freer of germs than most places because people do their best to protect themselves there. But a computer keyboard in a shared conference room, a subway pole, a light switch, a doorknob, or any other place people are going to put their hands without thinking about hygiene are all likely to be microscopic horror shows. I get this. I really do. And yet…
Whenever someone I work with comes out of a stall, I routinely go somewhere else because I absolutely cannot deal with the fact that not only was someone’s bare ass on the seat seconds before mine but that it was a known ass. This is dumb on so many levels, but I’ll just focus on two: I equate warmth with a transfer of some undefined grossness and I seem to prefer a strange ass to a familiar one.
The warmth factor makes a little sense, though so little as to be as close to invisible as the germs I’m so irrationally worried about. Most germs thrive in warm places, so it could follow that a tropical toilet environment would be home to a wider variety of organisms waiting to make the move to my semi-arid, yet fertile bottom. But it doesn’t take much for a toilet seat to get cool, and, besides, it takes more than a drop of just a few degrees to kill germs. So if you are using a well-trafficked facility, there will be no shortage of organisms eagerly anticipating your arrival.
The strange vs. familiar fear makes absolutely no sense at all, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I feel that way. It would be one thing if I were prejudiced against someone I knew to be unhygienic or someone who eats a lot of barbecue, but I don’t discriminate when it comes to the known ass. If I worked with a robot, I wouldn’t want to use the toilet after it until the seat cooled down. To be clear, I try to avoid all warm toilet seats, but if I have to choose between my robot coworker and a stranger wearing a Taco Bell uniform, I’m thinking outside the buns.
I know none of this makes sense, and yet I can’t overcome it. I recognize that some of this is cultural: many people are brought up thinking that that our “private parts” are something to cover up and even be ashamed of. It’s like our bodies are beautiful, gated communities, but we can’t convince the assholes down the street to mow their lawn. And sitting down on a warm toilet seat is like playing croquet at the assshole’s house. Nude.
In a way, though, I think my bathroom phobias are a roundabout way of dealing with truly scary things. After all, while I’m worrying that the IT guy might have had a chorizo omelet that morning, I’m not thinking about getting cancer, terrorism, or whether my boss is logging my hours spent in the bathroom waiting for toilet seats to cool down. Now if this phobia were out of control, making it impossible for me to use public restrooms or some other extreme, it could be a real problem. But I have a handle on the situation.
What I’ve found is that people are about as neurotic as they can afford to be. That’s why Howard Hughes could be as paralyzed as he was: he could pay his bills between collecting his urine in jars and walking around in Kleenex boxes. If I couldn’t use public toilets, though, I wouldn’t be able to support my family. So I’ve created these elaborate rules that I know make no sense. But I also know that what the rules govern—avoidance of germs—also makes no sense. So I’m covered.
Ultimately, people have very little direct knowledge of the things that affect them, and not just things that take a degree in microbiology to grasp. We are Democrats or Republicans even though we don’t truly understand the implications of the policies each side represents. I think school vouchers are probably a bad idea, but this is only theoretical, as I’ve never actually studied the data. I just take it for granted that people I vote for routinely have studied it. And if those people switched their positions and gave a reasonable argument for doing so, I’d probably change my mind too. This is just one example of thousands of arbitrary decisions that we make in our lives because we don’t have the time or inclination to study the facts. We have to do this because otherwise we would find ourselves as paralyzed as Howard Hughes, only in a worse hotel and with generic-tissue boxes.
So you have to make the same choice I make every day in my office bathroom: you make do.
For more on Advancement, check out Jason’s book The Advanced Genius Theory.